Welcome to the World
Some fragmented thoughts on meeting my new niece for the first time and bringing my first harvest of bok choy for my mom to cook
Saturday, June 19
Greetings, dear reader.
I finally got to meet my infant niece Mia on Wednesday. She was born in late April, but my brief tussle with COVID-19 scuttled an earlier planned trip.
In keeping with Chinese custom, my mother stayed with my sister for more than a month after Mia’s arrival. She had sent regular reports: She’s an easy baby. Very sweet. Only cries when she’s hungry. It was hard for me to know, though, if these observations were accurate or whether they had been refracted through a doting grandmother’s rosy lens.
Then I met Mia myself. She came to the airport to pick me up, along with my sister; my mom, who was back for a second visit, this time with my dad; and two of my nephews. (A substantial airport entourage is a tradition among my people.) She is indeed an easy baby. And to see Mia for the first time, her eyes darting here and there, a half-smile playing on her little lips, was to discover that my heart wasn’t quite as hard as I had feared as well as to realize that my uncle lens might be as wonderfully skewed as a grandparent’s.
What is the spell that a baby casts? Why does her cry make me want to come closer rather than run away? How does love suddenly spring up where there was nothing before?
Here was this little creature who, with just a glance in my direction, softened my spirit and made my cynicism vanish.
Here was this blessed child who, with just a gurgle, expanded my soul and made everything seem possible again.
Here was this gorgeous being, whom I wanted to guard from every danger and protect from every threat, known and unknown, though obviously I can’t; there will, after all, be middle school.
Here was this tiny babe, reminding me of goodness and sending shots of dopamine to my brain with every half-smile and telling me a wordless story about grace with every contented sigh.
On Thursday afternoon, I sprawled on the family-room couch and put Mia on my chest, where she snoozed soundly for almost half an hour. Other than the fact that I was compelled to check whether she was breathing every few minutes—okay, fine, it was more like every thirty seconds—I felt completely at peace. I could have stayed right there for hours, her head tucked into my shoulder. Her calm was contagious.
To be an uncle is the most wondrous thing—so much delight, so little responsibility. I endured nothing for Mia to come into being; bless her dear mother. I don’t mind changing diapers, but I don’t have to. After a few days, I get to go home, where, if anyone wakes up in the middle of the night cranky and squawking, it’s most likely me.
I should be clear: It’s not true that being an uncle bears no responsibility, especially in a Chinese family. Among my people—or at least in my family—familial allegiance registers slightly differently. There is, for instance, a tacit commitment that I will show up with red envelopes for Chinese New Year. And as an uncle, I am allowed to—some would say even expected to—discipline, with the understanding that my sister and brother-in-law will back me up. I have put my nephews in time-out more times than I care to remember. And I remember a notorious incident when I was 9. I was badly losing a game of Monopoly to a gloating uncle, so I went up to my bedroom to retrieve a giant stuffed panda, the largest toy I owned, which I brought downstairs and threw as hard as I could in his face. A poor choice. When my parents came home, I fully expected them to acknowledge how obnoxious my uncle had been. A sad miscalculation. But there’s an unspoken agreement, too, that an aunt or an uncle will be there for their nephews and nieces in any moment of genuine need; I still know that, should anything dire happen, all I have to do is to send my aunt in Hong Kong a WhatsApp message and she will do whatever she can, whether it’s a wire transfer or a flurry of phone calls to the relevant relatives.
But anything I am expected to do for Mia or for her older brothers in years to come has already been repaid a thousand times over by the sheer joy of their very existence. All I have to do is summon the mental image of her, sitting in her little bouncer chair, and I feel happy again. She gets this intense look of concentration on her face. Suddenly, she begins pumping her tiny arms and her tiny legs furiously, as if she were sprinting. Then she pauses, smiles slightly, and starts running in place again. Why is she doing this strange thing? I don’t care. My heart melts just to think of it.
Unsullied by life’s complications, Mia makes me believe again that the world can be a good place, must be a good place—for her sake and for her brothers’. Unjaded by disappointment, she stirs in me a feeling that I want to be a good human, must be a good human—for her sake and for her brothers’. I want to love more lavishly, must love more lavishly—for her sake and for her brothers’.
Is it too much to say that a baby, in its wordless way, can be so powerfully prophetic and pastoral, simultaneously reminding us of who at our best we might be and meeting us where we are?
I’m honestly surprised just how deeply I’ve felt the effects of Mia’s arrival. I like babies. But nothing prepared me for how much I adore this one. And perhaps I’ve invested too much in her tiny being: too much hope, too much possibility. But in these strange and gloomy days, I’ll take the wonder where I can get it.
What I’m Growing and What I’m Eating: Knowing I was going to see my parents at my sister’s house this week, I had decided that my first harvest of bok choy would go to my mom. When I got there and presented her with two gallon-sized bags of greens—two different varieties of bok choy—she said, “Where did you get these?”
“I grew them,” I said.
“How do they taste?” she replied. “Are they sweet?” (This is a rough translation, because we were speaking our customary Chinglish.)
“I don’t know!” I said. “I haven’t eaten any yet!”
“Okay, we’ll see,” she said. Then she glanced at how I had packaged the greens—in paper towels to soak up any excess moisture—and told me that her friend who grows Chinese vegetables thinks a better idea is to dry them on sheets of newspaper before putting them in plastic.
We are not an effusive people. Nor is it our custom to express emotion in direct terms. To engage in conversation, to offer instruction or correction, is how our elders express affection and care—something I have learned, and shockingly slowly, over the years.
The next evening, my mother prepared a simple dinner—just three dishes plus white rice. She’d made beef stew, though she grumbled that my sister did not have our family’s usual brand of soy sauce. She threw some pieces of beef tendon—she knows I love beef tendon—into a pot with soft tofu to simmer. Then she pulled some octopus from the fridge; it had been braised in soy sauce. She sliced it up and did a quick stir-fry of the bok choy and the octopus.
This meal sang quietly of motherly anticipation. I say it’s a simple dinner. But while she put all of this together pretty quickly, that could only happen because her preparations had begun days before, just in case. The stew had been in the slow cooker for hours the previous day, then left in the fridge overnight for the flavors to marry. The tendon would never have been done in time had she just decided to make it then and there; that dish requires a long, gentle cook to break down the fibers and turn them tender. The octopus had been braised back home in Nevada; she’d then carefully packaged it for the long cross-country trip.
This meal also offered a study in contrasts. She paired the tendon, for instance, with tofu—the sticky and gooey meat playing beautifully off the silken and smooth bean squares of bean curd. And the octopus had the slightly sweet, almost caramel savoriness of a long braise in dark soy, which worked perfectly against the bright, ever-so-slight bitterness of the bok choy, which cut through all the rich and fatty flavors on the table. The instinct with which she did this reflected a lifetime of experience, culinary muscle memory that I’m still working toward.
“How is the bok choy?” I asked my mom at the table.
“Good,” she replied with a terse nod. And then she kept eating.
I know I am writing this week from a place of immense uncle privilege. I can’t know what it’s like to be a parent, or to struggle with a baby who is having a hard time feeding, or to wrestle with the reality of a child who is not quite as easy as Mia is. Whatever your experience with babies, I would love to listen and learn. What have they taught you? How have they changed and shaped and formed you?
* I started writing this letter to you when I was at my sister’s house. I am now in North Carolina, where I will be preaching at Crosspointe Church in Cary…. in a few hours, I guess. If you’re in the area, you’re welcome to join us in worship at 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 19th. (An online version of the service will also be available at 10 a.m. Eastern time on YouTube.) Next Sunday, June 26th, I’ll be preaching at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids.
As always, I’m so glad we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.