From Soya Sauce Chicken to Bi-Cultural Upbringing

My daughter wanted to learn how to make soya sauce chicken. I had been waiting for this moment, because I wanted to pass onto her the family recipe my mother had shared with me. I knew that our younger generation would not appreciate it if something were offered directly to them. If they asked, it meant that they had the motivation to learn.

The soya sauce chicken recipe was special to me, because it came from my grandmother’s kitchen and my daughter was interested in hearing more about it. My grandmother did not have to cook when she was growing up in a big family in Hong Kong. There was a cook to take care of the meals. After she got married, she did not have to cook either. She had ten children with my grandfather and they had a cook to do all the cooking for the big family. My mother was allowed to sneak into the kitchen once in a while and she learned the recipe from the cook.

I showed my daughter how to first marinade the whole chicken (inside and outside) with some Chinese cooking wine and light soya sauce. I “butterflied” the chicken by removing the backbone. This actually was my modification to ensure that the chicken would cook evenly and thoroughly in my saucepan. (The traditional method was to use a huge Wok, and ladle hot soya sauce mixture–see below–until the chicken is cooked. It could take a long time.)  The ingredients for the sauce are: 4 Tbsp dark soya sauce, 2 Tbsp light soya sauce, 1 -2 sticks of brown sugar, 3 scallions, 3 pieces of ginger, and 3/4 cup of water. I placed the chicken in the saucepan, covered it and cooked under low to medium heat and turning the chicken over a few times until no juice ran out by slitting the thigh.

My daughter and I really enjoyed our time together. For me, I loved chatting with her the family vignettes.  For her, she realized for the first time that the soya sauce chicken that was one of her favourite dishes at home had to use brown sugar sticks. She even said that she had much to learn about Chinese cooking, and that was true.

My children came to Canada at a very young age, and while they were exposed to Cantonese (the southern dialect that we spoke) at home, they grew up in a Canadian environment in school and with their friends. My husband and I tried to impart what we felt important in the Chinese culture to them, from speaking Cantonese at home, sending them to Chinese school, telling them Chinese myths and legends, bringing them to Chinese restaurants, and when they were older, I bought them a few Chinese classics in English translation, including the Western Journey (aka The Story of the Monkey King), which I considered to be the Chinese version of Odyssey, and an oriental representation of the search for the Holy Grail.

The question is : How bi-cultural are they?

I look at myself. Except for lessons in school and watching television when it became available, my environment was entirely Chinese.  I received a Sino-Anglo education when I grew up in Hong Kong. We were given British arithmetic textbooks for our mathematics class in Grade 5, which meant learning pound, shilling and pence beside the decimal system of the local currency. (What relevance? You may ask. The answer: Colonial education.) However, this education seemed to prepare me well for my further education and training in England. I also lived there long enough to be able to discuss such trivialities as  English (afternoon) Tea  is different from High Tea.

Still, how bi-cultural am I?

The crux is: When it comes to a matter of value, what system do we adopt? I had a solid foundation of Chinese values before I left home and those long years abroad also enabled me to adopt and understand the western, in general terms, value system. The main difference between Chinese and western culture is the emphasis on family in the former and the individual in the latter, and this becomes accentuated when conflict occurs in daily life. One good example, I returned to Hong Kong to work. On one occasion, I opted to attend my friend’s wedding party instead of going to my grandmother’s birthday party. Even though I promised to visit Grandma to wish her happy birthday before I headed out to the wedding, my parents thought that I should only go to congratulate my friends at the church before I joined the family birthday party. (Thanks to my argument that Grandma would have many more birthdays and the wedding was the one and only one occasion, I won the battle.) However, there were other instances when my Chinese values would prevail.

My children, understandably, are less Chinese than I. In fact, they belong to a new breed of bi-cultural individuals, known as “banana boys” or “banana girls” (yellow in their skin and white in their heart). They speak both languages and know some food and customs, but they do not think Chinese. They can relate to the characters portrayed in Terry Woo’s novel Banana Boys (1999), which has given us many candid discussion on bi-cultural socialization. I have witnessed all these years in Canada conflict between parents and children among immigrants families. The conflict is not just generation gap. It is the juxtaposition and conflict between cultures, and more deep-rooted value systems the two generations have internalized, or fail to internalize. I still follow Evelyn Lau’s books and poetry, ever since I read her heart-wrenching story Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989). She was still a teenager then when she published her book.

There are identity issues for a person born into one culture and grew up in another. Unless the person is able to integrate and internalize, continuous tension between the cultures often lead to a sense of alienation and marginalization. I have deliberately put away my social scientist hat, for I want to speak as a parent about our needs to be sensitive to what our children think and feel.   I can only hope that in the open, multi-cultural society we live in, experience will bring forth understanding, then acceptance and celebration.

12 thoughts on “From Soya Sauce Chicken to Bi-Cultural Upbringing

  1. Amy

    I love the soya sauce chicken. Thanks for sharing the recipe! My daughter was born in US. Since we have lived in smaller cities, she didn’t learn much Chinese. Now, she is in a big city and has made many Chinese/American friends of her age 🙂 Great post!

  2. Janet Williams

    Chicken : I’m intrigued by ‘butterflying’ the chicken — removing the backbone? How? I’m tempted to ask you to show us some gruesome pictures next time when you prepare the dish again. No pressure.

    You can see I don’t cook a lot of Chinese at home, as my family prefers pasta. My husband can cook, so it solves a lot of problems.

    Bilingual: Your writing and reflection speaks a lot to me as I’m going through exactly what you’d been through. We’re in England and my son is 12 years old. Before he turned 4, his mother tongue was Mandarin and there was a lot of input from me. Since he started infant school, he’s immersed in a ‘normal’ western culture and my influence is reducing fast. I’ve come to accept that for my son, English is his mother tongue and it’s the language the he breathe and how he would function in this language. I’ve also accepted that Mandarin is his second language, a marginal language. He would not speak Mandarin outside our learning sessions, as there isn’t a need. He told me he could speak it, but he just wouldn’t want to. I’m a linguist, and I respect that. My son wouldn’t want to be seen different. When he was in primary school, I suggested that he perhaps should have some Chinese fried rice, or even sushi as packed lunch, instead of the same boring sandwiches. You should see the horror on his face.

    Language: I feel it’s important for a person to be competent in one language — to have a language that speaks to your soul. It doesn’t matter if this is the only language that you know, but you have to be able to express yourself fully in this language. I’m from Malaysia, where people may speak a handful of languages/regional dialects, but they have yet to find a dominant language to express their souls. The situation is the same in Singapore. Without a soul language, it’s just very sad.

    1. Opalla Post author

      Really appreciate your comment 🙂 and your input as a linguist. My children speak English among themselves, although they may talk to me in Cantonese. For them and I guess for your son too, their conceptual and emotional language is English. It is great to be able to speak more languages, because there is lots of research backing up cognitive flexibility among bilingual or multi-lingual people. Sadly the schools in Britain do not promote that.

      btw, “butterfly” does mean removing the backbone and the chicken will lie flat (like mine in the saucepan). In fact, if you roast a chicken like this, it roasts more evenly too. (What a joy knowing you on Blog sphere!)

      1. Janet Williams

        On your Dashboard, Choose Appearance–Widgets–Image, then add your images there.

        If without image, you choose the Text widget.

        I try to set the image to 180 x 180.

        Good luck!

  3. Anjo Angela Lim

    Thanks for sharing this with me! I’ll have to pass this along to my mom, too. Looks fantastic! Kind of wish I could snap my fingers and it a whole soya sauce chicken would appear on my dining table. Oh, well, guess I’ll have to crank out the butcher knife and butterfly. 😉


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