Trick or Treat!

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Audrey carved the Pumpkin Man and I used his huge eyes, tiny nose and smily mouth to make a pumpkin soup.  I also cleaned the seeds, boiled them with a couple of star anises, salt and Chinese Five Spice powder, and then baked them at 250 F for two hours. 

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As I drank the soup and cracked the seeds, I looked up at the Pumpkin Man in between bites, and for a second I seemed to feel him watching me eating him, and I feared that I might be traumatizing him.  And he would come after me when the lights went out…  If I don’t have a new post tomorrow, you will know that the Pumpkin Man has had his revenge.

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The girls went out with their friends.  Peter and I had a movie date after dinner and we saw CitizenFour, a provocative documentary about Edward Snowden and global surveillance of all electronic communications by the NSA. The film portrayed another kind of spooky man, who lurks behind everyone’s cell phone and computer, and I suppose it was ironically fitting for a Halloween night.

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Pumpkin soup:

2 cup raw cubed pumpkin

1/2 onion, chopped

2 clove garlic, crushed

2 carrots, chopped

4 slices peeled ginger

a dash of each ground cumin, paprika, turmeric and coriander

salt and pepper to taste

1 tbsp. olive oil

2 cups chicken broth (or water if vegetarian)

Sauté onion, garlic, ginger and carrots until soft and slightly caramelized, and move them into the soy milk machine.

Add in pumpkin and chicken broth and turn the machine to DRIED BEAN.

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Audrey with Mr. Yo, her math teacher

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Kung Pao Kinship

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We had Kung Pao chicken for dinner tonight.  As I was preparing the dish, my thoughts naturally turned to my Ye Ye — paternal Grandpa.

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Ye Ye with little Joan

My first memory of Kung Pao Chicken was at a lunch in my Ye Ye’ house, which was three bus stops away from my maternal grandparents house, where I lived.  My paternal grandparents were from Sichuan and Kung Pao Chicken is a Sichuan classic. 

My Ye Ye was a famous surgeon in his time, though food is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of him.  Food was scarce when I was growing up but my Ye Ye always had the most abundant lunch waiting for us every Sunday.  He converted one of the bathrooms into a smoke house to smoke meat and poultry.  I did’t know how he was able to come up with the feast while everyone else’s food was rationed. I still don’t know.  Perhaps he saved all his ration for the weekly banquet with us.  Or perhaps he had patients in high places.

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Ye Ye in the middle and Joan far left

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My ancestral hometown – an ancient town by the Yangtze that prospered in Ming Dynasty but declined after the railway replaced the river transportation. Part of our old house is now a museum.

Last year, China Central Television did a Chinese version of Who Do You Think You Are with me. The journey brought me back to my ancestral hometown in Sichuan, where I discovered much about my Ye Ye’s life before he became my Ye Ye.  The gentle old man I called Ye Ye fought in three wars and some of the bloodiest battles.  No wonder he seemed unperturbed by anything.  And he lived his life to the fullest.

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Grandparents with their three children during Japanese invasion of China. Ye Ye was the head of a war torn hospital in Chung Qing. My father was the boy with the bow tie.

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In Korea fighting the American Imperialists

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Ye Ye had a hero’s welcome after the war in Korea. He is in the front center, and my grandma is the third on the left in second row.  My 3 aunts are on the right of my grandma behind Ye Ye.

Here is a toast to my Ye Ye, who is probably eating Kung Pao Chicken right now in Heaven.

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I have cooked this dish dozens of times by feel.  The following recipe is adapted by me from a Kung Pao Chicken recipe by rasamalaysia.com.  And the dish turned out amazing.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 boneless and skinless chicken breasts, cut into small cubes

2 tablespoons oil

4 slices peeled fresh ginger

2 clove garlic

1/2 small red bell peppers (seeded and diced)

3 dried red chilies

2 stalk scallion

1 jalapeño (seeded and diced)

1/2 cup peanuts or cashew nuts)

Marinade:

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon cooking wine

Sauce:

1 1/2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon Chinese black vinegar

1 teaspoon cornstarch

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Method:

Marinate the chicken for 20 minutes.

Mix all the Sauce ingredients in a small bowl, stir to combine well. Set aside.

Heat up a wok or skillet with the oil, stir fry the ginger until aromatic. Add the red bell peppers, jalapeño and dried red chilies, stir fry until you smell the spicy aroma from the dried chilies. Add the chicken (save the marinade to use with the sauce) and stir fry continuously until the chicken turn opaque. Add the roasted peanuts, and stir in the Sauce+the saved marinade. When the sauce thickens and the chicken is completely cooked, add the scallions before transferring the Kung Pao Chicken out on a serving platter.

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Stir fried mustard green with garlic.

He Is My Lobster

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My father-in-law has been hospitalized for a week.  My mother-in-law stays in the hospital with him day and night, even though she is an insomniac and can’t sleep at all in the hospital.  Peter is worried that this will drag her health down.  I ask myself, what would I do if I were her?  I think I would stay in the ward with my husband as well. 

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She has been with him since she was 19 years old.  As she said to me herself that they are a pair of chopsticks, pretty useless without the other. I don’t know if Peter and I are chopsticks, but he’s definitely my lobster, less than three.

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I appreciate very much Maira Kalman’s meditation on life in her book And the Pursuit of Happiness: “The question that we ask ourselves is, what protects you? What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something? For me, what protects me … is work and love. And I think that those two things cover pretty much every single thing. Because what you do, who you love, what you love, and what you do with your time is really the only question that you have to answer.”

My mother-in-law is answering this question by staying at the bedside of her husband of 62 years.

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My thoughts went to Peter when I pondered my parents-in-law’s situation.  I called him to ask if he could spare half an hour for lunch today.  It so happened that he could.  I quickly made a couple of veggie dogs and walked up the hill to meet him in the little park near the hospital. It was the best thing we did for each other in a long while.  The sky was blue.  The sun was balmy.  We sat on the bench and watched moms pushing strollers and nannies playing with toddlers as we munched on our veggie dogs. 

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Peter having his lunch in the sun

Author Annie Dillard wrote in her meditation on presence over productivity: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  We often fail at the art of presence and rush through our lives being constantly “productive.”

Thirty minutes in the sun.  That was all Peter and I needed to feel rejuvenated, serene and happy.  Why didn’t we do this more often?  He is usually too busy.  But one must make time for important things such as this.

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Peter has a dinner meeting tonight, and the girls and I will eat a simple meatless meal with lots of vegetables, black bean pasta and baked yam.

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Three 10-minute Dishes!

The teaser for Marco Polo came out on YouTube today!  This was the first time that I saw many of the footages from the show.  I worked on the series for many months in Pinewood Studio Malaysia this year.  And I can’t wait to see the finished product in Dec. 

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I play Empress Chabi in the show

Johor, where the studio is, doesn’t really have much historical or cultural points of interest, but I discovered so many wonderful eateries when I was there.  During the months of filming, I found the best Malaysian Chinese food I’ve ever had, always redolent of intricate and complex spices or sauces.  I was dreadfully homesick when I was there, but now I often miss the pungent, fragrant and flavorful tropical dishes of Malaysia.

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I wish I had time to cook something Southeastern Asian today to celebrate the exciting looking teaser of Marco Polo, but alas, I had to whip the dinner out in half an hour.

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Tofu Skin with Shirataki

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Grilled Tofu with Greens

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So here are three dishes that take 10 minutes or less each to make!

Tofu Shirataki noodles with Hodo tofu skin:

1 pouch of spicy Hodo Yuba Tofu Skin (Costco)

2 pouches Tofu Shiratki noodle (Safeway)

1/2 organic red pepper (or any other crispy veggie you have in the fridge)

1 stock green onion (or celery)

1 tsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. fish sauce (or rice vinegar if you desire a more acidic flavor)

Wash Shirataki well, put aside.  break up tofu skin, mix in with Shirataki.  Add veggies and sauces.  Viola!

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Heirloom tomato salad:

Wash and slice and add a pinch of salt and pepper.  Viola!

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Grilled tofu with greens:

1 box firm tofu

some greens either raw or cooked

1 tbsp. oyster sauce

1 tsp. sesame oil

2 tsp. toasted sesame (optional)

chopped green onion for garnish (optional)

Cooking spray

Slice tofu into desired shape. Spray hot grill with cooking spray, grill each side for 4 minutes on high.  Prepare the greens when the tofu is grilling.  Put grilled tofu in container and add oyster sauce.  Serve with the greens.  Viola!

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Tending the Inner Pig

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In my younger days in LA, my brother and I ate a lot of pork, at least three to four times a week, making up for lost time for when we were children.  Now I cook pork only once or twice a month at the most.  There is a traditional Shanghainese dish called Hong Shao Rou — Red Braised Pork.  It reminds me of happiness and contentment as I knew it as a child.  It reminds me of Chinese New Year when we would always cook this braised pork in a large clay pot.  You can take the girl out of Shanghai, but not Shanghai out of the girl.

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Ingredients:

1/2 cup cooking wine

1/4 cup light soy sauce 

1/4 dark soy sauce (or you can use all light soy sauce)

3/4 – 1 cup water (you may not use all of it)

2 to 1 1/2 pounds pork shank

4 boiled eggs (optional)

1/4 cherry tomato (optional)

1 1/2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns

8 cloves garlic, bashed

2 inch cube peeled ginger, bashed

2 star anise

1 tbsp. brown sugar or molasses

1 tbsp. canola oil

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Heat the oil in a wok on high.

Put in peppercorns, garlic, ginger, star anise, sauté for a minute. 

Add cut pork shank to be seared at all sides. 

Add soy sauce, wine, water and sugar and turn the fire to low.

Cover and stew for 2 hours.  Adjust taste by adding a little more water or soy sauce.

Eat it with brown rice.

Happy Sunday!

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Maira Kalman’s painting of a pair of American slippers from the 1830s is a love letter to walking, something Kalman sees as an existential activity and a creative device.

The first thing that I do every Sunday morning when I open my eyes is to find the weekly email from brainpickings.org, which is one of my favorite literary sites.  It is the brain child of Maria Popova, with whom I share the love for letters, diaries and  Illustrated books.  It was from her website that I discovered works by Maira Kalman who wrote about the power of walking as a generative force of intellect, awareness, and creativity: “Walking is the antidote to a lot of misery and boredom. Whatever you do, you should always try to walk somewhere before you do it.”

So, after I read the brainpickings posting, I left the house for a walk before I did anything else.  I walked around Crissy Field before ending up at Safeway, where I bought some grocery for today.

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When I first came to the US and learned in my history class the Declaration of Independence, I was surprised, perplexed and impressed that the pursuit of happiness is emphasized as one of the unalienable rights.  When and where I grew up, happiness was not mentioned much at all.  The only thing that we openly pursued was the realization of Communism.  Privately, we pursued food — exchanging cloth coupons for meat coupons, or bartering things from the house for eggs with the farmers who occasionally appeared in our neighborhood.  One good thing that came out of my upbringing is that I don’t feel so alarmed or ashamed when I’m not happy. 

What is happiness?  How exactly do we pursue it?  These are hard questions I don’t have the answers to, but when I was walking along the bay and when I came home with the grocery and began making breakfast, I felt happy. 

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Roast Kabocha squash pancakes:

1 cup of roast kabocha

1/2 oat bran

1/2 almond flour

3/4 cup milk

1/4 guar gum

1/4 salt

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. vanilla

1 egg

1 egg white

I never made a Kabocha pancake before, but I needed to use up the last cup of the roast Kabocha squash in the refrigerator.  If I make it again I will not use almond flour.  I will use half oat bran and half oat flour or whole wheat flour.  But we enjoyed them as they were.

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I decided to make some caramelized onion and bell pepper to go with everything on today’s menu. With the caramelized onion and pepper I made our lunch and dinner in a matter of minutes, and they were delicious.

Caramelized onion and pepper:

1 1/2 onion

1 1/2 red bell pepper

2 cloves garlic

1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil

1 1/2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. Balsamic vinegar

1 tsp. sugar

Sauté for 10 to 15 minutes before putting in the salt, vinegar and sugar.

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I used Sabra Mediterranean Eggplant in the hot dogs.

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The vegetarian dogs were perfect for lunch. And we had whole grain pasta and the steamed broccolini for dinner.  Peter protested because there was no meat and we ordered a take-out beef with tomato from Green Island for him.

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A Day of No Cooking!

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A day of no cooking!  Nonfat Fage and fruits for breakfast, leftovers for lunch and takeout for dinner!  Peter and I went hiking on Crissy Field before the girls got up.  It made me think that this is how I should be every morning — to eat yogurt and to take a brisk walk along the bay. 

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Since we had to leave the house at 5 to go to the Castro Theater, we ordered Chinese takeout from this hole-in-the-wall place called Green Island.  Cheap and yummy comfort food, the kind that I love.  They have a three dish special that is $21 and we ordered rock cod with black bean sauce, salted fish with chicken and eggplants clay pot, beef and string beans in oyster sauce.

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I told the girls that when they grow up and serve their husbands cheap Chinese takeout, they should dress up, take out the linen napkins, uncork a bottle of champagne or drink water in fine crystal goblets… That’s the only way to eat cheap Chinese takeout. 

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The screening of The Last Emperor 3D was an emotional experience for me. I teared up with the first note of music. Everything felt so vivid that I could almost reach out and touch the young self I had left far behind.  That splendid and miserable youth of 28 years ago.  Sitting in the audience holding hands with my daughters, I relived the six months I spent making the film.  Six month on location would be unthinkable today.  I would be needed at home.  And I would need my home.  But back then I had no one in particular to rush home to and being on location was exactly where I wanted to be.  I thought of all the talented people, the best in their own fields, who had worked on the film.  Quite a number of them have since passed.  I sensed their spirit in the lightwaves and particles.

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With Bernardo, Jeremy Thomas, Vivian Wu

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With Ryûichi Sakamoto

Hungry Empress on the Big Screen

When I picked Audrey up from school today, she looked sad and tired.  What a horrible day, she said.  I asked her what happened and she told me that they had a really difficult math test. Half the class didn’t finish and many of them cried during and after the test.  I asked if she cried too and she said that she did only because her friends cried.

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So, it was time to churn some ice cream.  Audrey has a sweet tooth. And the ice cream (and perhaps Mommy’s hugs, too) brightened her right away.  With our healthy ice cream recipes, we can eat it everyday and not worry about weight gain or tooth decay.  As a matter of fact, xylitol is even good for your teeth. 

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We had Chinese food for dinner.  I only have enough daylight to take the pictures of one of our dishes.

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Chinese Mountain Yam with Sliced Chicken Breast and Celery:

1/2  6 inch long Chinese Mountain Yam (Chinese supermarkets)

1 celery heart

1/2 carrot

1 chicken breast

8 ounces cashew nuts or macadamia nuts

4 slices of peeled ginger

2 tablespoon cooking wine

1 teaspoon of corn starch

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon Sha Cha Jiang or Sha Cha Paste (Chinese supermarkets carry it)

1/2 teaspoon or less of salt

1 to 2 tablespoon canola oil depending on how healthy you want to be

Instruction:

Slice all vegetables into desired similar sized pieces. 

Mix chicken meat, corn starch, wine, oyster sauce and Sha Cha in a small bowl. Marinate for 1 hour.

Heat the wok on high heat, drop in the ginger, when ginger is dry pour in the oil. 

When the ginger is sizzling in the oil, put in the vegetables and stir for about 3 minutes or to desired tenderness. Set aside.

Repeat the same process to stir fry the chicken, but save the marinate.  Set aside.  Cook the marinate until it thickens.  Mix in everything. Mix in the nuts.

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Dessert is all American apple crisp, but a much healthier one than the traditional recipe.  The girls were excited about going to see The Last Emperor tomorrow and asked me how I got to play the part of the empress.  And I told them well, that’s a long story.

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Baked Apple Crisp (Dairy-Free, Grain-Free, egg free)

Filling

7 apples, peeled, cored, sliced into thin pieces

1/2 cup frozen cranberries

1/4 cup coconut water

3 tbs. xylitol

1 tbs. pure maple syrup

2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

In a large bowl, mix together apples, coconut water, 1 tbs. xylitol, maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into a pie dish and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven to sprinkle crumble on top.

Crumble Topping

1 cup almond flour/meal

4 tbs. chopped walnuts

1/3 cup shredded coconut

2 tbs. xylitol

1 tbs. maple syrup

2 tbs. coconut oil

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Mix together almond flour, pecans, honey and coconut oil in a small bowl until well combined. Take small portions of it into your hands and sprinkle chunks of it onto the apples. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

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I have never been good at auditions.  When I was growing up, modesty and humility were the two qualities that were hammered into me ever since I could remember.  And expressing personal desires was frowned up.  Basically the only thing we were encouraged to express was our desire to serve the people and to devote our lives to the realization of Communism. This kind of mentality was so ingrained in me that it was difficult for me to “sell” myself at auditions.  Growing up I was supposed to negate every compliment or praise given to me.  If someone said that I was pretty, I would immediately say no, no, I am ugly; if someone said that I was smart, I would say no, no, that’s not true.

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It took me at least one year to get used to saying thank you after people complimented me, and another year to honestly express my feelings and desires.  The first time I truly fought for what I wanted was when I auditioned for Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon. It was a lengthy process which lasted several months and involved dozens of call backs and a final screen test with Mickey Rourke.  The part was a sophisticated TV newscaster and I still looked and talked like a FOB from China.  In retrospect, I could see that I was completely wrong for the part but at the time I gave it everything to get the part.  I hired the the most expensive dialogue coach in Hollywood to teach me speak newscaster English.  Every session was $200 for 2 hours while I was working as a receptionist in a Chinese restaurant earning about $5 an hour.  I went for broke but I did not get the part.  Both the director and the casting director were very impressed by my progress not only in my dialogue but also in my acting ability, but in the end I was wrong for the part.  This was the only time that I ever received a huge bouquet of flowers from any director who rejected me.  I felt very dejected, believing all my effort had been a complete waste and hard work meant nothing in this business. 

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Ariane Koizumi is the actress who won the part in Year of the Dragon

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Fresh off the boat Joan

Then about a year later, I got a call from Joanna Merlin, the casting director who worked on the Year of the Dragon, and she said, Joan, there is a part that is perfect for you and I want you to meet with the director who is in LA for only a short time.  Can you come?  I said yes, anytime, I will be there.  Joanna said it is still preliminary.  We haven’t started casting, but I have told the director to look no further because I have exactly the person he’s looking for.  That’s how I met Bernardo for the first time, with the highest recommendation from a very reputable casting director who just a year before had combed through all the Asian actresses around the world. The months of work I thought was wasted paid off in a much grander film.  It would take the producer Jeremy Thomas another year to complete the financing , and they did go around the world to cast the film, but Bernardo would always call me whenever he came to LA and we would meet for coffee and chat.  The role was mine the first time Joanna brought me to meet Bernardo.

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With Bernardo in Jack Nicholson’s house. Jack told me that speaking perfect English has nothing to do with my acting career. I didn’t quite understand what he meant at the time, but I think I do now. Imitating an American accent, however perfect, is not going to change the life experience that makes me who I am; and that entire being is my asset in acting as well as in life.

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So I told my girls that hard work always pays off.  And that’s when they told me I was boring and left the table.

What Is Fried Rice?

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What is fried rice?  It’s essentially a dish made of yesterday’s leftovers. What makes a great fried rice?  Quality leftover rice.  The return of Twin Peaks and the newly restored The Last Emperor 3D are delicious fried rice for the screen.  Great material rehashed from yesteryear to feed a new generation.  I am excited to take my daughters to see The Last Emperor 3D this Saturday at the Castro Theater.  I am usually afraid of seeing myself on screen, and premieres are excruciating to sit through.  I never see what I have accomplished; I only see what could’ve been done better.  But The Last Emperor was made 28 years ago.  That young lady who played the Empress couldn’t disappoint me even if she tried.  If anything I wonder if she would be disappointed in me, wearing an apron, as an “indentured servant” to my children.

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During the filming of the the Forbidden City, the entire place was closed to the public. It was lovely to stroll around the 178-acre walled city as if we owned it.

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With John Lone, Mme. Pompidou and Bertolucci at the French opening of The Last Emperor

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With Chinese President Li Xian Nian at the French opening of The Last Emperor.

In the spirit of giving old things new life, I made a tropical fried rice for dinner. Since I made fried rice hundreds of times, I usually improvise.  Today, I loosely followed the recipe from damndelicious.net.

  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce (I used 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and grated (I used red bell pepper)
  • 1/2 cup frozen corn
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas
  • 3 cups cooked brown rice
  • 2 cups diced pineapple, canned or fresh (I used a ripe pineapple)
  • 1/2 cup diced ham (I used extra firm tofu for the girls and left over pork for Peter and me)
  • 2 green onions, sliced
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  • In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger powder and white pepper; set aside.
  • Heat olive oil in a large skillet or wok over medium high heat. Add garlic and onion to the skillet, and cook, stirring often, until onions have become translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Stir in carrots, corn and peas, (eggs) and cook, stirring constantly, until vegetables are tender, about 3-4 minutes.
  • Stir in rice, pineapple, ham, green onions and soy sauce mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until heated through, about 2 minutes.

My first kiss went a little like this…

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Chase painting me when I was 19 before I came to the US

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Vanity Fair Magazine write-up on the book Chase and I made

Dusting the living room coffee table this morning, I saw the book my brother Chase and I made when we were starving artists in Los Angeles.  We reminisced about our childhood in China, which was still a strong influence in Chase’s art work after he came to the US.  Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in his Letters to a Young Novelist: “The novelist doesn’t choose his themes; he is chosen by them.  He writes on certain subjects because certain things have happened to him.”  This is also true with artists or filmmakers. 

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Chase and I being the Marx brothers for Halloween

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Chase’s self portrait from that era

I am sharing parts of the book here in this blog:

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When we were children, we spent most of our time leaning on the window, looking out and day dreaming. 

My brother taught me how to really see the things that we looked at, how there were shapes in what appeared to be one shape, and colors in what I thought to be one color.  How did he know all this?  I didn’t know.  He was older than me.  Older brothers knew these things.

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We stared at the black roof tiles, grey buildings, brown dirt and green tree tops for hours on end.  The geometry of the shadow changed as the day went on.  The clouds were never the same from minute to minute.  Nature went out of its way to please us — kids with no toys.

One morning, just before dawn, I woke up to see my brother propped up on his elbows by the window sill.  He had the abstract expression of someone in a trance.  Curious, I joined him and looked out.  Everything slumbered still in primeval blue, blurred and dewy.  The world was absolutely calm and still, I could hear my own heart beating.  It was as though the first time in my life I became aware of the creature that was myself.  And I was living the morning’s first stirring breath of air, the first bird taking wing and the sun winking above the horizon.

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Why is it that some moments stay with us, moments that didn’t seem significant?  I close my eyes and I can see the blue mist of that morning, and feel the moist air in my nostrils.

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My mother saw us looking at the sky and bought us a picture book called Forecast the Weather by Observing the Sky.  She hoped that our staring at the sky would somehow turn into an educational experience.  “The red sky forecast a high wind and storm tomorrow,” I’d account at the end of the day.  Or, “the fish-scaled clouds suggest a light drizzle.” I finally had something important to say.

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My mother with my brother Chase in front of our house

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Even in the coldest of winter, we sat by the window and stared.  Our feet rested upon a round box made of wrought iron, filled with poplar wood cinder, covered with fine ashes.  The box was called a foot-warmer.

Before Lunar New Year, after my mother did the rationed special purchase for the festivity, our room would be filled with the warm odor of chestnuts, sweet yams, or dates being cooked in the foot-warmer.  I would feel happy and drowsy from the sweet aroma and carbon monoxide that the brazier emanated.

We looked into other people’s windows too.  Some of the windows looked like mirrors of our own.  The same little faces staring back, lost in their imaginations or boredom.  In the window across from ours lived an older girl with very long black hair.  Every time she lifted her arm to tie her pony tail, I wished I was her.  My mother caught me watching and said, “A big waste of soap to wash all that hair.”  Soap was scarce.  Throughout my childhood, the length of my hair stayed firmly at my earlobe.

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One window always had its curtain drawn.  I heard the other children say that there was a ghost living in that house.  She only came out at night to steal little children.

The curtain was made of a pale blue cotton, dotted with tiny yellow flowers.  Where the flowers had been, there were little holes.  The yellow dye at the time was somehow very erosive and tended to eat through the fabric.

One night my brother and I decided to climb up to that window.  We peeked throughout the yellow flowers.  A ghost! I gasped and nearly fell.  She was an old woman with a very white face, ghastly blue eyes, and a long nose.  We later learned that she was a foreigner, an American.  She had married a handsome Chinese doctor a long, long time ago.

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The day came when I was no longer content with seeking hidden colors in the grey wall.  I had noticed a neighborhood boy and waited for him to pass by every day.  The billowing of the beige curtain in the breeze felt like a caress on my face.  One afternoon, he looked up and saw me.  Did he hear the clamor that my senses made?  I felt like spilling out the window.

This was the time when students were being sent down to work on the farms.  The night before he left, he put his mouth against mine and moved his lips in a funny way.  I didn’t know that was called a kiss.  Nobody told me.  All I knew was I wanted the return of those lips.  That night was the first sleepless night of my life.

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My second sleepless night was during a moist and hot summer.  The girl with long hair was not at her window.  In her place was her grandmother.  Grandmothers didn’t stare out the windows.  They were always cleaning rooms and cooking in the kitchen.  But this one stared.  At nothing.  She seemed to be waiting for something, but I didn’t know what.  Nobody ever came.  She was just in her window, staring, cut off from the world.  It was not the kind of expression that I was used to see in windows.

Then she climbed up and sat on the sill, new black shoes on her bound feet.  My heart missed a beat when I saw her jump out.  Later, I heard that she had wanted to die, but the building was not high enough.  She broke her legs and many ribs.  She had been rich.  Her late husband had owned factories and land.  She was the enemy of the proletariate.  I swore by that window that I’d never be rich.

My family, too, was once well-to-do.  My grandparents owned much land, and had an American education.  They adopted a “better attitude” toward the revolution and gave away most of our eight room house to families that had no house of their own. My brother and I didn’t mind that much about the crowded chaos, but we missed our back room windows.

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My grandparents with their children. My father is the handsome dude in the back

Soon, we made friends with the people who had invaded our house.  The back rooms that they occupied had a view of the long, narrow garden that grew in what had a dried up river bed.  In the spring, the air was perfumed by blooming flowers and fresh cow droppings.  I would stand by the window, breathe in with all the force that my lungs could muster, and sneeze the most satisfying and intoxicating sneeze.

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Beyond the long and narrow garden was a pasture.  My brother would be cow-watching as I sneezed.  For him, their melancholy slow pace radiated resignation and dignity — nowhere worth hurrying to, nothing worth fretting about.  Their black and white hides reflected the blue of the sky, the brown of the earth, the green of the grass.  As for me, I saw only their pink nipples and longed for ice cream.

Ice bream was a rarity in China when we were growing up.  I heard from other girls that you would be rewarded with a bowl of ice cream if you were lucky enough to have your tonsils taken out.  It was minor surgery, but performed without anesthesia.  I convinced my mother, and we went for the operation.  And they did give me a bowl of ice cream to sooth my throat.  But swallowing hurt so terribly that I gave my reward to my brother.

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So many years have passed.  We’ve left behind our childhood.  The windows are on the other side of the earth now.  My brother is still fascinated by the cows and pastures.  Me? I’m still fascinated by the pink nipples and vanilla ice cream.

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The first time I saw an avocado grove and tasted an avocado was when I visited Ojai with Chase, where he painted some of his paintings at the time.  The creamy buttery texture, the floral earthy smell and the complex taste made an indelible impression.  Now that my children are both vegetarians, I use avocados in our meals very often.  They are nutritious and very satiating.

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I used a simple recipe from allrecipe.com with minor changes:

4 large tomatoes, chopped (I used grape tomatoes)

4 avocados – peeled, pitted and diced

1 red onion, thinly sliced (I used red shallots) 

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste

1 (8 ounce) bottle balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing (I used Balsamic glaze and fresh lemon)

I also added a few kernels of fresh sweet corn that is not in the original recipe

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