Where the Heart Is: If memory changes, at least I’ll have doujiang

As a child, my parents would take the three of us kids to T&T to buy doujiang.

The predictability of the store was comforting. White waxed floors, edged by subtle grime; the smell of plastic wrap and the mist they sprayed to keep the vegetables fresh. The bright lights, the temperature, the layout — these elements create theoretically perfect conditions, yet are too sterile to make me feel at home.

My eldest sister would get left behind, her nose in a book trying to find the family. My other older sister would be scheming in the snack section, picking out the sweets with either the prettiest packaging or the most chocolate. And me? I’d skip around, alternating between sisters and parents.

“Ama and Yeiyei used to make this,” my dad would tell me as he put the white jug of doujiang into our cart. I wouldn’t say anything. Instead, I would count the minutes until we could go home and crack open the bottle.

It was only many years later when I became old enough to ask questions, but still young enough to listen, that I learned that my grandparents didn’t just make doujiang. They also made buns, sesame crackers and tofu skin, and they made a living from them.

My dad and the business

When my dad was five or six, he would hide in the family room to avoid his family. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, the room was filled with bags of soybeans, stored there until they were used for cooking. He would lie there surrounded by stacks of bags as heavy as himself and wait for anyone in his family of five to notice he was gone.

Yeiyei is just a version of my dad with a scratchy mustache and who’s partially bald. Ama is skinny and smiling with the classic Chinese grandma hairstyle — soft, whispy curls circling her head.

They have three kids — Linda, Jane and my dad. One and six years between them, respectively. In most old photos, Linda looks as though she would really rather not be there. Jane looks like my older sister, but unlike her is quiet and neutral. My dad remains consistent in all — giant glasses and a body so gangly that he looks like the youtiao his parents made. They all speak a special kind of Mandarin Chinese, one that my grandpa taught them from 1950s Sichuan mixed with my grandma’s Taiwanese accent and the kids’ English.

From the ‘60s to the ‘90s, my grandparents owned a business supplying Chinese food to restaurants in Toronto. Ama would do most of the cooking while Yeiyei delivered. Together, the kids helped roll noodles in exchange for allowance money. It seemed like the perfect family business, with everyone playing their part to make a snippet of history.

One, two, three. Ingredients, delivery, eating. Repeat. The cyclical nature of food coincided with my dad’s stories of growing up.

Memories of my dad’s childhood stories started well before I had memories of my own. “Little Pete” would accompany Yeiyei on his deliveries which often turned into social calls. Preteen Pete hated Chinese food and instead wished for KFC bucket chicken dinners. Teenaged Pete ate half a dozen croissants on his way home from Chinese school.

When I visited my dad’s old home for the first time — over 30 years after he moved out — a “for lease” sign was posted squarely in the middle of the storefront window. The unit was pink yet dull, a two-storied building in Toronto’s “Little India” neighborhood and something physical I could finally map all my dad’s stories onto.

My dad’s crow’s feet crinkled around his eyes as he smiled and his body took that easy, swinging gait it only ever did when he was in Toronto. The visit brought a flurry of memories, some that were new, some that were old and some that felt slightly different since the last time I heard them.

We peered into the first floor that, 30 years ago, acted as the storefront, storage area and living room. We craned our necks up at the second-floor bedrooms and we imagined the old kitchen in the basement. The third-floor addition that was added after my dad moved out was irrelevant, its interior will always remain a mystery.

“Making noodles is what put me through school,” said my dad. On other days, it may have been dough sticks or sesame crackers, but no matter the food, to him the story is the same.

A different story

In my second year at university, all I wanted was to go back home to my parents. My head was filled with equations and emotions I didn’t need, and my body was filled with things I really didn’t need — my own beige, flavourless cooking.

Over the course of the school term, I’d go for dinner with my uncle — Aunt Linda’s husband. Between bites of stir fry, we grasped for things to talk about and landed on family.

“I’m always so amazed by Ama,” my uncle told me. “Linda will tell me stories of how Ama prepared these three-course meals for the family even after an entire day of cooking for the business. I think that’s where she gets her obsession for food.”

With every meal that Aunt Linda eats, she’s already planning for the next, he said. Aunt Linda will try new restaurants all the time just to try something new. Aunt Linda loves food. The words were foreign to me and the story was someone else’s. The setting and the characters were the same as my dad’s, but the actions and messages were different.

Through my uncle, I learned how Ama saw that none of the food she had growing up was available in Toronto. And just like that, she started cooking. And cooking, and cooking, to the point that Yeiyei quit his job to help deliver because it made more money than he would ever make as a mechanic.

I returned to my dorm that night, the building looming dull and grey in comparison to these stories. I rested my backpack on the carpet and tilted my “no-tilt” chair as I sat thinking.

Aunt Linda’s story, at least the one that she told, was driven by Ama. But, the stories I’ve heard had no character arc, no driver — it just happened, and Yeiyei was the main character in most of the tales, the one to be admired.

You’re just like Yeiyei, my parents used to tell me after I had done something clever. I’d grin and hold to the compliment like something precious.

But on that day, confusion stirred up a silted memory. Distant words heard through a chain-link of people. Linda hates being likened to Yeiyei. It was stated as a fact, but a fact that was so different from what my sisters and I have known our whole life.

The story wasn’t necessarily contradicting the ones I heard growing up. Rather, it felt like they were different parts. Parts that — combined with my dad’s and my aunts’ and Ama and Yeiyei and all the people they fed, delivered and cooked for — would eventually make up a whole.

New Year's

On New Year’s Day, the house was silent with misery. My parents had a fight, so my sister and I escaped to Aunt Jane’s house to eat takeout and talk to someone physically and emotionally separate from our sadness.

I know very little about Aunt Jane. She’s always been the quietest of the three, keeping to herself in most of the stories both my dad and Aunt Linda will tell and never volunteering any of her own.

Unlike her siblings, Aunt Jane’s actions were never attached to a grand display of emotions. Perhaps that’s the reason we went to her that day.

For three hours, my sister did the talking as I stuffed my face with tea, leftover Christmas cookies and Chinese takeout, in that order. The only pause was when I was too stuffed to eat anymore and my sister had gone to the washroom.

Not knowing how to fill the space, I started talking about my dad’s stories. In particular, the one of him hiding in piles of soybeans and waiting for someone to notice.

“I didn’t know he did that,” Aunt Jane said.

I guess that’s how the story ended. No one noticed, or no one remembered.

A generation ‘lost in translation’

It’s strange how things can just be gone. My Yeiyei died 11 years ago. The sisters spread around the globe pursuing their careers. Stories lost to the present.

What do you do when there is no singular narrative?

The logical thing of course would be to ask Ama, the one who started the business. Living half an hour away from me, past the threadbare cyclists, crazy drivers and potholed roads, she has a homey condo surrounded by other retirees like herself. Lush green plants fill her shelves, a picture of my Yeiyei hung up on the wall and C-dramas constantly run on the TV.

I wish I could ask her so many things, but I can’t. One generation the language was there. The next, gone. I never lost the language because I never even had it, not even a special modified version of it with influence from 1950s Sichuan, my grandma’s Taiwanese accent and the English I speak today.

Like many others in Canada, I am part of that precarious generation where I feel that I am balancing this line between immigrant and local. I can be proud of my cultural heritage but not part of it. Yet when I speak to others who grew up in these generations of translation, I find that each person will tell a different story.

For me, the only consistency is food.

You tiao, doufu pi, cong you bing — these words fill my dad’s and aunts’ stories and are translated into the foods that I know by smell. I listen to the names of dishes and copy the sounds just like I heard them, only learning their meanings years after knowing their round, flavourful taste in my mouth.

As I replicate and learn and eat all these foods that feel immortal, the dishes teach me the histories of Taiwan, China and Canada, and the histories of my family.

If memory changes

It was raining when I first started writing this at my desk at work. I was interning at a local food non-profit, and it was a rare day when there was no food to be made in the kitchens and no work to be done in the gardens. My table was crammed up against the hallway wall, the floor carpeted and the humid air exposed.

For months I’ve been wanting to write about my dad’s experience growing up alongside my grandparents’ business. But when I started scribbling grey-penciled ideas across a scrapped piece of paper, I created a landscape that pointed not to what I knew, but everything I didn’t.

How could Aunt Linda have such a conflicting image of my Yeiyei from my dad? Why did my dad never bother to mention Ama’s key role in the business? Why does it seem that Aunt Jane doesn’t remember any of it?

Perhaps it was the age gap — the siblings’ young emotions bounded to like-events that happened at different times and in different contexts. Perhaps it was the pressure of being the oldest sibling, the invisibility of being the middle child or the freedom that came with being the only boy, younger by so many years. Or perhaps we just remember the stories of people we are most alike. Maybe Yeiyei’s presence in my dad’s memory is the same reason I chose to write about my dad.

Regardless of what the three of the siblings knew, or what they thought happened, my grandparents’ business remains a thread that connects our family through space, time and the rapidly changing societies that each generation learns to navigate. It has influenced my decision to study agriculture and has shaped my identity as a third-generation Chinese-Taiwanese Canadian.

Today, my dad no longer buys doujiang from the grocery store — he makes it from a recipe clobbered together by internet forums and Ama’s anecdotes. So, when I go back home and wake to the sound of a blender, I immediately know: doujiang.

The direct translation is “soy milk” but I hate it when people call it that. Soy milk is the tasteless liquid reserved for white veganism, health blogs and beanie-clad baristas.

Doujiang is the bean that spent careful nighttime hours soaking. Doujiang is the cloth used to filter the liquid from its grounds. Doujiang is a slightly sweet steaming bowl that takes more than a slight amount of sugar to make it taste just right.

I sit down at the dining table and slide out the hot youtiao from the toaster oven with the tips of my fingers so I don’t get burned. Beside me are my two older sisters while my parents occupy the other half of the table.

Doujiang is the first thing I have for breakfast when I visit relatives in Taiwan and the first thing I have for breakfast when I visit my parents’ home in Ontario. Because food is home. Food is family. Food is history.

And if memory changes, then I know that no matter what, I can rely on doujiang.