British Columbia·Point of View

How helping my parents during COVID-19 brought me closer to my (lotus) roots

I’ve taken over grocery shopping for my elderly parents because of COVID-19. Buying food at the Chinese grocer for my very discerning parents has brought us closer together and I've learned a few lessons along the way, writes Tina Ma.

Tina Ma has taken over Chinese grocery shopping for her discerning and elderly parents, with a few challenges

I’ve taken over grocery shopping for my elderly parents because of COVID-19. Buying food at the Chinese grocer for my very discerning parents has brought us closer together and I've learned a few lessons along the way, writes Tina Ma. (Submitted by Tina Ma)

In many families, food means love. My family is no exception. In my multi-generational immigrant family, we do not communicate with long, personal chats; instead, our language is food — making food, buying food, eating food.  

COVID-19 has not changed that fact. While in isolation, my family has only seen each other to deliver groceries or share food. But what has changed is that my parents have not been in a grocery store in almost two months; and I have taken over the shopping for them. 

Prior to COVID-19, my parents' apartment was the hub of family gatherings. My sister's family and I would gather there for dinner two to three times a week and my parents would cook home-style Cantonese meals prepared from scratch. Meals would always start with a hot bowl of Chinese soup. Turning down my mom's broth was like saying no to her liquid love. 

My dad, the Executive Chef, would make colourful stir-fries and popular tomato dishes, which we would all approvingly devour. As a foodie, I have enjoyed many of these meals but the idea of making several traditional Cantonese entrees and soup for a single meal is daunting. The kitchen is my parents' domain and shopping for groceries daily is their hobby. I left the Chinese cooking to the experts.

While COVID-19 has not changed our love of food, it has, sadly, stopped our family meals. My elderly parents are in a high-risk group and have been quarantined at home. That means they have not been in a grocery store in almost two months. In the meantime, I have taken over the daunting task of shopping for them. But it's turned out to be a valuable experience and I've learned more about my culture and my parents along the way.

I have taken over the daunting task of shopping for my elderly parents, writes Tina Ma. But it's turned out to be a valuable experience and I’ve learned more about my culture and my parents along the way. (Submitted by Tina Ma)

Making the shopping list in 'Chinglish'

Grocery shopping for my parents starts with a consultation over video chat. 

We speak in Cantonese, because my parents don't speak very much English. My Chinese is functional but not fluent and up until recently, I didn't know the names of cuts of meat or Chinese herbs. The list of 20 to 30 items is written in "Chinglish" — mostly English with some phonetic Chinese.  It's during this step where I realize how discerning my parents' taste for fresh food is. They are meticulous and exacting when it comes to their groceries.

My parents sound like this:

"You have to pick a good cabbage.  Not so 'tight' — one that feels 'looser'."

"Ask for one pound-ish of BBQ pork. If you ask for two pounds they always give you too much. Get a lean piece and have them slice half and keep the other half whole for later."

"Just so you know, a flat lotus root is good for stir frying and a round lotus root is good for soup. If the lotus root looks too perfect, that could be a problem. We heard a story that farmers put dye into their veggies to make them look better."  

"We like Ambrosia apples — the skin is less rough on the tongue and the flesh stays crisp."

"Why are you laughing? How come you don't pay attention when mom goes to the meat counter?" 

Time to shop at the Chinese stores

And then it's time for shopping — mask on, wallet in hand. 

I felt intimidated during the first trip to the Chinese butcher by myself. I love to eat meat but touching raw meat makes me feel squeamish. Plus, I can't read the signs in Chinese. I recite the direct pronunciation from my list, "Zhing Sow Yook, Uum Goy" ("Lean pork, please"). 

But my efforts that day were to no avail — the butcher only spoke Mandarin and didn't understand my Cantonese anyway!  In the end, technology came to the rescue and I ended up calling my parents from the store and showing the meat display over FaceTime.  

Watch Ma shop with her parents virtually

Ma's Cantonese is functional, but sometimes she struggles to communicate with the grocers without her parents 0:55

An hour and a half later, I have my fish, vegetables, fruit, milk, bread, tofu, Chinese herbs, oil, rice, and snacks. I cash out and deliver the bags of groceries to my parents. My deliveries bring a flurry of action and colour to their apartment, breaking up long days of quarantine.

Later on, I bring my own items home and wash up. Then I often call my parents and have a post-mortem chat about my food purchases. 

"I got some really good deals today.  What did you think of the goodies I got for you?" During these calls, my parents would tell me more about the food I bought and correct any mistakes — apparently, you can't buy any old bones for pork bone broth!  

Tina Ma drops off groceries at her parent's home — the only in-person interaction the family now has as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. (Submitted by Tina Ma)

Ultimately, I think my parents appreciate my efforts. For them, having me do the shopping has been a necessity but they have learned to trust me. I did find it reassuring when my normally austere dad said, "Just get the fishmonger to show you the gills.  If the gills are red, it's fresh.  You'll buy a few times, and then you'll know."

The time of COVID-19 has been challenging for so many families. 

But for my family, it's given us time to bond over our mutual love of food and a chance for me to deepen my understanding of Chinese culture. Now that restrictions are easing, my parents are itching to get their independence back and return to the grocery store. 

The results of a Chinese groceries haul, including goji berries which Ma's mother will use in making a broth. (Submitted by Tina Ma)

For me, my confidence in buying Chinese food has increased and I feel less intimidated when I have to use my Cantonese at the store. Shopping for my parents has given me a sense of purpose and a bit of entertainment during this difficult time. I'm glad that I was able to help them and learn about something that's so important to my mom and dad.

Now, if only I learned to cook…

To hear Tina Ma speak on The Early Edition about getting back to her (lotus) roots, tap the audio link below:

Tina Ma speaks with Stephen Quinn about how grocery shopping has changed the way she connects with Chinese food culture. 5:28

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