Radio·Personal Essay

I did the grocery shopping for my parents during the pandemic, and it brought me closer to my family

When COVID-19 hit Richmond, B.C., it put an end to Tina Ma's family dinners with her parents. But for Tina, taking over the grocery duties helped her connect to her mom and dad and to her heritage in new ways.  

Tina Ma’s immigrant parents gave her a crash course in shopping for Asian ingredients

When COVID-19 hit Richmond, B.C., it put an end to Tina Ma's family dinners with her parents. But for Tina, taking over the grocery duties helped her connect to her mom and dad and to her heritage in new ways. 7:39

Before the pandemic, Tina Ma would go to her parents' house twice a week for home-cooked dinners, along with her sister, her sister's husband and their two children. 

As immigrants from Guangdong province, her mom and dad would spend hours shopping for and cooking elaborate Chinese meals.

When COVID-19 hit Richmond, B.C., it put an end to their family dinners and to her parents' grocery shopping trips.

But for Tina, taking on the grocery duties helped her connect to her family and her heritage in new ways.  

Here is her story, as told to CBC Radio.

I think my parents really enjoyed having us all together at our family dinners. I think that's how they showed their love. Now that they're retired, I think it gave them a big purpose in the day. 

During COVID-19 and the quarantine, we couldn't do that anymore. I think they felt that loss a little bit. My sister and I definitely did, too.

A typical meal prepared by Tina's parents consists of several dishes. (Submitted by Tina Ma)

I realized we didn't want our parents, who don't drive, taking the bus. That's how my dad would get to the grocery store.

Ultimately, my sister and I said, "Mom and dad, you guys are in the vulnerable age group. If we get the coronavirus, we're probably going to be okay, but it's you two that are really going to be vulnerable for this."

So I told them, "For the next little while, I'm going to do the grocery shopping for you. You just give me the list, and I'll go."

Learning how to shop

The FaceTime conversations I would have with my parents prior to shopping became a nice time for us to connect.

We would probably talk for about 20 to 30 minutes just to make the list. It was a time where we could talk about our love of food.

A couple of times, I went to the butcher counter, and the employees only spoke Mandarin, while I only speak Cantonese. In those instances, I've had to pull out my phone and FaceTime my mom or dad from the butcher and actually hold the phone up to the counter and show them what it was.

Tina navigating her way through different cuts of meat the butcher counter. (Submitted by Tina Ma)

Sometimes, the butcher would be really nice and pick up the piece that my mom was referring to, and hold it up to make sure it was the one that they wanted.

Meat was the most challenging thing to buy, but a lot of produce was also tricky.

Lotus root was the one veggie I probably had never bought at all prior to COVID-19. You have to dig around into the box and pull out the root -- and they're usually wet. That was a learning experience for me.

Tina shopping for lotus root at the local Asian market. (Submitted by Tina Ma)

Growing up around food

From the time I was about two or three years old until I was about 15, my mom and dad had a restaurant in Richmond, B.C. It was Canadian-style Chinese food and fried chicken.

As we got older, my mom and dad needed our help. So my sister and I would help out in the kitchen and in the front. 

At the heart of our restaurant were, I think, two things: family and survival.

A family picture of Tina, her sister and their parents, and a shot of the Chinese restaurant they owned for more than a decade in Richmond, B.C. (Submitted by Tina Ma)

My dad was the first in his family to graduate from university — but it wasn't in cooking. I don't know if it's due to luck or racism or just the economy, but at the time my dad didn't get the career that he wanted.

So, he ended up going into business for himself. I think it's the same for a lot of first-generation immigrant families.

He ended up working in a family restaurant and then got married and had us two kids. I think that's where their sense of sacrifice and their survival came in.

The restaurant had very long hours — 11:00 a.m. until 9:00 at night. For our own dinners after that, we didn't eat chop suey, chow mein or sweet-and-sour pork. My mom would cook rice and vegetables, and a little bit of stir fry or fresh fish for our meals.

So food reminds me of how hard my mom and dad worked when I was growing up. But it also still feels really good.

Food as love

Before the pandemic, my parents went shopping almost every other day for fresh ingredients, and would start preparing dinner a couple hours before it was actually time to eat.

I definitely have a huge appreciation for how much love and time and hard work it takes for them to make these traditional dishes.

Tina's mom holds the door for her as she delivers bags of groceries from her shopping trip. (Submitted by Tina Ma)

And after a while, I think my mom and dad knew I wasn't doing this to stop them from doing their hobby and doing their job. I was actually doing this to protect them.

My parents are not very wordy people. They're not that expressive about their love, but they'll express it in their food.

After B.C. started re-opening and we were able to be together again, we just had takeout for the first few meals. But it didn't matter.

We were grateful for what we had to eat, but also for the fact that we could sit together around the table again.

This Happened to Me: The New Normal is a video series from CBC Radio featuring the stories of Canadians whose lives have been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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