I Practiced Zuo Yue Zi From Afar When I Couldn’t Be With My Sister After Childbirth | Bon Appétit
It was around lunchtime on March 12th that I learned that my building’s doorman had COVID. I’m a set decorator for film and television and that day I was preparing a set for a show filming the second to last episode in a season. By that evening the producers told everyone on the production crew that we were shutting down indefinitely—we could start collecting unemployment. Five days later our building doorman, Juan, died from COVID.
With both Tony and me suddenly unemployed, and New York City getting worse by the minute, we considered joining friends who’d invited us to stay with them on their farm outside of Nashville, Tennessee. It sounded perfect. But my sister was pregnant. I couldn’t leave her behind.
I always assumed I’d have a role in helping her postpartum recovery, but I also assumed that, at least for the first few months, mine would be a supporting role. My mom would be the lead, there to guide my sister through those first and toughest days.
By March 17 we’d all agreed it made sense for my parents to cancel their trip to New York. I cried. They were going to miss such an important family event, we wouldn’t be able to welcome Ruby into the world together or celebrate the arrival of the next generation. Like most people in New York City, I’d been riding a rollercoaster of emotions: sadness, grief, anxiety, anger, and helplessness.
It slowly dawned on me that my parents not coming also meant that I would be in charge of preparing the zuo yue zi foods.
It is hard to describe the exact breakdown of Chinese-ness to American-ness our specific childhood cocktail of cultural influence was. I’m a fourth-generation Chinese American, and we spoke English at home, but I often relate more to the experience of many second-generation immigrant kids.
Because of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese-American families had a hard time immigrating as a unified entity until after 1965, and so the lines of clearly demarcated generations in terms of “second generation” or “fourth generation” are not precise. Both of my parents immigrated to the United States in their teens to finish their schooling and join their parents (or in the case of my mom, her parents and grandparents). A common experience of second generation kids, across cultures, is feeling pressure to succeed on behalf of their family and their sacrifices, which I think my dad felt more than me. Second generation kids often have to translate or act as an advocate and go-between for parents and mainstream American society, which I also didn’t experience. But having different, weird foods and not understanding the same cultural references as classmates; being the first in a family to navigate certain elite institutions were all things I did experience. My parents and I could tell each other jokes in English, but Chinese culture, language, and values often informed my parents in a way that felt foreign to me.
My mom, as the youngest in her family, did not know how to make all the right zuo yue zi foods either. She’d been binging YouTube videos to prepare. She was so anxious about leading the charge in fact that she’d repeatedly asked my sister and me to find someone in the New York City area who would come to my sister’s home and do it for us, a service available in the Chinese American immigrant community.
By the time I’d taken over zuo yue zi food prep, hiring a stranger to come over and cook was no longer an option. My Yi-Ma (older maternal aunt) called me to sympathize, “Well now you have to be a sister, aunt, mother, and grandmother to your sister!” And my mom started sending me links to the YouTube zuo yue zi Chinese cooking videos.
I lamented to one of my best friends, Lyle, that I felt totally clueless. Lyle, whose farm we’d been invited to in Tennessee, also happens to run a fertility acupuncture practice. So even though she is not Chinese-American, she instantly knew the answer: The First Forty Days, a book written in English by a Chinese-American woman named Heng Ou explains zuo yue zi, what it means in a western and modern context, and what’s involved.
It was exactly what I needed. But I couldn’t get a copy in time for Ruby’s due date because mail orders were incredibly backed up. While I waited, Lyle sent me photos of key recipes: Ginger fried rice with bacon, chicken soup with jujube and ginger that Ou describes as “a time-tested combo used to boost circulation and enhance inner warmth”; and a jujube goji berry tonic––“the quintessential zuo yuezi drink with its wonder-duo of warming ingredients… a daily must-drink for all moms.”
I’d resolved to give myself over to Heng Ou, reverting to the formula that got me straight A’s in high school: carefully studying the textbook and obediently following directions. In hindsight I realize I didn’t even consider doing a test run. My plan was to make everything for the first time when I got word that Tiffany had delivered the baby.
Getting ingredients for these dishes was another story. I do not live within walking distance of any grocery stores that carry specialty Chinese ingredients like dried jujubes and goji berries, and a lot of those that did, in Chinatown, were closed anyway. I couldn’t rely on internet sources to deliver herbs quickly enough. And even the large Asian grocery stores––like H Mart in Bayside, Queens––were sold out of poultry. I had to be resourceful.
It took a while, but finally I’d collected everything I needed (ordering what I could online; driving to neighboring towns with larger Asian grocery stores). I even had two whole freshly killed and plucked chickens that my husband helped me procure from the halal live poultry shop near us in the Bronx.
By the evening of April first, when it was time to collect Tiffany and family from the hospital, all the soups and drinks and tonics were ready—hot and packed.
As Tony and I drove through the city we passed the rows of cold storage trailers outside Bellevue and NYU Langone Hospitals, used to manage the abnormally high number of dead bodies emerging due to COVID. It was a haunting sight made even stranger by the fact that because we couldn’t be near the baby, Tony had outfitted the car with plastic drop cloths to separate the front and back seats.
This content was originally published here.