Tienlon Ho: The Months Of Magical Eating

The following is an excerpt from Women on Food: Charlotte Druckman and 115 Writers, Chefs, Critics Television, Stars and Eaters. Used with permission from Abrams Press.

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One night over dinner, when I was six months pregnant, I yawned.

My husband, a Connecticut-born son of an artist and a school secretary, smiled and stroked my hand sweetly in sympathy.

My father, a Guangdong-raised son in a long line of Chinese doctors, furrowed his brow, leaned in to give me a good look, and, dismissing my explanations of long hours at my desk and the obvious gestation, said what he has for nearly every affliction (from allergy to zit) that I’ve ever suffered: “You’re not eating right.”

What would be right, to start, were yàn wō (燕窝). Birds’ nests. Half-moons of hardened saliva spat onto the walls of seaside caves by tiny swiftlets in Southeast Asia.

Dad also prescribed more soups, more ginger, more steaming and less frying, more actual meals and less snacking, and, of course, more rest. But while it seemed clear to me that I just needed to get to the other side by delivering this new person safely into the world, he seemed to think things could be better, now. So I couldn’t refuse when he offered to take over all the cooking while he was in town.

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The next morning, Dad took the bus to Stockton Street and returned, arms loaded with the remedy. There were stacks of birds’ nests in a fancy box, and also pig parts, a chicken with black skin and bones, long white radishes and longer burdock, goji, longan, red dates, black vinegar, and packets of fungi, flower buds, and withered rhizomes.

He soaked the birds’ nests overnight until they melted into white clouds that smelled like the ocean, then tweezed out the bits of down woven in. Then he dropped the softened nests with some rock sugar and water into a dùn zhōng (炖盅), a stoneware double-boiler, and heated them gently until everything was a wispy, jelly broth.

I ate it and somehow felt immediately less weary. It was the same with everything else he cooked.

I should have been used to it by now. Growing up with a father such as mine, whose roots reach deep in the very traditional Cantonese and Hakka cultures (the kind who keep records going back thirteen generations in the family shrine), a yawn might as well be a hacking cough. Mundanities like that, from the timbre of your pulse to the color of your tongue and the stench of your gas, are all clues into your current state of health. For most discomforts, there is always an antidote.

To sons of doctors of Chinese medicine, love is not a kind touch. It’s a hot bowl of bird spittle.

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I was raised by two scientists in Ohio, a place where medicine works hard and fast and comes in caplets, which means I tend to look at Chinese medicine like I do Instagram and Oprah (anything with hordes of devotees)— with at least as much skepticism as interest.

Chinese medicine as a system of diet, acupuncture, and the interplay of physical and mental health was written down some 2,200 years ago, and before and since, has been interpreted by trained specialists and well-meaning parents alike. Of all the ways to heal in Chinese medicine, food comes first. This might seem especially prescient given the current obsession in the United States with functional mushrooms and bone broth, but the earliest doctors weren’t thinking about food as wellness. They were thinking about not starving. Throughout Chinese medicine’s development, famines in the Middle Kingdom wiped out millions at a time — more regularly than war or epidemics. And so, Chinese doctors wrote foraging, farming, and cooking guides. They wrote about how to render roughage more digestible, offal more delicious, and how to make every bite count. In old China, a footed soup pot, not a sword or a pen, represented power on banners and in songs. Wielded right, a soup pot prevented catastrophe.

Good health requires good food. In Chinese medicine, disease is disharmony, the result of vital energies in the organs blocked or for too long left out of whack. You don’t just eat for flavor or nutrients. What you eat can counter your constitution(the product of your genes), your bad choices, and all the demands of living. The Chinese medicine traditions that passed to me did not come as they typically would through the women in my husband’s family (they have German roots), but through the filter of my father’s vivid, though distant, memories. His beginning the mountains west of the Pearl River Delta and land in America, where he became a scientist developing vaccines and materials for space among other things that made his early years without plumbing and electricity feel worlds away. My dad learned to read as sons of families rooted in tradition did, reciting the Compendium of Materia Medica (本草纲目), a massive tome of plants and prescriptions that is still the most comprehensive resource on Chinese medicinal foods since the first edition arrived five hundred years ago. When someone in his house fell ill, he picked bitter herbs and tender hearts of bamboo that grew on the hillsides to steep into soothing broths.

When my sisters and I were growing up in suburban Ohio, there were no neighborhood practitioners or medicine shops. Except for what shot up in our garden and the wild chives and dandelions, the plants that grew around our house weren’t edible. Even imports were limited. The numbing Sichuan peppercorn (a pain reliever and gut cleanser) couldn’t legally enter the United States until 2005.

At the two Asian markets in town, my parents usually skipped the dry goods aisle, which, for a long time, I took to mean that whatever boxes of twiggy herbs, flowers, roots, and seeds that made it over didn’t do much. But actually, it was the opposite. My parents wanted to save them for vital moments. My dad would wonder how people ate curry leaves and chilies, big-ticket meds in all the books, with such abandon.

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Naturally, my sisters and I developed a sense of how things we ate made us feel. I went so far as to turn down pizza most of the time because the spices would make me shàng huǒ, or excessively heated. (Explaining this to friends was only slightly less embarrassing than the alternative — a rash across my face.) When you believe what you eat has the effect of feeding or draining the organs, speeding vital energies along or blocking them, even oregano on a pan pizza tastes like medicine.

Within our own house, there were culture clashes, too. My mom did not grow up as my dad did. Her customs are northern, from a family that lived on the same lands for eight hundred years, mixed with some Hui, a Muslim people with their own blend of remedies. My mother’s grandfather and uncles were surgeons with modern Chinese and Western training. She was born in a state-of-the-art hospital in Chengdu, where my grandmother accepted painkillers in the Western way and stayed to rest for thirty days afterward in the Chinese way.

When it was her turn, my mom followed tradition by resting a month at home after giving birth, but she was an island in America’s Midwest. She managed mostly on her own, first while my dad finished his dissertation and then when I arrived, while they juggled my two sisters. My mom says she subsisted on one particular high-energy recovery dish—a braise of pigs’ feet and peanuts, which were both easy to find in America’s corn belt and to leave unattended on the stove. That was about it for her and the Chinese way.

Anyway, we didn’t need those things,” my mother says now. “We were young and healthy. We had central heating.”

She doesn’t say so, but I suspect there were other reasons for not holding so tightly to the past. Everyone knew, for instance, that ginseng grew wild not far from us in the wooded ravines and hollows of West Virginia. My uncle went foraging for them, until locals started welcoming people like him with “chink” and “gook,” waving guns, and making it clear that those wandering their woods should go home. This was not long after Vincent Chin went out for pre-wedding beers one night in Detroit and was beaten to death by two men who got probation and a three thousand dollar fine. Connections to things far away made you less American.

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At some point between empty nest and retirement, there was a reawakening. Visits to see me in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco included time for my dad to shop for quality herbs and consult with specialists about annoyances that had aged into aches.

He discovered he hadn’t forgotten his childhood recitations. He remembered the three herbs for a stomachache, and the four for insomnia. He started bringing us jars of liáng chá (涼茶), a bitter drink involving flowering shrubs, to treat our colds. He remembered how to ferment rice wine and how to use it to make healing tinctures. He remembered that a broth made of that wine and wū gǔ jī (烏骨雞), chicken with black skin and bones, helps bring in a new mother’s breastmilk. It was a recipe his own father had cooked for his mother eighty years ago. And then suddenly, as it goes, I was pregnant.

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In every medical tradition, there are countless books on pregnancy and birth, but that doesn’t make it any less baffling when it is happening to you. When you grow a baby, it turns out, you are also growing yourself. You build new neural pathways in the brain. Your heart adjusts to pump a couple liters more blood. Your breasts transform into functioning glands. Organs move. The uterus stretches from the size of a pear to the size of a watermelon, and so on.

In Chinese medicine terms, all that change throws the yin and yang, your body’s cool and warm qualities, into disarray. How well a mother manages to rebalance her energies with food, rest, and avoiding stress determines how well she ultimately recovers after the baby arrives. To add to the pressure, her ability to find equilibrium also determines the quality of the qi, or life force, she transfers to her baby.

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Over the centuries, these principles have been put into practice through rules developed from trial and error mixed with a good dose of folk wisdom.

Anthropologists say traditions persist so long as they serve some purpose, real or perceived, for the next generation. I found the practical reasons behind rules surrounding pregnancy and childbirth are obscured by easier to remember superstitions. You avoid lamb chops, not because they are too yang and so make you shàng huǒ, but because your mother-in-law warned sheep can suffer seizures and eating them puts your baby at risk for epilepsy. Or you skip crab season not because of the threat of shellfish-borne illnesses, but because your neighbor said if you eat foods with many legs, your baby could grow an extra arm or act like they did (sānzhī shǒu, or extra hand, is slang for “pickpocket”). You buy sesame oil, not just because it’s nutritious, but also because someone once said it makes the fetus slippery so that when the time comes, it can slide right out.

Other rules offer the benefit of offering unassailable defenses against the demands of people who aren’t pregnant. For instance, avoiding strenuous work is justified in some Chinese medicine books by the existence of the tāi shén, your baby’s feisty but touchy spirit that jumps around the house.

A calendar of its movements is documented in the Zhulin Temple’s Secret Remedies for Women (竹林寺女科秘传), one of the world’s earliest clinical books on obstetrics and gynecology. The baby sprite wanders into different precarious places according to the longitude of the sun and the phases of the moon, a schedule that must have confused billions of expectant parents over the centuries by now.

One day the spirit stands at the door, which has come to mean avoiding slamming doors or repairing them. The next day, it sits on the stove, which means no cooking. It moves around everywhere in the household from the stone mortar (no grinding soybeans!), to the henhouse (no cleaning the coop!), and the bed (no!). The tradition is so ingrained, that many households throughout Southern China and Southeast Asia still avoid loud noises, remodeling projects, knives, and sex during pregnancy even though few believe in the tāi shén.

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Once baby-spirit and baby-body are united at birth, the rules train a spotlight on caring for the mother. After delivery, the Chinese medicine books describe her as a drained vessel too far on the yin side, susceptible to certain evils like “cold” and “wind” that, unremedied, will plague her for the rest of her life.

In Chinese tradition, the cure is a regimen of food, self-care, and these days, plenty of anachronisms. Birth marks the start of the rite of passage called zuò yuèzi, or sitting out the moon. Depending on your family, a moon can mean anywhere from thirty to one hundred days of dedicated time to recover from the previous nine months. There are massages, gentle exercises, and binding your abdomen with muslin. Family and friends are to provide foods for “tonifying and nurturing the mother’s five key organs”—“not just to celebrate the child,” prescribes the Formulas Worth a Thousand Gold Pieces (備急千金要方), a book of remedies that still followed fourteen hundred years later pops up on blogs and message boards for new moms. This generally means easy to digest seaweed or chicken broth in the first days after birth, graduating to more substantial, iron-rich dishes of offal for replenishing nutrients, and calorie-dense stews of pumpkin or peanuts and pigs’ feet to boost lactation and energy in later weeks, with variations depending on individual needs, season, and region.

A dedicated time to rest makes sense to everyone. It sounds obvious even. The part of zuò yuèzi that most people outside the culture can’t fathom is the deprivation. In English-speaking parts of Asia, zuò yuèzi is translated ominously as “confinement.” And standard practice is to endure the following without exception: You cannot eat raw, cold, acidic, or spicy food. You cannot drink cold water. You can’t have sex, use air conditioning, or take a bath or shower. You might be allowed to choose between grooming with a fine-toothed comb or a wipe-down with boiled water steeped with Chinese herbs. In some cases, you can’t even brush your teeth, climb stairs, cry, read, or look at digital screens. You definitely can’t leave the house.

These restrictions can drive even the most dutiful women in Asia crazy, too. On the message boards of Ci123’s, China’s largest parenting community with 150 million members, new moms commiserate over hiding their mobile phones under mattresses, secretly cracking windows, and sneaking showers while their minders are on grocery runs.

Usually, the worst consequences of strict zuò yuèzi are boredom and body odor. But a few years ago, during a massive heatwave in Shanghai, one new mother died bundled up in blankets, reportedly unable (or unwilling) to turn on the air conditioning, determined as she was to “obey the advice of her elders.”

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The grandmothers in charge draw on their own experiences from a now bygone age. They had no hairdryers, dependably sterile water, or Amazon Prime. Staying warm was work in itself. Ask a Chinese grandmother what caused her arthritis, and if she doesn’t share a story about carrying a newborn on her back as she helped with the spring harvest, she’s likely to blame herself for not wearing socks during her confinement.

Fortunately, I — as a daughter of a son of Chinese medical doctors who lives in San Francisco — had the benefit of leeway. First, not having to worry about grinding rice powder to make a paste to repair my paper windows left me energy to turn up our heater. And, conveniently, my husband knew nothing about these customs while my parents didn’t even remember most of them.

To us, it made sense to ignore most of the rules and look at the principles behind them. Maybe because the farther away you are from your roots, the easier it is to see that what mattered before depended on circumstance. And because, as it is for all immigrants and their children, adapting the old ways is the family tradition until eventually the new becomes old again.

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Chinese mothers who sit out the month have had the option of hiring a yuè săo, a confinement doula, to move in and cook for and guide them in the first months, since at least as far back as the time of Confucius and his disciples, who documented the practice two thousand years ago in the Book of Rites (礼记). In the month before the baby arrived, it states, a woman got a break — a room of her own and a “well-dressed maid” to tend to her and to her husband’s questions. Until recently, though, such outsourcing was always done at home, under the watchful eye of relations.

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Now in China and throughout Asia, generations that once lived together in one compound are thousands of miles apart. The journey home to see parents or in-laws is a yearly event.

You get situations like a mother telling a reporter, “My family is very busy working so they don’t have enough time to care for me,” as she sits alone in an immaculate Taipei confinement hotel. Parents are having children later, which means grandparents are older than they used to be and aren’t able to travel or do all the heavy lifting required. Half of all new mothers in Taiwan now stay in a postpartum facility.

Confinement hotels are a hybrid of clinic and retreat with amenities like breast-feeding pillows, candlemaking workshops, and full-body decontamination showers/dryers for anyone entering a confinement room. The most popular birth hotels in the major cities from Singapore to Shanghai advertise science-based services. They are staffed by a battery of twenty-four-hour nurses that take the principles of Chinese medicine to counterintuitive places like limiting mothers from holding their babies to avoid rattling their soft bones and joints. Licensed dieticians count calories and nutritional content when creating menus from the array of dishes that balance yin and yang, stimulate breast-related meridians for lactation, and clear away heat. The dishes that have been part of the postpartum tradition for hundreds of years are made with free-range chickens and organic produce. There are still pots of red date and goji tea instead of water and plenty of pigs’ feet. But now, there is dietician-approved cake, too.

During confinement in these “scientific” facilities, mothers are pampered in a fragile Victorian lady of leisure sort of way, spending much of the month alone save for scheduled visits from nurses and the newborns, who get the same treatment enclosed in the nursery, away from germs.

Isolation has its uses. Itprotected mothers and babies from serious infection when birth was for many,the medical texts note, “like awaiting death.” But these days seclusion shieldsthem from their families even while modern science tells us that too much timespent alone weakens the immune system and breeds postpartum depression andanxiety.

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Back in my father’s village, after a baby was born, toward the end of confinement, hordes of family and neighbors arrived to share a meal capped with eggs dyed red and sweet rice wine. They glimpsed the mother and baby, staying long enough to pass along hóngbāo, gifts of cash, to celebrate their shared burden of raising a child, before taking the party to the streets. But even this tradition, like everything else about zuò yuèzi, is being outsourced. You can have vacuum-sealed red eggs mailed to family and friends so that you never have to actually see them but they still know to send cash. A practice meant to soften the challenges of confinement by bringing everyone together at the end is now just a money grab. Having time for actual connection is an outdated notion.

To those outside the culture and, increasingly, even to those within it, the greatest anachronism is the idea of a grown woman on lockdown at home, subject again to her parents dictating what she can’t do or eat because of her weakened state. It all sounds downright anti-feminist. In the West, we talk about getting back to business weeks after birth. We praise women the less they seem to be moms. We try not to talk about being tired or feeling unsteady about motherhood. Unlike the Chinese, here, we like to say we eat certain foods to be healthy and strong, not because our bodies are too weak to digest it.

It’s true, zuò yuèzi probably wasn’t born of empowerment. In its very earliest incarnation, its practices took a form common across all early civilizations that was motivated by fears of blood and menstruation and the mysteries of new life. There are still vestiges of that oppression. In the Shanghai dialect, a woman sits the month in a room called the xuèfáng, the blood room. And the best way to repair the supposed ills of not following the rules during zuò yuèzi is to have another baby. In other words, Confucius’s well-dressed maid answers the door to help out but also to keep any bad luck from getting out.

But beneath those fears has always been the real need to draw clear lines to make time for a woman to heal and to transform into a parent. Just like failing to eat a diet that balances your energies or aggravating the tāi shén, all the bad things that can happen while simultaneously cradling your week-old infant and taking conference calls, are really just another way of saying, allotting time for rest does not make us weak but makes us strong again.

In Chinese, another name for the period of confinement is the gateway. It marks the crossing from one phase of life to another. In the past, and still today among some Chinese families, a woman was not really“in” until the birth of a child. So the gateway also stood at the juncture when a mother-in-law began the rituals of caring for her new daughter and teaching her the family ways. A new mother didn’t always have to just take it. She was allowed and expected to be confused, uncertain, and emotional without bringing shame to anyone involved. Bonds were forged with the help of intense emoting and mutual sleep-deprivation.

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Beyond recovery, beyond transitioning from woman to mother, the underlying motive of confinement has also been to connect generations through shared food, memory, and struggle. It was a time for growing a family.

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When I was six months pregnant, I hadn’t yet made much time to focus on baby-related things, because where should I begin?

It was around then that my dad suggested we brew an inky tonic of ginger and black vinegar to cure pigs’ feet and eggs. It would take a few hours to prepare and another two months to finish. The black vinegar and ginger were heating elements: they would balance out all the yin. In the caustic brine, the cartilaginous feet and eggs would melt into a slurry of digestible calcium, minerals, and protein to be eaten beginning three days after the baby was born.

It took us a while to find the preferred ginger—not too young or old, not long stalks but round knobs. Then it took time to find the right large pot that could withstand months of holding acid. Dad special-ordered pounds of just hind feet, which have more bones and cartilage than the fore, to be halved along the bone, just so. Then there was the sourcing of a black vinegar brewed from sweet, glutinous rice.

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It could be a lot more complicated, Dad said. There is a tradition of vinegar production in China’s northeast, for instance, where parents harvest rice to make wine that they ferment at the bottom of a cold lake from the day their daughter is born until she marries. Then the precious vinegar is used for her confinement meals.

When we had finally assembled all the necessary ingredients and equipment, we sat down late one night at my kitchen table, scraping the skin off a few pounds of knobby ginger with spoons, in between blanching and plucking the bristles off the heap of pigs’ feet.

We had to use the edges of spoons for the ginger, because peelers would bruise it and cause it to release too much of its juice too quickly. Also, Dad said, we could save the scrapings to dry and sprinkle in my first bath, the rhizome’s skins being warming and naturally antibacterial.

In between the work and rinsing our hands to soften the burn of the ginger juice, we talked. He told me about his mother, my Nai Nai, and how she gave birth to her first child, alone on the dirt floor of the mud-brick house where he would grow up. How, when her daughter arrived, she was so utterly alone that she realized she had no way to cut the umbilical cord and so considered biting through it, but instead reached for the sharpest thing she had on hand—a shard of a bowl she rinsed with boiling water. With sheer will, she gave a new person to this world.

My dad left the black concoction on the stove in the big pot with instructions to bring it to a boil every ten days over the next few months until the baby arrived. I did so faithfully. As is often the case with tradition, the potential guilt kept me going even as it filled every room with an acrid cloud. (The vapor purifies the air, I reminded my poor husband.)

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So the soup is where I began processing what was happening and considering life after the baby arrived. That may or may not have been my father’s plan. But it was a side effect of Chinese medicine for our ancestors.

A dish meant to heal does so in many ways. A black slurry of pickled pigs’ feet and eggs can’t serve its purpose if that purpose and its origins aren’t known. What is lost when there are no moments together sipping tea, breaking down ginger and pork until your hands are raw, and remembering how it had all been done before? What happens to all that is said in between?

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There is magic in rules. After all, rules fill the void. They promise a semblance of certainty during a time when there is actually very little. But it’s in the context where the magic lies.

These days, rules tend to exist stripped of their magic. While the Chinese are looking for comfort in “science-based” ones, Americans seem to be seeking the opposite. We look for remedies that can be taken as needed (as is convenient). We like the idea of ancient (Chinese and otherwise) wisdom, but we want the abridged version. We down Moon Juice to “expand [the] body’s capacity to handle mental, physical and emotional stress.” We pay ten times more to have the roots and fungi from the Chinese medical texts sealed up in pretty packaging, because the purpose of wellness is that it must confer a sense of virtue, and virtue must be hard-won—if not through sacrifice, then with money. Across cultures, the approach looks different but the result is the same.

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Confinement tells us that we are healthiest when we are not alone. But when it is reduced to a battery of rules, an emotionless regimen that can be bottled or outsourced, it becomes alienating and impersonal, just another form of wellness. Its bleak message is that inevitable moments in life are inconvenient. It makes us feel like we have to suffer to do the right thing. It makes us believe we are inadequate when we deviate. Wellness at its worst forces each of us to conform to the unrealistic expectations of everyone around us—our mother-in-law, our husband, or the stranger at the grocery store—and never to our own needs. In good times, rules help us (and the people who teach them to us) feel virtuous and in control. But in bad, they saddle us with guilt.

Here is what happened to me:

Thirteen weeks after I yawned and aweek after the black elixir was finally ready, I went into labor. And at itsheight, my pulse racing, cervix fully dilated, I suddenly saw my Nai Nai.

I saw her, the woman I knew only as tiny and weathered, young and strong again. She squatted alone on a dirt floor waiting, like I was, for her firstborn, feeling all the same worry and uncertainty but so much more of it. And I burst into tears at that memory of something I would never experience—never need to experience—and at seeing the faces of my husband and people who cared about me nearby, helping me, and this new emerging being. Many times throughout my many hours of labor, like a vivid movie or an apparition, I saw my grandmother doing this miraculous thing, and in my own way, I was able to do the same.

In our first months back home, we all ate well. There was ginger-braised liver, pork kidney and congee, many chicken soups, and more. In a stupor, my husband made endless grocery runs. My sister braised pork ribs with white radish, ginger, and star anise. My mom gently braised her version of pigs’ feet with carefully peeled peanuts, and brewed teas of red dates and goji, and sweet porridges of black rice and longan. She brought me the sour broth from the pickled eggs and pigs’ feet to sip. It was grainy and thick like the sum of its parts had been compressed into each spoonful. My dad arrived and cooked us pork kidneys, pork rib, and seaweed soup, and took many more trips to Stockton Street. He made the chicken soup with rice wine that he remembered.

I remember what I ate, mostly because I wrote it down. But I don’t need jogging to remember the morning my sister brought ice cream sandwiches. Or the afternoon my mom stood by my bed and held my hand, while I cried and she yelled, “Yes, tell me! Let it all out!” I remember waking up one morning to the sight of my husband cradling our daughter and realizing so much more deeply what it meant when he lost his mother to cancer seventeen years before. I remember the day after eating my mom’s pigs’ feet and peanut soup, how my milk came in suddenly like geysers. And I remember a few weeks after everyone had to leave, that my cousin came to visit and decided I looked too green. She started regular deliveries of pork, lotus, and cuttlefish soup, which she carried across town on the bus in a gigantic pot.

I remember being nourished by my family.

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When you are so fragile and too tired to think beyond the fact that something so precious can be lost, turning to magic feels entirely reasonable. You do whatever you’ve been told. You might give up sushi, soft cheeses, wine, and caffeine. You might stop with the prosciutto. Eat more greens. You might eat the nests of tiny seabirds. Sometimes, feeling better is only a matter of having more protein in your diet. But sometimes, especially when you are about to be a parent, you just need that sense of being cared for again.

I didn’t leave the house much for a couple months, not because I was following tradition, but because I was wrecked. The sun was too bright and the traffic too loud. It took me a couple weeks for my first real shower, not because I was trying to bolster my yang, but because of complications of my recovery. I was still too weak to lift my arms then to wash my hair, so I never washed my hair with ginger. It took me time—more than a few moons—to want to be unconfined. But that was just me.

If you are lucky, you might have this epiphany sooner than I did: That there is no right or wrong way to care for yourself while pregnant, to birth a child, or to become a mother. There is only your way, forged by the memories of your own childhood and shaped by your experiences since. At some point, you find yourself taking in all that advice and all those rules no longer with fear and guilt, but with interest and skepticism, and that is when you realize you have crossed the gateway, intact and improved.

One day, when things felt not back to normal but settled into a new normal, I was finally standing steady and strong on two feet. I held my new baby in my arms and opened the refrigerator to cook something for all of us, and there in the back was a jar of black eggs and pigs’ feet glistening like onyx. With everyone in my family cooking and everything else, I never got around to eating them.

I still have that jar in my refrigerator, and whenever I see it, I feel immensely grateful. It is a jar filled with a family’s strength, a nascent wisdom, and the memories of ages that allowed me to bear the weight of this new life barely started. I could never eat it.

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