Perhaps because it transcends language and even thought, there is something about food that both reinforces and crosses culture. Food has been a cultural and emotional touchstone for Nina Mingya Powles since her earliest days. As a five year-old in New Zealand, she rejected weekend Chinese language school. Although her mother spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hakka, Powles felt like an outcast because her father wasn’t Chinese and none of the other students in her Chinese school were mixed.
I starved myself of language, but I couldn’t starve myself of other things. Wonton noodle soup, Cantonese roast duck, my mother’s crispy egg noodles and her special congee. All the thick, sweet smells of yum cha restaurants my parents took me to, ordering all the same dishes every time, ever since I was born.
By the time she was twelve, her family had moved from New Zealand to Shanghai for several years. There Powles became even more connected to her mother’s Malaysian Chinese roots through food. Powles wrote a charming food memoir, Tiny Moons: A year of Eating in Shanghai, set mostly in Shanghai when she returned as an adult for language study.
Since Powles returned to Shanghai as an adult on her own, she wrote about eating alone and how that relates to finding a sense of home. Many women travelers don’t like to eat alone, for a number of reasons, and Powles addresses this, but also the complex relationship women have with food.
It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled. Where a long history of female hunger is associated with shame and madness. The body must be punished for every misstep; for every “indulgence” the balance of control must be restored. To enjoy food as a young woman, to opt out every day from the guilt expected of me, is a radical act, of love.
Powles becomes familiar with a wide assortment of Chinese cuisines and street food during this year of language study. Although she often frequents local eateries for Shanghai’s famous xiaolongbao soup dumplings and jianbing breakfast wrap, she also feels drawn to the Cantonese cha chaan tengs (teahouse) from childhood trips to visit family in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kota Kinabalu.
There is one in Shanghai, hidden on a quiet street that splits off from chaotic Huaihai Zhong Lu. The neon sign hanging in the window, 茶餐厅, spills pink and green light onto the wet pavement. There is always a queue, and you will always have to share a small table with people you don’t know. The walls are a pale greenish-brown, with retro screens of yellow and blue glass tiles separating smokers from the non-smokers.
Since Powles began her year in Shanghai in the winter, right after the Lunar New Year, her book starts in the winter and concludes the following winter, when it’s summer in New Zealand. Most of the sections of her book are arranged by one of the four seasons, apart from her backstory at the start of the book.
By the time Powles is about to return to New Zealand from her year in Shanghai, she feels so much more at ease with language, namely Mandarin.