THE SWEET GIFT
Sirens. Trains. Clockwork.
The heater sizzled.
Mei was present but her mind had momentarily drifted away into her own thoughts again. Just before, a man at the subway had shouted ‘konichiwa’ at her. She wasn’t even Japanese. That had happened back home too; nothing was new. It wasn’t until she felt a pain in her throat that she realised she wasn’t at home anymore. A fresh brew of honey, lemon and hot water was the secret to curing the pain, or so that’s what her mum had taught her. Earlier that afternoon, she had searched the cupboards, drawers and kitchen benchtop of her rental apartment, but there was no sign of honey anywhere. She’d have to visit the local deli.
As Mei placed the honey on the deli counter, the man behind it - who was covered in Christmas tinsel - smiled. His name badge read, ‘Jabez’.
“You’re not from here, are you? When I first moved to New York, it took me an hour to grocery shop. I eventually got it down to five minutes after a few months.”
Mei let out a nervous laugh. “Here we go again,” she thought to herself.
Jabez gestured towards the jar, “You took ten minutes to decide on that one.”
“Oh, yeah, I don’t know any of these brands.”
“You’re Australian, aren’t you? How are you finding it here?”
Mei was confused. It didn’t take much for most people to think she wasn’t from Australia given that she didn’t look like a ‘typical’ Aussie.
“Y-yeah, I guess I am. Most people don’t think that though. I love it here, the city is always bustling and I’ve met some really interesting characters.”
“Mei? Mei is that you?” Mei turned around and an eccentric, pink-haired Asian-American girl jumped on her. Her embrace was very warm, her energy extremely contagious.
“Papa has made lemon and honey glazed lamb! Let’s go! Let’s go now!”
Tia placed her hands on Mei’s shoulders and danced her out of the store. Jabez looked down at the counter top and chuckled at the jar of honey. He grabbed a marker and wrote “Australian” on the lid and placed it back on the shelf.
Mei had met Tia at an art gallery during her first week in New York. She was a Korean adoptee, raised by an Italian family and was pursuing a career in the film and entertainment industry.
“We can compete with things beyond intelligence here; with beauty; athletics or the arts. We just have to believe it. We have to embrace having a different background Mei, and use that to our creative advantage.” The pair arrived at Tia’s house and were greeted by warm ‘cheek and kiss’ greetings. It was funny that despite growing up in a western country, there were still moments where Mei had trouble getting the timing right. Each time she would go in for the greeting, she was consistently unable to sync the movement, whether it was the bumping cheeks, forgetting that there’s cheek-kissing involved, or if it wasn’t the timing, accidentally making the smooching sound a bit too loud. Mei would have to get better at it if she was going to be spending Christmas with Tia’s family.
“It’s so great to have you ladies home for dinner,” said Tia’s Papa warmly, as he gestured Mei towards the freshly baked bread. “Of course, in my home, nothing says ‘I love you’ with more sincerity than simply showing up for family dinner.”
“Well, Mei, we’ll have you know that you can treat this as your home. Home isn’t about the location, it’s about the feeling you get when you’re present. I love America because of the amazing people that I’ve had the privilege of sharing so much with. That is what makes it home.” He smiled warmly at Tia and his wife.
As Tia’s Mama passed Mei the honey to drizzle onto her perfectly cooked lamb, she asked, “So how does your family usually celebrate the festive season, Mei?”
“Christmas festivities generally depend on the family and their beliefs. Many Asian families, depending on their nationality, tend to celebrate Lunar New Year based on the Chinese calendar. As a family in between the two, we celebrate Christmas because we believe we were given the greatest gift of all time, one that is beyond presents and red packets. It’s our faith in this gift that brings the family together for a feast, where we celebrate the time of giving.”
Tia’s eyes opened wide, “Mei, you have access to both cultures, and as someone in between, you get to celebrate Chinese New Year and Christmas! Chinese culture is so thick! Five-thousand years of culture flows in your blood!”
“I guess I don’t understand both cultures completely, but you’re right, I get to be a professional amateur in both,” said Mei, as she licked the honey from her fingertips.
Later in the evening, as Mei left the beautifully lit stoop of Tia’s home, she suddenly remembered where she was before she found herself devouring the perfectly sweet and sticky lamb.
Mei placed the honey on the counter top.
“Nice one Aussie, you took less than ten seconds this time. A new world record.”
“Thanks Jabez, what a sweet gesture.”
“Well Aussie, let’s just say that I’ve learnt a thing or two.”
“It’s Mei. M-e-i. I’m Australian, but my heritage is also Chinese.”
Jabez scribbled on the jar and handed it to her. “We are all unique beings with different life experiences, cultural backgrounds, beliefs and ways of navigating the world – and that is what makes life interesting! If we could all learn to love ourselves, and celebrate the diversity in our communities instead of fearing it, we just might achieve a need that we all share – the need to belong. The honey’s on the house, Merry Christmas Mei!”
Mei was present, and this time she smiled at the jar of honey. “Chinese-Australian.” It was almost cliché to think that travel had helped her “find herself”, but during the moments of encountering different people and perspectives, Mei realised that being in between was a gift – that being an Asian Between Cultures opened up so many great discussions and conversations that allowed her to connect with people from all different backgrounds and walks of life. Being an Asian Between Cultures was one of her hidden weapons… and she loved it.