The Smuggled Dumplings Caper

How a Bryn Mawr student gets food from her home in China

Caught by Customs

By Yuqi Zha

On her long flight from China to the United States, Alice Tang, a rising senior at Bryn Mawr College, had a nightmare.

In her dream, she was walking past the Customs Check at the JFK International Airport, New York, with a heavy 28-inch piece of luggage.

Her face was covered with a pair of dark purple sunglasses and a cotton mask. Her strange appearance drew the attention of the officer at the U.S. Customs.

Tang got nervous and walked faster. Despite praying thousands of times in her heart, what she tried to avoid finally happened—a customs officer approached her and asked her to stop.

“Excuse me Miss, passport please,” said the officer.

Tang handed her passport over.  The sweat in her hand made it wet.

“What’s in your luggage?” The officer looked at her bag with suspicion.

“Just…clothes, cosmetics and books,” Tang almost shouted, trying to cover her fear, “nothing special!”

“I would like to inspect your luggage. Follow me please,” said the officer.

As the officer was going to take the luggage from her hand, Tang took her luggage and ran with all her strength towards the exit. But, she could not escape.

Ten seconds later, she was dragged into the most horrible place in the U.S. for international students and immigrants, the so-called “dark room”—the reception room of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The travelers on the same flight with Tang looked at her sympathetically while she was screaming, “No! You can’t take the spirit of home away from me!”

This was how Tang described her nightmare to her friend, Amber Lin, as the two stepped off the plane.

It was the seventh time Tang had flown from China to the U.S., returning from her home to the college after vacations. Like in her dream, her luggage was loaded with food from home.

“You still have a chance to throw them away after you get your luggage but before you enter the Customs Check. I can help you with that,” said Lin,  also a rising senior at Bryn Mawr College and the best friend of Tang, who always traveled with Tang.

“No way!” refused Tang without a doubt, “That dream was stupid! Who will wear a pair of sunglasses and a mask? You should be as normal as possible.”

“Okay…God bless you,” sighed Lin.

“I have succeeded six times. I won’t fail,” said Tang firmly, like a warrior who is going to the battlefield.

Her experiences of the past three years had made her a professional “smuggler” of the spirit of home—the homemade dumplings and rice dumplings made by her grandparents, in a well-packaged heat-preserving bag with ice packs. She was ready to face the same challenge and risk everything for her love again.

       * * *

The kitchen at Tang’s home in Nanjing, China, was crowded with raw food materials: shiitake mushrooms, black agarics, reed leaves all soaked in water, sticky rice soaked in soy sauce, salt and sugar, two giant pieces of pork shoulder and streaky pork on two separate cutting boards. It was the busiest day for the grandparents of Tang—two days before Tang’s flight to the U.S.

It was 8 a.m. A burst of rapid and crisp sounds coming out of the kitchen marked the beginning of their complicated work. Chengjian Hu, the grandpa of Tang, was chopping the pork shoulder for the meat filling of the dumplings. He first cut the meat into thin slices, then into strips, then into very small cubes. Finally, he picked up two knives with both of his hands, hitting the cutting board swiftly and accurately, as if he was a professional drummer hitting the drum with two drumsticks. This awe-inspiring drum solo lasted for half an hour and produced a big bowl of perfectly cut meat mash.

It is not very common for Chinese people to make the meat mash by hand anymore, because they can easily get machine-cut meat mash at any supermarket or food market.

“Our little Tang is a picky gourmet,” said Lihua Chao, Tang’s grandma, with a warm smile. “She can tell the difference between machine-cut meat mash and handmade meat mash. She said the handmade meat mash tastes much better. So we insist on making the meat mash by hand.”

Tang, who was packing her luggage in her bedroom, replied with a playful grin, “The handmade meat mash has the magic taste of love.”

Tang’s parents were too busy to take care of Tang. Therefore, after the birth of Tang, her grandparents moved to live with them. It is her grandparents who prepared healthy breakfast, sent Tang to school in the morning, picked up her from school and cooked a delicious dinner in the afternoon every day in Tang’s childhood.

“I can’t live without the food my grandparents cook,” said Tang.

* * *

While Hu was preparing the meat mash, Chao was cutting the streaky pork into thick strips for the rice dumplings. She soaked the strips in soy sauce, salt, sugar ,and spices.

“To make the perfect rice dumplings that I like the best, the correct piece of streaky pork with exactly 40% fat is the key,” said Tang while peeping at her grandparents’ work, “Could you imagine the meat, saturated with soy sauce and spices, melting on your tongue?”

As Chao started to fry the pork strips after an hour, the alluring smell of meat and spices quickly filled the whole house.

Tang popped her head into the kitchen and asked, “Grandma, may I have a piece of pork strip? They smell so good!”

“Your small greedy cat”, Chao patted on Tang’s forehead, “Go play your computer games. Don’t mess around in the kitchen.”

Tang had a hard time tearing away and she kept looking to the direction of the kitchen while playing on her computer.

“Oh my God, I am going to be drowned in my saliva,” complained Tang helplessly.

  * * *

At the end of the day, around 5 p.m., the heat-preserving bag was filled with 20 rice dumplings and 30 dumplings. The rice dumplings were made with soy sauce soaked sticky rice and fried streaky pork, packed in reed leaves and wrapped up with cotton thread. The dumplings were made with the mesh of pork shoulder meat mixed with minced shiitake mushrooms, black agarics and salted egg yolks, packed in hand-rolled dumpling skins.

“This…whu…is…Hea…whu…ven!” panted Tang, as she gobbled a hot dumpling just out of the pot.

“Impatient gets hot bean curd,” said Chao accusingly, as she filled a bowl with hot dumplings and put it under the air conditioner to cool them faster.

It is a Chinese saying that means haste makes waste.

Half of Tang’s luggage was filled with the heat-preserving bag along with other snacks.

Tang put the luggage, which was so full that it might burst open any time, on the weight scale and was desperate to find that it was 28 kg, — 8 kg more than the limited weight of international flights.

“Oh no, why does it happen again?” squeaked a panicked Tang.

Of course, it happened every time.

After struggling for an hour, Tang managed to lower the weight to 22 kg.

“I am sure it will be ok,” said Tang, exhausted.

She gave up a couple dresses, cosmetics, and books, but the half with food remained completely untouched.

    * * *

“Passengers on flight Cathay Pacific CX888 from Hong Kong to New York, you can claim your bags on carousel 1 in Terminal 8,” said the baggage claim announcement.

As Tang ran towards carousel 1, she shouted in Chinese, “My dear rice dumplings! My dear dumplings!”

Lin panted, “I hope our bags have arrived successfully.”

Their travel this time didn’t go smoothly because of the bad weather. Their flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong was delayed and they missed their next flight. Therefore, they had to stay in Hong Kong for a night and caught the same flight the next day. It is easy for bags to get lost or delayed in this kind of situation.

“I can’t bear to lose them,” Tang groaned, as she watched bags coming out on the carousel anxiously.

“Were the rice dumplings and dumplings the only things you care about in your giant luggage?” said Lin, rolling her eyes.

“If I lose my clothes, cosmetics, stationaries or books, I will feel sad,” said Tang, thinking about the question seriously, “but if I lose the spirit of home, I will die!”

“So yes! They are the only things I care about,” said Tang, confirming herself.

Lin walked to the other side of the carousel to check the bags there, knowing that it was not possible to persuade Tang to throw the dumplings and rice dumplings away before they entered the Customs Check.

“All right, the seventh time,” muttered Lin to herself.

* * *

Tang was walking past the Customs Check at the JFK International Airport, New York, with a heavy 28-inch piece of luggage.

Tang merged into the flow of international students, returning from home all over the world to their campuses in the U.S. They had different colors, different cultures, and different languages, but they all brought with them the expectation and love of their family in some forms.

One officer at the Customs Check looked at Tang. She looked back with a polite smile.

No one paid special attention to her.

Twenty meters, ten meters, five meters. She walked not too fast, not too slow, keeping the pace with other students around her.

Tang walked out of the exit of the baggage claim hall. She made it!

“See? Easy enough!”said Tang proudly while waiting for the pickup service, “I never fail because I am doing something sacredly. It’s the spirit of home!”

Lin looked at her overly excited friend, sighed and smiled.

There will be an eighth time.