Tears streamed down my face as the bus carrying our family and a dozen other Americans, all adopting parents, pulled out of Nanchang, the capital of southern China's Jiangxi Province, on a cold and rainy morning in January 1995.

The 6-month-old baby girl I held in my arms had rosy red cheeks and inquisitive eyes. She had been abandoned when she was days old, left outside an orphanage in Yingtan City, about 100 miles to the southeast. Pinned to her clothing was a note written in crude Mandarin on red paper, a sign of good luck in China. "This girl was born on July 11, 1994," the note said.

The tears flowed from joy, but they were also tinged with sorrow. I knew all too well that our daughter, while gaining a better life in Philadelphia, would also be losing something precious. We were plucking her from her Chinese roots and whisking her off to an alien culture.

We knew we had a challenging task ahead - figuring out how to raise our daughter to be an American citizen while also honoring her Chinese heritage.

For us, it wasn't enough to take Qian to Chinatown once a year to have a festive meal on the anniversary of her adoption. Rather, we wanted to integrate Chinese culture into our daily lives.

Although we gave our daughter an American name, Mia, we kept Qian as a middle name and decided to follow Chinese nickname tradition and call her Qian Qian.

I framed a large map of the Luxi River scenic area, our daughter's birthplace, and hung it in our dining room. I began playing Chinese CDs instead of our usual music.

With the help of a Chinese neighbor, I began studying Mandarin. And when she got older, we enrolled Qian in the Saturday Mandarin classes offered by a local Chinese school.

Alas, the effort at instant Chinese culture didn't take. Even in a neighborhood as diverse as Mount Airy, it's hard to maintain a child's Chinese heritage when you don't live around Chinese people or speak Mandarin every day.

As our daughter matured, the need to fit in grew ever stronger. She'd rather be outside playing with her neighborhood friends than sitting in a stuffy classroom practicing Chinese characters on Saturday mornings. When she hit middle school, she asked her friends to call her Mia rather than Qian.

Almost inexorably, we were drawn into the maw of white, middle-class American culture in a city built largely on the labor of its Irish and Italian - not Chinese - immigrants.

Indeed, some of the first foods that Qian came to love were the pastina cooked by her Italian immigrant babysitter, who lived across the street, and the kielbasa served up by the Irish and Polish couple living two doors down, who treated her as their own grandchild.

But over the years, one piece of Qian's Chinese culture has endured in our house: the Chinese dumpling.

Widely known as dim sum fare, the dumpling dates to the beginning of the Song dynasty (960-1279), when stalls were set up along the highways to serve travelers tea and snacks. In North China, the most famous dumplings are known as pot stickers. They are steamed and then panfried. That's been our family favorite.

We took our recipe from Hugh Carpenter's Pacific Flavors: Oriental Recipes for a Contemporary Kitchen, a book that drew us as much with its gorgeous photographs by Carpenter's wife, Teri Sandison, as with its recipes. The Santa Barbara pot stickers - so named because of the Chinese cooking school Carpenter ran in Santa Barbara, Calif. - are a luscious blend of steamed spinach, green onions, minced ginger, and orange rind, as well as the sauces that give them flavor. Instead of the recommended ground pork, we substitute ground chicken. We recognize that the recipe is undoubtedly not authentic Chinese, but it appeals to our taste.

When Qian was a baby, we served these pot stickers to friends who came for dinner. When she was in elementary school, she helped us make them, participating in filling the paper-thin wontons with the mixture of chicken, spinach, and onion, and then carefully folding them for frying. When she entered Philadelphia's Central High School, Qian made the pot stickers herself, with a little help from her "Mom Es," and took them to share with the students in her Mandarin class.

For all our faltering efforts to raise Qian in a Chinese subculture, she has now found her own way back to her roots. Thanks to Central's Heng Li, her Mandarin teacher, Qian opted to spend her junior year studying in a Mandarin immersion program run by School Year Abroad, an American nonprofit, at Beijing's High School No. 2.

She is now thriving there and, when we visited her over the recent holiday break, the first thing she wanted to show us in Beijing was her favorite noodle shop. There, servers presented a steaming bowl of chicken broth and then plunged into it rice noodles, a raw egg, and fresh vegetables.

But what did Qian want us to bring her from back home in Philadelphia? Chocolate chip cookies, brownies, Twizzlers, and the all-time favorite, M&Ms with peanuts. We packed our bags full of such junk food and still managed to pass the airline industry's new and more stringent weight limits.

Come June 1, when Qian returns to Philadelphia, the first thing on the agenda is a homecoming party. The menu? Grilled burgers - and pot stickers.

Santa Barbara Pot Stickers

Makes 24 pot stickers, or 6-8 servings

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For the filling:

1 12-ounce bunch spinach, stemmed

2 green onions

2/3 pound ground pork (or chicken)

2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon grated or finely minced orange peel

1 egg

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon Chinese chili sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

24 wonton skins

Cornstarch for dusting

2 tablespoons peanut oil

For the sauce:

½ cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons dry sherry

2 teaspoons hoisin sauce

½ teaspoon Chinese chili sauce

¼ teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons grated or finely minced orange peel

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1. Prepare filling: Drop spinach leaves into 1 quart rapidly boiling water. When leaves wilt, in about 10 seconds, drain and rinse under cold water. Squeeze out water, then mince spinach by hand. Mince green onions. Combine spinach, green onions, pork (or chicken), ginger, orange peel, egg, soy sauce, chili sauce, and salt. Mix thoroughly.

2. Within 5 hours of preparing filling, trim wontons into circles. Put 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of each wonton skin. Bring edges of skin up around filling. Place dumpling in the soft hollow of one hand between your thumb and index finger. Squeeze the middle gently with that same index finger while also pressing the top and bottom of the dumpling with your other index finger and thumb. Place dumplings on a layer of waxed paper lightly dusted with cornstarch.

3. Make sauce. In a small bowl, combine ingredients and stir well. Set aside.

4. Place a 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat. Add oil and immediately add dumplings. Fry dumplings until bottoms become dark golden, about 2 minutes. Pour in orange sauce. Immediately cover pan, reduce heat to medium, and steam dumplings until they are firm to the touch, about two minutes.

5. Remove cover. Over high heat, continue frying dumplings until the sauce reduces completely, about 1 minute. While cooking, shake the pan so that the dumplings are glazed all over with the sauce. Tip out onto a heated serving platter. Serve at once.

- Recipe from Pacific Flavors: Oriental Recipes for a Contemporary Kitchen, by Hugh Carpenter (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

 

Per serving (based on 8): 242 calories, 17 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 6 grams fat, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 586 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Huntly Collins, a former Inquirer reporter, is an assistant professor of communication at La Salle University.