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Rice paddy terraces

The Ugly Dumpling

I laughed, near-hysterical, as Melissa frantically rolled the dough with the wooden pin.

I cradled my stomach to hold in my chuckles, cheeks aching. Ama simply smiled, eyes crinkling and expression merry, wrists resting on her knees as she crouched. Her hands – flecked with pieces of lettuce and yak meat – hung in the open air, empty of task and purpose.

My job – to form the ripped pieces of dough into uniformly round ovals, perfect for quick and efficient rolling – was long completed. The first time we’d made dumplings, I’d simply rolled the pieces that Ama had ripped. Now, I felt as if I deserved at least a small measure of self-congratulation; I’d ripped the pieces myself before squishing them between my palms, rolling and forming into circles to roll flat with the wooden pin.

Liss, meanwhile, had the far more difficult job. Her task was to roll the circular dough chunks into thin wrappers.

She was doing very well, actually. Each wrapper was uniformly thin, approximately circular, and very quickly done (though the circularity and time required to roll each wrapper was in an inversely proportional relationship). The only caveat to the whole thing was that she had to keep up with Ama.

And Ama – the expert – had the hardest task of all: Stuffing, crimping, and closing each dumpling into a perfect self-contained pocket. Her skill and practice was what kept her ahead; and Melissa, new to dumpling-making, frantically rolled each wrapper at top speed, trying to exceed Ama’s rate of production. In the competition of difficulty and skill, experience and youth, it was clear that experience was winning. Ama folded each dumpling quick as a wink, movements leisurely and a smile on her face as she held out her hand for more wrappers.

I stood and watched, laughing, chattering and singing with Liss to fill the empty space as she rolled with the pin. My job was completed, my efforts spent, so I stood, smiled, talked and sang.

The first time around, I’d made a mistake; I’d tried to fill my idle hands, gingerly cradling a wrapper and stuffing it with yak. It had gone poorly.

My crimping had been the true catastrophe. I had laughed to shield my embarrassment, proudly holding my uncooked misfit dumpling in one palm, while Liss giggled and Ama laughed too, Ama giving me a positive thumbs up as I carefully placed it on the perforated metal tray. It had managed – barely – to keep closed during the steaming process, hidden among the other dumplings like a black sheep among the herd. Wait- not a black sheep, no. An identically colored sheep with unfortunately misshapen wool was a more apt description.

The second time around, I was more willing to avoid ostentatious mistakes and keep to what I was good at. Namely, singing songs and talking at Ama to boost morale.

And this time around, we hadn’t needed to ask to help. Ama had gestured us over, pointing at the wooden cutting board, the steaming basket, and the dough in obvious pantomime. Melissa and I – pleasantly surprised – stood, put down our books, and rolled up our sleeves to help.

Our situation – helping Ama make dumplings on the Tibetan Plateau – seemed vastly more personal than it felt technical. Our skills were limited, but our will to succeed and desire to help overcame our inexperience, shining through in our song, our talk, and our hands washed in freezing cold water.

When we ate, that first and uncertain time, Ama’s first move was to reach into the basket with smiling deliberacy. When she pulled out that misshapen, ugly dumpling, I grimaced and shook my head, pleading with her halfheartedly in English to ignore it and eat a prettier, better dumpling. The ingredients were the same, I knew, but its appearance was… bad.

She ignored me and bit into it without hesitation, chewing thoughtfully from her seat next to the stove. I held my breath.

“Shum ge,” she said, smiling as she chewed. In her hand, my single dumpling was held; a single bite taken out of it, desired. Wanted.

Delicious, she’d said.

“Gwa deng chie,” I said, grinning. Thank you.

In the end, an ugly dumpling doesn’t need to grow up into a beautiful dumpling to be wanted. Sometimes, and ugly dumpling is just a dumpling, flaws and all, made all the more wonderful by its ugliness and imperfections. My inexperienced hands made something special; and Ama made the choice to seek that ugly dumpling out, to eat it first and smile and tell me “shum ge.”

All I could say, in the end, was thank you.