Dear Christina

In America, where I grew up, November conjures up Thanksgiving and the exciting start to the holiday season. It’s a longtime favourite celebrations of mine because it has always felt accessible. EVERYONE can celebrate Thanksgiving in its purest sense because it is universally understood as a time to pause and be thankful.

To me the beauty of Thanksgiving rests in the way every immigrant family can make it their own, weaving what they brought with them from the old country into the fabric of their new country.

When we were little, we would go to my Jewish grandparents’ (another story!) house to celebrate. They used Thanksgiving as a way to welcome all their friends and family. This was where I was introduced to Turkey and all of its trimmings, the American version with the obligatory sweet potatoes, maple syrup and mini marshmallows. And then there were all the pies; apple, pumpkin, cherry, blueberry, chocolate mint cream. The table was long and the pies were lined up from end to end, seemingly extending into eternity.

But besides the turkey, there was always a homemade tray of spanakopita brought by the Andreadis family, my mother’s delicious pork dumplings, and bagels and lox from the local deli. This photo is from a Thanksgiving of that era.

Thanksgiving is where you invited people who weren’t able to go home to their families. With four children in boarding schools and universities, my parents always had extra table settings for our friends. It was easy because we dined around a large round table; like the ones they have in Chinese restaurants, Lazy Susan in the centre included. Instead of having to pass big heavy serving dishes of food around, all you had to was give the Lazy Susan a little push and watch the dish you wanted would glide around in front of you. I always thought that was kind of genius.

One year, I brought my boyfriend home from university. He offered to carve the turkey, a chore and responsibility my parents were only too happy to pass on. Things got interesting when my father handed him his electric carving knife. My boyfriend politely asked if he we had a carvery set. My mother then promptly handed him her favourite Chinese cleaver. At this point, my boyfriend who had been trained by his grandfather on how to carve meat from an early age, starting with meatloaf, realised that a carvery set was not going to make an appearance. And he made do that year with the electric knife and my younger brother at his side, taking the piss and feigning great interest in acquiring meat carving skills.

I concluded then that if I wanted my children to be able to carve a roast, I would have to marry this man. I did. The boys are now beautifully skilled with their great grandfather’s carvery set and have successfully converted their English friends to the concept of Thanksgiving. My brother continues to take the piss out of my husband. Thankful for families and Thanksgiving.

Lots of love. Xtine

The above post is part of Double Blossom xx, an Instagram project I started with photographer Christina Wilson Elms during lockdown. Each week we post a photo of ourselves and write a letter to the other on an agreed theme. If you are interested in reading our stories, you can find us on Instagram at Double Blossom xx  — Two London sistas share stories about being Chinese in the UK and the US. Same age, same name; almost. 

Dear Christina

My obsession with full moons started early. I associate them with sitting in the back of our wood paneled station wagon coming home at night after a family outing, which was most likely to have been the closest Chinese restaurant we had, 40 minutes away in the next state.

My little brother and sister doze off to the lull of the moving car and my other brother and father murmur in the background about shared common interests like numbers and go game strategies. My mother is lost in thought and so am I. Staring up into the bright light of the full moon, I imagine. I am sure that somewhere around the world I have a doppelgänger. Someone that looks just like me; wearing the same clothes, doing the same things and thinking the same thoughts. She is out there somewhere and I am convinced that if I can somehow get myself to the moon, I can meet her because she is there, floating hand in hand with Neil Armstrong.

October is the month when the Chinese celebrate the full moon with the Mid-Autumn Festival; my personal favourite way of marking the passing seasons. My ancestors keep me company as a google search says that moon worship began over 3,000 years. Eating sweet mooncakes in the warm glow of lit lanterns reminds me of when my mother first introduced me to the round sweet pastries filled with lotus paste and salted egg yolk in the centre. She broke it apart gently, letting the sticky paste and pastry crumbs flake to the sides while keeping the egg yolk intact to show me the full moon. Slightly too large for an individual portion, the mooncakes are often cut into quarters before being passed around. While it hurts my sensibilities to see the wholesome fullness of the moon cut apart, I am comforted by the fact that it means we can share the moon’s goodness.

This photo was taken in Taiwan when I was ten and we lived there for six months. It’s autumn and I am wearing my beloved poncho and round rimmed, John Lennon inspired glasses. I am followed by my brother, Timothy, and a family friend. We are leaving a restaurant and walking through a Moon Gate, a classic Chinese architectural representation of the moon. The photo below shows us on the same day outside a walled city. I love the orange banners with the black calligraphy because it reminds me of Halloween, another celebration we observed in October but in our Western world.

As I look at these two photos, I can’t help but wonder what my doppelgänger would have made of the poncho and glasses. Maybe that’s why she never met me on the moon?

“May the bright Mid-Autumn moon illuminate your every journey and accompany you with sweet happiness.” Chinese proverb.

Lots of love. Xtine

The above post is part of Double Blossom xx, an Instagram project I started with photographer Christina Wilson Elms during lockdown. Each week we post a photo of ourselves and write a letter to the other on an agreed theme. If you are interested in reading our stories, you can find us on Instagram at Double Blossom xx  — Two London sistas share stories about being Chinese in the UK and the US. Same age, same name; almost. 

At the beginning of this month, I went to Venice and reconnected with the things in life I had forgotten could bring such joy. Things that in the spirit of pandemic sacrifice I had convinced myself I could do without or had to do without.

When the opportunity came at the spur of the moment, I surprised myself and said, “yes”. It was the end of June. London was just beginning to come out of lockdown. The clarity that had brought us comfort with knowing exactly how to behave during lockdown was ebbing away as politicians pushed us to get back to normal. The first 14 day travel quarantine hovered and confusion induced anxiety was thick in the air. As I write this now, the second 14 day travel quarantine has been instated to those coming from Spain. Confusion induced anxiety is still thick in the air.

The occasion for the opportunity? A birthday celebration for a friend of a friend. BB (Birthday Boy) had rented out the entire piano nobile of a palazzo near St. Mark’s Square for a month and flown in from LA in the middle of June to take residence. His husband and their friends were due to fly out and meet him a few weeks later. But then as we all know, things got tricky in the US as California and the southern states started to explode with the virus. Travel restrictions were raised and those traveling with American passports were no longer welcome in Europe. Saddened but making the best of things, the lovely and generous BB invited a mutual friend of ours in the UK to come and join him. The mutual friend mentioned he was going to Venice and wondered if we might want to come as well.  And so yes basically, my husband and I gatecrashed the party; bringing two more friends with us. We the uninvited had never met BB before; that’s how kind he is. One actor, one art historian and four architects. Can you think of a better bunch to spend four days in Venice with?

I have never thought of myself as an early adopter but that’s what I felt like when we decided to go. The temptation to see Venice empty of tourists was too great. Who knew if we would ever get this chance again?  Overcoming my anxieties about traveling — never mind to  Italy, the first country to shut down in Europe when Milan, only 270 kilometres away, became the epicentre of the virus only three months ago — we booked our flights. And up until the day before we left, I was still prevaricating.

Venice whose fragile beauty makes your heart weep because its soul emanates from the very source to where it may disappear forever. Where centuries of memories rise out of the water, enshrouding you in the thick suspended particles of mist and fog. And where you hold your breath longer than you should just to suspend your wonder because letting go could mean crashing precipitously into reality.

It was this Venice that I boarded an airplane in the middle of a global pandemic to see. I also saw more. I saw a city whose residents were shaking off the darkness of their own lockdown, embracing their beloved city for a brief moment without having to share it with 25 million tourists. “The most beautiful spring in years,” I kept hearing. “We are so lucky.”

With lightness in our hearts, we allowed the city and its people to guide us, masks and all, out of our own trepidations. We ate well. We drank better. We shopped, sketched, painted, walked and marveled. And most importantly, we enjoyed the company of each other and that of the Venetians, laughing more deeply and heartily than I have in a long time. It felt so damn good to be out there in real life.

Going to Venice was the hurdle I needed to overcome to find life after lockdown, where joy still exists amidst the chaos. And to think, I almost didn’t go.

A few favourite restaurants, galleries and shops.

Chiarastella Cattana — beautifully designed artisanal textiles for the home. Do say “hi” to Chiara for me!

Caigo Da Mar — unique jewellery by Susanna Haapala-Cargnel.

Ottica Manuela — somehow we all managed to buy a pair of sunglasses here.

Giorgio Mastinou — the teeniest tiniest art gallery packed with a 70’s punch.

Vino Vero —  wine bar along the canal in the ghetto section with natural wines and delicious aperitivos.

Trattoria al Gatto Nero — a canal side restaurant on the island of Burano whose owner has a kick-ass Glaswegian accent.

Corte Sconta — book for the outdoor terrace.

Antiche Carampane — simply delicious.


The view of Salizada San Samuele from Chiarastella Cattana. My friend Sarah and I perused the goods while my husband waited patiently and sketched.

One art historian and four architects in the courtyard of Ottica Manuela where the magnificent Laura had managed to sell us each a pair of glasses. BB, the actor, was resting at the palazzo. We had tired him out!