It was a question I dreaded my entire childhood. More than, "Is that your real name?" or, "Where are you really from?" (For the record, yes it is, and I was born in Taiwan.) It was a question followed by confusion, curiosity, and more questions than a little kid wanted to answer.
"What do your parents do?"
My parents make tofu.
Cue: "What's tofu? What are soybeans? Is it like cheese? How do you eat it? What does it taste like? Is it a vegetable?"
This was Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the late 70s and 80s. My parents immigrated from Taiwan when I was a baby. My younger brother was born the following year. We got by with help from my uncle, a cancer physicist at the local hospital.
My parents made, sold, and delivered tofu during all of my school years. My father still makes it today, but only to sell a few pieces to customers at the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market. My parents didn't speak English, and when they first got here they opened a small convenience store in a less than desirable part of town. Five robberies in a year-and-a-half resulted in them closing and opening their first food business in the food court of a shopping mall serving Chinese fast food, or as my mother calls it, "Canadian Chinese food."
During those early years my dad was learning to make tofu on trips home to Taiwan. He goes by the name Steven. The story is that a customer at the market had trouble pronouncing his Chinese name so he proclaimed, "I'm going to call you Steven!" In the almost 40 years since, he will occasionally answer to this name. When the food court business shut down years later, he made tofu full-time, every day, and tried to convince people they should eat it.
Nova Scotia is still a largely white province with just 4.2 percent of the population considered to be visible minorities, according to the most recent numbers from Statistics Canada. You can imagine how multicultural it was 30 years ago. The Chinese population was hardly overflowing, and it certainly did not bring an influx of Asian foods into the mainstream but my father, now 76, would not stop making tofu. Why did he think he could turn making tofu into a business?
"Nobody was making it then. In Toronto I knew there were a lot of Asian people buying it. Here, we didn't have a lot of Asian people, so I thought I would try it," my dad says in Mandarin. He knew there weren't a lot of Asian people so you tried to sell tofu? It seemed to be a terrible business model.
My mother, a full-time busy-body, interjects, "He made it because he liked to eat it!"
Throughout the 80s and 90s my memories were of my parents getting up before sunrise to soak soybeans and spend the day making tofu. During those years my mother ran another quick-service food spot (Chinese food, and later a soup and sandwich place in the same food court). In the summer and on weekends, my brother and I would go on deliveries with my dad. We would wait in the car in the back of Chinese restaurants, and eagerly wait when he delivered to the few tiny Asian grocery stores. Sometimes my dad would buy us Pocky if we didn't fight.
"There was a guy who had a health food store, and he told me he wanted to sell tofu. So I thought, this Canadian says people will buy tofu. And he said he was going to open more stores. So I thought tofu is a good business," my father explains.
"BUT THEN HE CLOSE DOWN!" my mother shouts from the next room in their house.
A one-man tofu business doesn't seem profitable. And it never was. Why did he keep making tofu? "No choice," my father says, "I don't speak English, where do I find a job? I make tofu so we can eat."
The tofu was sold by the piece, about the size of a Rubik's cube but not as tall. It was sold for 25 cents a piece, or $3 for a dozen. "If I could sell 15 dozen in one week, then it would pay for our food that week. We didn't spend more than $45 a week on groceries," he says.
"But sometimes I only spent $30, you know," my mother says proudly. "Because we just eat a lot of tofu."
The few Chinese restaurants in the Halifax area didn't buy a lot of tofu, because there weren't a lot of people eating it. At my parents' first Chinese restaurant in the early 80s, they sold egg rolls, chicken balls, fried rice, sweet and sour pork, and chop suey. "Sweet and sour, sweet and sour…everything sweet and sour," my mom says.
"Nobody wanted to try something different, we have to sell what other Chinese restaurants sell," my dad says.
"We tried to sell tofu, but nobody would eat it," my mom shrugs, "So every day: garbage, garbage, garbage."
Today my parents still sell egg rolls at their stall, but Chinese food in Halifax has evolved to include baos, dumplings, sticky rice, noodles that are more than chow mein. There are other restaurants specializing in Szechuan, making barbecue pork, and serving dim sum.
"Chinese food has changed," my mom says. "Thirty years ago, a lot of people didn't know what was real Chinese food. Now, people travel. A lot of big-city people like to come to Halifax to live, they know Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, and they can have a lot of different food there, so they come and they ask me for it. And we get a lot of university students [from Asia]. But all the young people travel and they go to Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, to teach English. Then they come back and they find me."
"One young guy, he asked me if I can make stinky tofu!" my dad laughs, thrilled that people know such a dish exists (stinky tofu is fermented and smells like rotting garbage), "I tell him I can't sell that here!"
Excitedly my dad adds, "People go to visit Taiwan and come back and they say they like the food there. People know now, they know Chinese food."