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Life as a Mandarin immersion parent: Glutinous rice balls at 7 AM

January 29, 2022

Back in 2010, I began this blog when my daughters were in grade school. As we’re just about to Chinese New Year, here’s a reprint of the first post I ever wrote. Happy Year of the Tiger to all the Mandarin immersion parents out there.

February 26, 2010

It’s a standing joke in the comics – the kid tells the parent at 7:30 am, “Oh, I’m supposed to bring two dozen cookies to school this morning.”

But if you’re a parent in Starr King’s Mandarin immersion program, the statement could just as well be “Chen Laoshi said I’m supposed to bring tang yuan to school today.

Great, the parent asks. What’s a tang yuan?

The answer, I was informed, is that it’s a dessert made from rice that’s served in a sweet soup.

Okay. How do you make it? No worries, my 3rd grader tells me, Chen Laoshi (teacher Chen) sent the stuff home in my pack.

Ah ha, I think. It’s a nice mix, like the ones you see in the Asian section at Safeway. How hard can this be?

Then I looked in her pack. And this is what I found.


Okay. This is nothing a lifetime of relying on The Joy of Cooking has prepared me for. In fact, none of my cookbooks address this particular dilemma. Said 3rd grader is no help.

Thank goodness for the web. A search of tang yuan (at least our 3rd graders can spell pinyin, I’d have been totally lost if she’d written the characters) didn’t do much, but “glutinous rice ball” turned up a great recipe (fancier than we needed) but most importantly, the photo of the bag was the same – we were on the right track!

So we began. Mind you, it’s 7:15 am at this point and lunches haven’t been made, hair hasn’t been brushed, breakfast hasn’t been eaten. But rice balls must be made, it’s the Chinese New Year Festival at 1:30 and we’ve got to be ready!


Another web site suggested adding a little food coloring for interest. My 3rd grader insisted that Chen Laoshi used a package of strawberry jello (later confirmed at school) but we didn’t happen to have any. So food coloring it was.


After a little somewhat heated discussion about what the texture of the dough should be (“But Ms. Chen said it should be wet!”) we ended up with this.


Next came the battle of the balls. I wanted big (i.e. more, faster) but the girls were adamant that they had to be little because they got bigger when they were cooked. So we went small.


Next, you boil the tang yuan to cook them. I started in while the girls were busy rolling.


And rolling and rolling and rolling.


Eventually I realized I needed two pots going just to keep up.

We tasted some at this point. Let’s just say this, tang yuan are very bland. Clearly, it’s all about the sugar soup. They just taste like boiled rice flour with a slightly bitter edge that I still don’t know what was. I think the Thai idea of stuffing them with candied peanuts and then rolling them in coconut is a good one. But they did get bigger.

Then you cool them in cold water.


And finally, at 8:00 (school starts at 8:40 and it’s a 20 minute drive away), they were ready to go.


But it was all worth it. The Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year) that the Starr King Mandarin immersion teachers organized was amazing.

There was a dragon that danced.


Every child in the school, from the English, Spanish , Mandarin and Special Education programs, took part. There were nine booths, each with an activity and most with some kind of Chinese delicacy,


including our delicious glutinous rice balls.


Each student has a passport they got stamped at each booth.


Mr. Rosenberg, our principal, tried but didn’t do as well as the 1st graders at calligraphy.


There were crafts



a beanbag toss


And ribbon dancing.


And the rain didn’t start until all the kids were back in class!


Thanks to Ms. Chang, To, Tong, Sung, Chau, Zeng, Chen & Wang for everything you do for our children, every day, and for an amazing 2010 Spring Festival!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Niu Yuanhao permalink
    January 29, 2022 10:16 pm

    I didn’t have the opportunities to do all the arts and crafts while growing up in China. My daughter’s school has similar things to yours. I am glad she will experience these in America as a multi-culture child.

    • June 27, 2022 1:43 am

      Yes, it is very nice to see the pride in these cultural events. =)

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