Hi to all the food lovers!
I’m a food lover just like you, and my name is CiCi Li.
My life has been full of tasty surprises. Whether it was sour, sweet, bitter, or spicy, I have tasted them all. Whenever I thought I couldn’t do it anymore, I would come to another turning point, leading to more exciting stories.
Childhood in Asia
The most often asked question throughout the years is, “CiCi, where are you from?” So let’s start from there. I was born in Beijing and spent most of my childhood in Thailand and Singapore. I went to a local Thai school, so naturally, I am fluent in Thai. I learned limited Chinese in Singapore. When I was 11, my family decided that I should go back to China to learn Chinese.
In China, I took a school entrance exam. Everything was in Chinese, and since I was pretty much illiterate in Chinese, I couldn’t understand 99% of the characters. To no surprise, I got my first ‘F’ in life. (This is a secret I never told anyone. Shhhhh. Let’s keep this a secret between just you and me. Ok?)
My entire life, I was always been an achiever. I was an honor student, the class president, and also received numerous awards in school events. That giant ‘F’ was unacceptable to my little soul.
During that time, I became both a nighthawk and an early bird. I stayed up late every night and copied each character I encountered that day over and over again until I became familiar with every stroke. Then I’d wake up before dawn to go over them again.
Whenever I wanted to go easy on myself, I recalled a Chinese saying my mom taught me, “As long as you put enough effort into it, you can grind an iron rod into a thin needle.”
Luckily, hard work paid off. I quickly adapted and excelled in school. In the Chinese literature midterm exam, I received the top score out of about a hundred students in the entire class. I also became the president of several clubs. But the fairy tale didn’t end there.
Tragic Breaking Point
A tragic breaking point soon happened in the summer of 1999. Just like every morning, I rode my bicycle to school. One day, there was a car following very closely behind me. Through the window, I saw two unfriendly men in the front seats, with sunglasses and earphones on.
Finally, I made my way to school. But upon arrival, the principal asked to see me in his office. He tilted down his head and told me to pack my bags and leave. I could tell that he wasn’t proud of what he said. My classmates were in tears, and I was speechless. The school was forced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to kick me out, because of my belief in Falun Dafa.
Falun Dafa is the best thing that happened to my family and me. It is a traditional cultivation practice, and its principal is truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. It makes me a better person, healthier physically and mentally. But the CCP started persecuting practitioners in July 1999.
(Here’s a little more information. My mom was already in the US before the persecution started. In China, I lived with my grandma, aunt, and her two toddler sons. The Chinese Communist Party put us under house arrest. That means we were not allowed to go out of the house. They taped our phone conservations and closely watched our daily moves. They also took over all of my family’s assets in China — house, cars, money in the bank accounts, and even personal belongings.
Eventually, after several weeks, my aunt, her sons, and I headed to the airport one morning. Once we got there, they allowed every passenger to board the plane, including my aunt and her sons, but not me. I was surrounded by a bunch of undercover cops like I was some kind of 12-year-old supervillain. The plane was delayed for 2 hours because of me. All of a sudden, one of the undercover cops received a phone call. A miracle happened; they finally allowed me to board the plane and leave the country.
Side note: But they wouldn’t allow my grandma to leave. She remained on house arrest for another year, but eventually, she came to the US.)
Dream Come True
At the age of 12, I arrived in the US, as a political refugee.
When I first arrived in the US, my family and I lived at someone else’s house. The grandma was truly kind to allow us to settle in, but she was very particular about her cookware, so she didn’t like anyone cooking in her kitchen, which is understandable.
My nostalgia for cooking and eating with the family has grown over time. There were times, my mom and I would just walk to the closest supermarket, which was about 30 minutes away. We would buy some sausages and instant ramen. Then go back to our room and eat quietly.
There was one early evening, around Christmas, the weather was freezing cold, but we made our way to the supermarket again. As we passed by a residential area, the houses were all decorated with shiny and warm Christmas lights. I looked through the window of a house and saw a family happily having a meal together. I pondered if that could ever be my family again.
After about a year, my grandma finally came to the US. We moved to our own place. It was like a dream come true. At the same time, I attended a new high school and became the president of the Chinese club. Whenever there was an event, I always made everyone home cooked dishes.
The cooking process became a healing process. When I cooked, I automatically immersed myself into the ingredients, and all the unfairness and violence in this world temporarily disappeared.
Bridge East and West
In 2009, another great turning point in my life happened. I joined New Tang Dynasty Television. It’s the only Chinese Television network that’s not influenced by the CCP. Its mission, to create a bridge between the East and West, tied in perfectly with mine. (I’ve always wanted to do something for the Chinese community, like be the bridge between the East and West.)
So I produced and hosted six seasons of food and travel TV programs around the world, with more than 300 episodes. My team and I were invited to hundreds of world-renowned chefs’ kitchens. I loved meeting them and learned about their cooking philosophies and styles. The more I traveled and the more I learned about these amazing chefs, the more I craved to find my true origin.
In 2014, my explorations led me to an opportunity as a chef in training with Chinese Master Chef Zizhao Luo. Chef Luo is known as one of Beijing’s “Top 4 Chefs.” His cooking philosophy is based on traditional Chinese culinary art.
I began to work in Chef Luo’s kitchen, Radiance Fine Asian Cuisine, in New York City. The first thing Chef Luo asked me to do was to julienne mountain-high piles of carrots into thin hair-like sticks. As you can imagine, I started by slicing not just the carrots, but also my fingers for numerous attempts. Chef Luo kindly pointed out, “When you cook, first, you need to calm your heart. Then, treat the ingredients with respect, care, and compassion. And naturally, you wouldn’t cut or burn yourself in the kitchen.”
From then on, Chef Luo taught me his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese culinary art. He said we must use all of our five senses —to look, hear, smell, feel, and taste all of the ingredients when we cook. Most importantly, treat the ingredients with kindness, and the results will always be delicious.
In 2016, I started a cooking show “CiCi Li, Asian Home Cooking”, which now has more than 200 episodes. It’s where I share my passion and Asian home cooking dishes with all the food lovers.
My life circumstances have taken me all around the world, and I pushed myself to adjust to every new environment. For me, there’s no better place than around the dining table because food has no boundaries. It unites people and makes everyone happy regardless of age, color, or religion.
Join me in discovering the world of Asian home cooking!