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Karina Zhou Celebrates Chinese Culture & Explores The Frustration Of Trying To Fit In With ‘Kai’s Tea Eggs’

We speak to the 19-year-old queer Vancouver author about her beautifully illustrated children’s book and inner turmoil that comes with trying to fit in…

Earlier this year 19-year-old Vancouver author Karina Zhou’s released her first book to rave reviews. Kai’s Tea Eggs (suggested for ages 3 to 7) is a sensitively told story about a young Chinese girl named Kai who learns more about her family’s heritage and gains a better appreciation about who she is. The beautifully illustrated children’s book is charming story for anyone who, like Kai, has felt the frustration of trying to fit in before finally learning to appreciate who they are.

We spoke with Zhou, who identifies as queer, about creating the book, the significances of tea eggs, how her identify impacts her art, what she would tell her younger self now, and much more.

Why did you create this book?
In fourth grade, I brought tea eggs to a ‘MultiCultural Day’ event at my elementary school. It was the very first time I felt proud to share my family food with my friends. At that time, I didn’t have the resources or books available to help me navigate the complex range of emotions I experienced.

I like to think that I created Kai’s Tea Eggs as a love letter to my younger self. Simultaneously, I created this book for any kid (or adult!) who’s ever felt out of place because of their cultural identity. Rather than running away from her fears, Kai learns to appreciate her culture and family traditions through a fantastical journey with Ming the dragon.

What would you tell your younger self now?
I would tell my younger self that one day, all these qualities that you try to conceal about yourself will be what you treasure the most as you grow older. Instead of shying away from learning your family’s language or customs, you realize what a true gift it all is. I hope you never feel afraid to express who you are and please say ‘Thank you!” to your mom more often.

What’s the significance of tea eggs?
Growing up, tea eggs were such a common go-to dish in my family. When I brought them to school, I didn’t realize other kids had never even seen tea eggs before. My peers were confused at the brown exterior tint and its marble patterning. Like Kai, I felt embarrassed about sharing my family’s ‘foreign’ dish to my friends. To my surprise at the time, the reactions were so positive and encouraging. Tea eggs offered a gateway for me to connect my Chinese-Canadian heritage and feel confident in celebrating my cultural roots.

How does your identity as a queer person affect your art?
Even when I don’t intend to, my art is ultimately a reflection of myself. I have struggled (and still do occasionally) with understanding my queer identity. Growing up without positive 2SLGBTQI+ representation made this journey of self-acceptance a complex endeavor.

While Kai’s Tea Eggs is mainly about cultural identity, Kai’s emotional journey and inner turmoil is one I’ve encountered in my life many times. It always feels easier to run away from what makes us different. Embracing our fears takes great courage and when we allow ourselves to do so with kindness, curiosity, and an open heart, who knows what adventure awaits us!

What message do you wish readers will take away from Kai’s Tea Eggs?
I want readers to take away that what makes us unique should be celebrated and showcased with love. Fear and embarrassment inevitably exist when we share vulnerable parts of ourselves. In the book, Kai continues to feel nervous at ‘MultiCultural Day’ even after her adventure with Ming. Yet, there’s immense beauty in trying new foods and experiences. By having an open heart, we get to learn more about the people around us and ourselves.

Kai’s Tea Eggs by Karina Zhou is available now in bookstores across the country. Get it here: Arsenal Pulp Press.

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