In this short work of fiction, a woman pays her parents a visit in southern China and brings a friend along.
The sun has set, leaving its roseate footprints in the western sky. The tenants of the apartment building arrange their bamboo chairs alongside the asphalt sidewalk, enjoying the evening breeze. Middle-aged men, stripped to their waists, slap their palm fans against their hairy legs, chatting loudly about their raises, flat allotments, and pensions over a cacophony of screeching cicadas. Teenagers sit on wooden stools with their long legs bent back, arguing about which pop star will top China’s Billboard chart next week. I haven’t heard of the names they call out. My neighbor and her date sit knee to knee, with their backs to the crowd. She glows in her white embroidered blouse and yellow pleated skirt that hangs down to her ankles. The yellow ribbon in her hair flaps like a butterfly’s wings. Once in a while, her bare-chested dad sits up from the bamboo chair to dart a watchful glance at the young couple.
I take a stroll with my dad while our dinner is being cooled at home under the ceiling fan. Mom is busy with some last-minute cleaning before my friend Amol arrives tonight. There was no stopping her from making a fuss, after she learned he is my colleague from Siemens Data Communications. I’ll tour southern China with him during the next two weeks to wrap up my vacation.
Dad grabs my elbow and yanks me sideways to let a bicycle pass. Last week, when this first happened, I blamed my inattention on jet lag, but, in fact, I’ve grown to be a menace in Nanjing’s traffic. After driving a car in the U.S. for three years, I’ve forgotten why I should make way for bicycles.
After a pause Dad says, “Is he a… very good friend of yours?”
“Very” isn’t the right word. Amol is my only college friend who also moved to Raleigh Research Triangle Park. For a while we dined out every Saturday and tried all the local restaurants. Most people on my team are now married, like Alice is. When she first joined my group, I went boot shopping with her on Sunday. Then she found herself a boyfriend and started going to church. I took comfort in always having Amol to go hiking with when I wasn’t in the mood to watch TV.
“Amol wants to tour China with me, that’s all.”
“Girl.” Dad coughs up phlegm. I wince to hear him spit on the weeds by the sidewalk. “You’re twenty- three years old. You know that’s not all.”
What else is there: attraction, sex? I had a couple of boyfriends in college, whom I haven’t heard from since commencement. Not that I want to. I try not to miss the kind of easy love that is made in bed. After programming computers for a year, I’ve learned to be efficient, and the next thing I know, I’ve grown so sensitive to geographic distance that I’m even too lazy to chat with Alice, whose office is the third down the aisle from mine. Amol is an exception, though.
“Mom had my older sister when she was younger than I.” Surprisingly, tears well up in my eyes. “I’m an old maid.”
“What nonsense!” Dad points his palm fan at the crowd. My neighbor peers at us with a smile, while her date waves at us with his free hand. I wish Dad could act a little more discreetly while I’m a guest back in my hometown. “See these people? Do you think they turn their heads to admire my sallow cheeks?”
“Maybe they think I’m your date.” I titter at his horrified eyes. It’s the first joke I have made the whole week.
“Don’t tell Mom that,” he whispers in my ear.
I take his arm and lean my head on his shoulder. “Dad, I feel too old to be a girl but too young to be a woman. It’s not fun.”
He doesn’t answer but squeezes my arm. “Tell me your friend’s name again.”
“I hope he is a nice boy.” He caresses the back of my hand, which snugs inside the crook of his arm.
The crowded dishes on the table make me feel full. The ceiling fan spins above our heads, humming like a giant insect. I dip my chopsticks into the greasy food, then wipe them on the edge of the bowl, biding my time. Amol’s flight will arrive soon.
I tell Mom, “I really can’t eat any more,” and set down my chopsticks.
“What happened to your appetite?” Mom reaches out a hand to touch my forehead.
I lean back to leave her hand hanging in midair. “It’s early morning back where I live, Mom.” Then I wonder if this excuse has expired.
“Shouldn’t you be having breakfast then?”
I take a sip of sour plum juice, the only thing I haven’t grown tired of. “I don’t have breakfast.”
“You’re not on a diet, I hope? Looking like a bean pole is not pretty, Lian, it’s sickly.”
Dad coughs loudly, no doubt to warn her, because they’re a team, which is fine with me as long as they spare my feelings.
Mom goes on. “I like my baby to look plump. Plump is healthy, healthy is pretty.”
I burst out laughing in a shrill voice that doesn’t sound like mine. “So I’m not pretty. Well, who cares? I work with a computer. Why should I doll up? That won’t get me a raise, won’t get me anywhere, maybe a slap on my butt, which I definitely don’t want.”
Mom gapes at me. “I didn’t say you aren’t pretty. That’s not what I meant.”
I leave the table saying, “Fine,” and dash into the bathroom to slam the door behind me. Be brave, I tell myself. I know better than to cry over spilt milk: for three years I’ve been homesick— now I feel lonelier than ever.
The door creaks open. I turn away to look at the yellow chrysanthemum prints on the shower curtain, tracing their golden petals that coil out like skinny fingers. Dad stands three feet behind me, filling the tiny room with his sober voice.
“You didn’t need to throw a fit.”
I try not to make a sound, breathing deeply.
I try not to make a sound, breathing deeply.
“Your mom only wants the best for you. You can at least be appreciative of her effort.”
I press my palms on my eyelids until I begin to see blue, red, and white blotches.
“Lian, your friend is here!” Mom shouts from the dining room.
Dad steps toward me when I reach out to take hold of the shower curtain, to clutch the slippery plastic. I hear him stop. Then the door thuds closed, and he’s gone. I wash my face, rinse my mouth, and wipe myself dry on the towel. My eyes are pink and bleary as if I haven’t slept for these two weeks.
Amol looks like a dark giant planted in the middle of our dining room, towering above my mother. His head is only inches under the ceiling fan, and his slouching shoulders seem foolish and out of place but are dear to my sight.
“Amol?” I call him.
He spins around, causing the bulk of his body to momentarily lose its balance.
“You’re here!” I shout. With a laugh I wrap my arms around his stout back. He smells of a lightly pungent perfume.
“How are you, Lian?” He brushes my elbows with his fingertips.
I squeeze him hard, then let him go. If Mom had not been watching us, I would’ve realized the day is really too hot for hugging.
“Has he eaten?” Mom asks in a timid voice. I translate.
Amol rubs his palms. “They gave me some extra salty peanuts on the plane. I have to wash my hands first.”
I take him to the bathroom and give him a new towel. Mom has cleaned the table when I return.
“Are you done?” I ask her, surprised.
“Yes, we were waiting for you.”
I march to the kitchen to pick out two tofu dishes and chive with scrambled eggs, and fill a bowl with rice. We have no silverware in the house, and Amol cannot use chopsticks, so I grab a porcelain spoon and plate.
“Why don’t you take out some meat dishes?” Mom asks. “Your friend will think we’re stingy.”
“He doesn’t eat meat,” I tell her.
“Then how did he grow so tall?”
I ignore her.
“It’s a miracle for a flight to be an hour and half ahead of schedule.” Amol’s loud voice echoes in the bathroom. “Fortunately I had a first-class ticket, or my bones would’ve been hurting after crouching in the seat for twenty hours.” He stomps out with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showing his hairy forearms. “It’s so good to see you again,” he says with water on his grinning face. “I missed you at work.”
“What did he say?” Mom asks.
I pull out a chair to invite Amol to sit down. “Mom, I can’t carry on a conversation if you ask me to translate everything.” Amol thanks me. “Has your mom said something about me?” he whispers to me.
“Yes.” I smile. “She wishes you a good appetite. That will make her happy.”
Dad carries out two bamboo chairs and nudges Mom toward the door. “Wife, let’s go out to enjoy the breeze. Leave the kids to have their talk.”
I watch Mom close the screen door very slowly and latch the iron burglarproof gate with a click. I wait for her face to pop back and have a last peek. Instead, their footsteps recede. I turn to Amol and smile with relief. He has mixed the dishes with rice on the plate, picking up the food with his nimble fingers.
He shows me the spoon. “It’s a little thick on the bottom, hard for me to handle the chives.”
“It’s a soup spoon.” I put it aside.
It is late. Outside, the mosquito repellent incense has gone out. The scent of sweet olive and Yulan magnolia drifts into the bedroom. Sitting on the windowsill, I watch people drag their chairs into the building, making hollow echoes in the stairway. I hear our iron gate unlock, then click closed. My parents have returned.
“Lian?” Mom calls from the hallway. “Why didn’t you turn on the lights?”
“Hush,” I say. “Amol is sleeping in his room.”
“Good!” she exclaims, then covers her mouth with her palm fan. “I mean, it’s good that you treat a guest with courtesy,” she says in a strained low voice.
I put my feet on the cover of the sewing machine, feeling the fuzzy flannel under my soles. Mom puts the bamboo chair in the living room, then switches on the ceiling light. The fluorescent light stings my eyes.
“Your dad and I agree the west room is too hot for you to sleep in tonight. He lends us ladies this south room, and he’ll take your oven room.”
“Mom, I’m okay.”
“See for yourself.” She backs into the hallway. “Then tell us where you’d rather sleep tonight.”
I put on slippers and follow her to the west room. Mom is right. Sitting on the warm bamboo mat, I feel sweat seep through my pores.
“Thanks, Dad,” I murmur.
He hands me my pillow and pink throw and plops his brown towel on the mat. “See you ladies in the morning. And no quarreling.”
Mom taps his arm, as we head out.
I kneel on my parents’ wedding bed to fan the corners of the mosquito net, making the white gauze puff out and suck in with each wave. Mom tucks in the net under the bamboo mat, and clamps the netting door with three wooden clips, on the top, middle, and bottom.
Mom pulls my pillow to align with hers against the headboard. I lie down, aware of the half-foot gap between us. She swings her legs aside, making the bamboo mat bend under me. The gauze net quivers above us in a breeze.
“Your friend looks awfully tanned,” Mom says. “Has he gotten a lot of sun?”
“Amol is Indian, you know.”
“He has long hairs on his arms, and he eats with his hands.”
I shake my head angrily, making the pillow crunch under my neck.
“Other than that, he’s not bad-looking. But I’m worried he’s such a big man, and you’re a fine-boned skinny girl. The marital life….”
Mom stops short because I burst out laughing. For three years I haven’t heard “the marital life” as a euphemism for sex. I press my face on the pillow and let the fine bamboo mat squeeze a few tears out of my eyelids.
“What’s tickling your funny bone?” Mom rubs my shoulder blade. “You see what I’m getting at.”
I pick my head up from the pillow. “What do you mean, Mom? That he’s too much a man for me?”
“He’s a big fellow.”
“Well, I’ve had boyfriends!”
The air seems to freeze inside the mosquito net for a minute. Then I smell the delicate aroma of sweet olive and Yulan magnolia, raising gooseflesh on my arms.
“You’ve never told me.” Mom pounds the mat with her cupped hand. “I feel like an old fogey!”
I blush to the roots of my hair. “I have never, with Amol.”
“How were they?” she asks, wide-eyed like a child.
I roll away from her as far as I can go, until the mosquito net covers my face like a gauze mask. I suck a patch of cloth between my teeth, tasting the clean gauze.
“They’re only human, Mom. Only human.”
By ten o’clock the morning heat is on the rise. Amol’s door remains shut. Mom takes our dirty dishes to the sink. Dad slaps the rolled-up newspaper at a fly on the table but misses it.
“How’s the weather?” I ask him.
“Weather? Oh, weather.” He opens the paper and puts it at an arm’s length to read, “Sunny, partly cloudy in the afternoon, high 38°C.”
With a nod I smooth down the skirt over my shins. “Dad, Amol wants to go to the farmers’ market with us today.”
“Oh, yes,” Mom echoes from the kitchen. “He would like to help us with lunch.” She grins at us.
“If he doesn’t sleep until sunset,” Dad mutters under his breath.
The door of Amol’s room thuds open to bump against the wall. Amol stands wearing only his striped pajama pants. “Good morning,” he says, dazed and perplexed. With his large hairy chest, he reminds me of an enormously cuddly teddy bear.
I leap off the bench to open the bathroom door for him. “It’s all yours, Amol. Take your time.” He thanks me and then closes the door.
I poke my head into his room. The white throw is piled in the middle of the bed, which is obviously too small for him. Dad nudges me on the shoulder. “You go get dressed, Lian. Let me take care of this bit of housework.”
I pinch both sides of my skirt to fan it out like a peacock’s tail. “But I’m dressed, Dad, for going to the market anyway. We won’t drop into an opera house on the way, will we?”
“Don’t be naughty with your dad.” Mom presses her lips together to conceal a smile.
Dad shifts his gaze from my face to Mom’s, then back to mine, as if trying to uncover some mystery. Maybe Mom hasn’t told him about my “premarital life,” although I cannot imagine her keeping a secret like that. He backs up a step to take my whole figure into his view, then steps forward to pull out my jade pendant by its necklace.
“It ought to be worn like this. See how green the jade has become. It’s pretty.”
I bend my head to my chest and am appalled by what I see. “Dad, pink clashes with green, making me look like a country girl.” I slide the jade behind the dress.
“Too much skin is shown here.” He gestures at my chest. “It’s up to you.”
Dad folds Amol’s white throw to put under the pillow. He wipes the empty ashtray with his finger. Amol doesn’t smoke. Dad picks up the computer book at the foot of the bed to lay it on the open suitcase. The cleaning is done.
Amol sings in the shower, wobbly and indistinct at first, then forming the phrase “Thank you, frailty.” Amidst the splashing water, he bellows out a stream of “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” obviously losing track of his lyrics.
The farmers’ market, under the teal plastic awning, is packed with fresh produce, a feast for my eyes. Flies bounce from pile to pile. A mosquito brushes by my ear, buzzing like a mini helicopter. I try not to touch the sweating skins around me, keeping my eyes on Amol, who moves swiftly in the crowd.
“Wait for me,” I call to him.
“I want to tell you a secret.” Amol strides ahead to leave my parents behind and out of earshot. “I felt drowsy after dinner last night, and thought it was the jet lag. This morning I was having breakfast and tasted MSG in the bean curd. I’m allergic, you know.”
“No wonder!” I say. “I was always thirsty and drank tons of juice, then I didn’t want to eat anything. Mom thought I was on a liquid diet.”
“Diet? She has no idea what a good eater you are.”
I sniff the sweet scent of fish blood and pinch my nose.
Amol stops at a counter, where a dozen carps float on the shallow water in a wooden basin. He flips open a gill cover. “Bloody red, it’s practically alive,” he says and picks up the carp from the murky water. “This will make a kick-ass maacher jhol.” Meeting my eyes, he explains, “It’s a Bengali dish. Wait and see, it will make you eat.”
The peasant girl hooks the carp on her steelyard.
“Wait, take your pinkie off that scale!” Mom yells behind me. “You’re so young, who taught you to be dishonest?”
The girl nudges the sliding weight with her finger and thumb, her cheeks burning so red they seem to blend in with her kerchief.
Mom carries on. “Don’t you take us for big-nosed foreigners! Let me tell you, this is our daughter, and here is her friend—”
“Mom, have you said enough?” I wrap my arm around her shoulders and shake her a little. “It’s just a carp.”
Amol watches us curiously.
I explain to him, “She’s trying to get us a good deal.”
“I see, bargaining. Is she successful?”
Mom squats down to watch the girl clean the carp, making sure she doesn’t cut off too much meat along with the fins. The floor before her shoe- tips is spotted with fish scales and blood, but Mom doesn’t flinch. The girl presses the carp into a basin of bloody water to rinse it off. Still hunkering down, Mom offers her basket as if accepting a prize. Then she clutches my arm to stand up. Her fingers pinch my flesh for an instant, and I realize how old Mom has grown during the years we’ve been apart.
I grab Amol’s wrist before he drifts off again. “Let’s just get the ingredients,” I tell him. “It’s almost one o’clock, and they must be hungry.”
“Of course.” Amol puts a hand on my back as if escorting me. “I’ll make it quick.”
I feel a smile bend the corners of my lips.
I feed Mom a taste of tomato chutney and watch her face screw into a frown. “This is the sauce,” I tell her with a giggle. Then I wrap up the bowl and put it into the fridge to chill.
“I ought to cook it with mustard oil,” Amol says. “But here I’ll have to be creative.” He pours half a soup spoon of peanut oil into the skillet and turns on the gas stove, then adds a pinch of mustard seeds. “I’m making my own mustard oil, with a dab of peanut aroma. This is getting fun.”
I coat the fish head in turmeric and salt mix. The mustard seeds begin to pop in the lidded skillet. “Do you want me to chop a piece of ginger?” I ask. “It helps reduce the fishy smell.”
He sends the coated fish pieces into the hot oil, where the fish skin sizzles with the delicious smell of the spices and flesh. “There’s always a better way to do something,” he says. “Turmeric does the trick with the odor. Not only that, it also provides a yellow color and will bind the fish properly during the frying.”
The carp turns opaque and juice seeps out. He turns the fish pieces over, and the sizzling grows louder. “Turmeric is a spice of many uses,” he says. “Indian women use its paste as an exfoliator, you know, to polish their skin.”
“Wow.” I hesitate for a few seconds. “How come you never asked me to cook with you on the weekend? You could’ve taught me a few recipes so I could show off to my parents.”
“I didn’t think you’d be interested.”
“Did I ever tell you that?”
“No.” He removes the cooked fish pieces and puts in the last batch along with the fish head. “You always looked so fresh and neat, as if you had just stepped out of a beauty salon. I didn’t want you to dirty your shirt and smell like a kitchen.”
“Me? I only wear jeans and sneakers!”
“Yes, but your sneakers are bleached and you iron your jeans. You put together casual outfits with great care so you can look like a team player.” He smiles at me. “I can tell you don’t really want to dress like one of the guys.”
I flush to the roots of my hair. The kitchen temp must be nearing a hundred degrees.
“I have to confess,” he begins. I can hear the thumping of my own heart as I wait for his next word. “I miss eating carp heads. It’s the best part of a carp, you know, which I always claim at home, but I’ve never seen it served at any restaurant.”
I censor an awkward smile. What else was I expecting? I chide my own silliness. We’re cooking a carp and having a good time, which ought to satisfy me.
“Can I have the tail?” I ask. “I’m the baby in the family, the tail eater.”
“Of course.” He adds more peanut oil and mustard seeds to the skillet. “Bengalis who can’t afford a whole carp often buy the tail and head of a carp and flavor dishes with them, just to get the taste of fish.”
“Chinese do that, too, and we have an auspicious name— having a beginning and an end.” I lean against the kitchen counter. “We’re not that different, are we?”
“Certainly not. We’re both Asians, educated in Florida, working for a German company, living in North Carolina, and vacationing in China.” He adds the black mustard paste and salt, two green chilies, and a bowl of water. “When it boils,” he tells me, “lower the heat to simmer. I’ll be right back.”
I watch him disappear into the bathroom. “Mom, isn’t he something?”
Mom tastes a piece of lily flower in her scallop casserole, then pops open a can. “Needs a dab of gourmet powder,” she murmurs.
I snatch away the can. “It’s called MSG, Mom, a harmful chemical banned in many restaurants. You shouldn’t keep this in the house.” I gesture to toss it in the trash.
“Why, I’ve been using it all my life!”
“Not on my carp, no way!”
When the high-pressured cooker gives off a loud whistle, I drop the can on the counter. Our dessert soup is ready.
“I thought I heard a train.” Amol makes his way back to the stove. “We’re almost done.”
“Been cooking for half an hour, and giving me orders,” Mom mutters to herself. “Don’t you chemical me. Wait and see who’s the gourmet.”
The maacher jhol, as Amol calls it, is a pale yellow dish with a slightly pungent taste imparted by the ground mustard. Watching Amol savor the head, I wish I had asked him to share half of it. Next time, I’ll be bolder. I scrape the tail with the rest of the sauce, eating it with the same indulgence as he does the head, licking each finger after picking out a bone. Having cleaned the plate, I pour a spoonful of tomato and onion chutney onto my rice and wolf it down.
“Good girl, you’re finally eating.” Mom laughs loudly.
“I should’ve cooked two carps,” Amol says regretfully. I translate.
“It’s the best to be 80 percent full, and still wanting,” Dad says. “It makes the next meal even more desirable.”
I tell that to Amol, and he chuckles. “Tell your parents I look forward to cooking for them again, because they paid me an honest compliment.”
“He laughs just like one of us.” Mom watches Amol eat and smacks her own lips.
Afternoon sunlight slants across the kitchen counter. Outside, a fly keeps bumping against the screen window. Dad leans over to turn up the ceiling fan.
“Is everyone ready for dessert?” he asks.
“Wait for me,” I say.
“Why eighty percent full?” Mom scolds. “Let Lian eat to her capacity! I want her to eat to 120 percent if she can.”
Dad raises his hands in surrender.
I finish my last morsel. “It’s not just that I’m slow,” I tell my parents. “I’ve been talking a lot, like, for four mouths. That’s not true: I only translated the nice things you guys said, but I listened with eight ears. Well, not really, because you hear everything, too. So, I talked with three mouths and listened with two ears, ate with one mouth and two hands.” I lick my fingers again, then wipe them on the napkin.
Dad pats me on the back. “You don’t have to explain, Lian; we know you from head to toe.” He gets up to serve us the iced dessert.
I look into my lap wondering what he was alluding to.
“Is it true he didn’t use the gourmet powder?” Dad asks.
“Yes,” I reply. “The taste is in the spices: mustard seeds, turmeric, and chilies. We were missing a few items like bay leaf, cilantro, and mustard oil, but he improvised. I love the sauces in Indian dishes— they’re rich but not filling.”
“It’s never too late to learn a new recipe,” Dad says with his back to us.
Mom darts me a gleeful glance and gets up to pass us the dessert bowls.
Amol tastes his dessert soup. “This is too good!” he exclaims. “I haven’t had lotus seeds for ages.”
Pride lights up Mom’s face when she hears me. “Lian, tell him this dessert soup is composed of lotus seeds, mung beans and tremella, sugar, and a touch of cornstarch. This summer tonic allays the internal heat in the body.”
“Thank you, Mama.” Amol presses his palms together. I don’t need to translate this. With her face flushed with pleasure, Mom seems to have grown five years younger.
“A balanced meal contains all five flavors,” Dad says, “sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent, together creating harmony in the body.”
“One, two, three, four, five harmonies.” Amol scoops five lotus seeds into his mouth. “With a sip of tonic juice, ah, I’m balanced.”
His elbow glides across the table corner, touching the back of my hand. I don’t move and wait for his eyes to find mine. “We have twelve days of vacation,” I tell him, “all to ourselves.”
We lean back in our chairs at the same time. When I reach out to take hold of a table leg, his tanned fingers ascend the pole to touch my palm.