yours, tiramisu

a long uncomfortable look in the mirror

In the morning vendors sell wares out of cargo bicycles and vans along the main road. There’s lots I recognize: strawberries and radishes caked in dust, cuts of red meat strewn on the road, fish floating upside down in kiddie pools, handmade combs and trinkets hanging from metal racks. Some things make me stop and stare: dogs in rusty wire cages (not for human consumption, I hope); caterpillars, segmented bodies still wriggling, best eaten alive; moonshine in repurposed plastic oil jugs.

If I dwell too long loud honks warn me to keep moving. The market is set up dangerously close to the road; traffic and marketgoers ebb and flow like deadly tides. Mom says my uncle was hit by a car in similar circumstances, which makes me jumpy. I try to give the vehicles weaving around us a wide berth, but most of the time a few inches is all I can put between us.

I see things I remember enjoying — savory scallion and egg crepes bubbling on round griddles, speckled quail eggs baked in salt, crullers frying in vats of oil, sesame paste dripping from a spinning grinder. But the conspicuous absence of safety practices and the suffocating smell of warm fish and poultry keeps any semblance of an appetite at bay. The whole scene feels more like a zoo to me than a food market.

Grandma brings back a couple of the vegetables I loved the last time I was here: prickly cucumbers, long stalks of green onion, starchy white corn on the cob. I dip the crunchy cucumbers and green onions in spicy soybean paste and munch on them gratefully. She hands me a foggy bag full of some prepared foods too: jianbing, round pink sausage links, deep fried dough sticks and red bean pancakes. Aside from the local produce, which will always taste better than the pale turgid monsters from our American supermarkets, nothing tastes as good to me anymore. Maybe it’s my mood, or maybe my palate really has matured, but the sausage tastes too sickeningly rich, the milk too fake, the crullers too greasy. I nibble on everything to be polite and retreat to my room with my stomach far from full yet no longer clamoring for food.

I miss young Misu’s less critical tongue and his rose-colored glasses. The memories I have of this place are warm, carefree — whipping tops with my uncle and brother in the town square, scarfing down cumin lamb skewers on the street. I long to see the sky as blue as remember it in my childhood, even though I know the air was worse back then. Now all I can notice is the smog, the filth, the squalor and the noise, and the crumbling buildings that all look like carbon copies of one another.

As we refuse her offers Grandma takes a different angle and repeats that we never visit, that it’ll be even harder now as we get into the real world. She’s right. I just don’t have the heart to tell her that I think we haven’t visited because we just don’t feel that strong a reason to. And I doubt this trip will change anything for the better in that regard.

Being back here forces me to take a long, uncomfortable look at a part of me that I’ve been running away from. The half of “Chinese American” I’ve been trying hard to erase. I can hide it from myself for long periods of time at home, only catching brief glimpses of it when I argue with Mom, but there’s no avoiding it here.

#china #english #family #life #travel #wordvomit