"bowl of noodles"

creative nonfiction, 2018

Recognized by Scholastic with National Best-in-Grade Medal, Gold Medal

I. la mian (pulled noodles): 

These long, thin noodles are known for the time and effort required to make them the authentic way.

I watch my father as he kneads the dough with powerful hands, specks of white flour falling under smooth, rolling hills of tan. To shape the noodles, he stretches the dough out, flings it between his hands like a jump rope, then brings the two ends together to do the same thing over and over again. The process starts in the afternoon, stretches until dinner time, then repeats the next day and the day after that, over and over again. Near evening, beads of sweat start to trickle down the side of his face, glistening in the egg-yolk sunlight that comes through the kitchen window. When he is finally finished, he stands breathing heavily in a halo of flour dust, the noodles draped between his hands like delicate silk threads on a loom. 

My father makes his la mian for dinner almost every day when I am in elementary school. He tries to teach me his methods, but my dough either clings to my fingers in clumps and turns my palms into landscapes of small, sticky mountains, or it crumbles into clods of dry clay and leaves my hands coated in white chalk. Seeing this, my father tells me I must follow the numbers. He tells me I must use measuring cups to produce the precise ratio of flour and water necessary for success. His recipe for la mian, he says, has been passed down for generations: it is time-tested, and it is my duty to preserve it through the tests of this new world.

So my father stretches and shapes me for this duty, teaching me to recite the numbers in his recipe until I know them by heart, teaching me to recite them in Chinese and sending me every Sunday to Chinese school so that my tongue can taste the words of our home country as much as its noodles. The speaking comes naturally to me, but the writing takes practice. Chinese characters are made of tangled strokes, and there is a recipe to this chaos: a specific order in which the marks must be laid down, a precise spacing between them that, if even slightly miscalculated, could yield misunderstanding. So day after day, as my father kneads his noodle dough in the kitchen, I sculpt my Chinese characters at the dinner table until my hands hurt.

La mian and Chinese are the ingredients of my childhood: homemade from sweat, sore hands, and the lives that came before me.

Each summer, we visit those lives by flying thirteen hours to China, a flight I always dread. The high pressure clogs my ears, and the turbulence turns airplane food into bile in my throat. To accommodate both Chinese and American customers on board, the airline puts together meals that are neither Chinese nor American, but a bland, badly-thought-out, in-between. After we finally land in the Beijing airport, I rush into my grandparents’ arms in squealing embrace. 

I have finally made it to the land of true, unfiltered Chinese food, where we travel indiscriminately from luxurious Peking duck restaurants to crude street food stands. I hear the sizzle of nian gao (rice cakes) against pans, and I feel the steam of rou baozi (pork buns) puffing out against my face as bamboo lids are lifted. China is made of good food and relatives who pamper me with red envelopes even when New Year’s is six months away, but China is also made of less appetizing things. Beijing’s streets bustle with too many bicycles and rickshaws and people, pushing, shoving, rolling rude, rapid fire words from their tongues. Crowds. Dense heat. Urine stench. Cigarette smoke. But I don’t mind—I am still young, and I can still see the sky. I accept the rough edges of China, and I work hard at my Chinese, and I slurp my father’s la mian, and I live by his recipe, and when one day my history class becomes heavy with the same heat that comes from noodle steam because we are studying Chinese dynasties and my classmates keep staring at me, I turn to his recipe for an answer. 

But his recipe doesn’t show me how to make the noodles look good to foreign eyes, or how to make their flavor last through time. His la mian only taste good right after they’re made, and the nascent phase of my childhood dinner has already passed. The la mian, now old and cold, stick to my body wherever I go, forming a costume, a barrier.

 

II. Spaghetti:

Originating in Italy, these thick, wheat noodles are eaten frequently in America with tomato sauce, meatballs, and parmesan cheese.

One day in sixth grade, I push away my bowl of noodles at dinner.

“I do not want these anymore,” I say in Chinese. I speak the native tongue at home because my father does not respond to anything less. “A girl said my noodles smell like farts.”

“So what?” My father’s Chinese comes out jumbled amid his slurping. 

“Other kids do not want to be my friend because of them.”

He shakes his head, dismissing the trivial matter of middle school social life. “Do not worry about having friends. Noodles are nutritious. Bone broth makes you grow taller. My recipe is perfect. Just eat.” He is still slurping. 

I stare at my bowl of noodles for a long time without moving, then ask, “Can I eat spaghetti instead?” 

“Spa—spa—what?” Slurp.

“Spaghetti. The other kids at school eat it. It is made of yellow noodles with a red sauce and cheese on top.”

“Oh god! Cheese!” my father groans. “Cheese is nasty. It is full of fat and preservatives. Just like other processed American foods. No spaggy.” Slurp.

“It’s spah-GEH-tee,” I stretch my lips to shape the English words loudly and clearly, hoping my efforts to correct him at home will also fix the way he sputters out bits and pieces of warped English in public. Everywhere we go, my father’s thick Chinese accent wraps itself around both him and me like a red flag, a costume, a barrier.

“Does not matter how you say it. We never ate spaggy in China.” Slurp.

“Well, this is America,” I retort in English. By now, I have trashed both ingredients in his recipe for a good daughter: his noodles and my Chinese lie cold and rejected on the table. 

My father shakes his head. “China is your homeland. Just because we live in America does not mean you are not Chinese.” Slurp.

“Well, I wish I wasn’t.”

Suddenly, the slurping stops.

My father spits out his noodles. They lie like messy split ends in the bowl. I open my mouth, trying to draw out words from a stiff throat. But the conversation between my father and me no longer flows eloquently and elegantly like la mian in soup. Instead, our Chinese and American words stagger stunted across the table, knock against each other, collapse. Our words are tangles pulled taut, they stick in lumps and begin and end in odd places, don’t follow rules, come out awkward, disoriented.

My father doesn’t say anything more that night. When he finally breaks the silence, it is to resume slurping his noodles. I reluctantly do the same, and when I finish gulping them down, I stare for a long time at the bowl of soup in front of me. In the liquid, I am a murky, two-dimensional image made of monolid, mud-brown eyes, black hair, and skin the color of uncracked peanuts. These, I know, are badly chosen ingredients in a world that prefers the taste of lightness. As long as I keep eating these noodles, I will have to face that reflection every day.

So from that day forward, I start secretly dumping my homemade lunches into the trash. I am surprised no one notices the smell of my father’s noodles spoiling away in the school bathroom, but perhaps people have gotten used to the smell of things spoiling. I get used to it over time and join the line of American kids in the cafeteria to get my plate of spaghetti. Spaghetti tastes strange—the noodles are a little too thick, the tomato sauce is a little too salty, and the cheese has the texture of melted plastic. I eat it nevertheless, and over time, acquire a liking for these foreign flavors.

 

III. No noodles:

I bite down on a piece of Cane’s™ fried chicken, savoring the crunch of crispy skin and the juiciness of oil-soaked flesh. I wonder if the widespread success of this chicken is the product of a precise recipe. If nothing else, it is consistent in delivering satisfaction. In junior high, my volleyball team and I come here every Thursday after our games, and the chicken never fails to curb our bottomless hunger. 

    “Ewww, you eat it plain?” Emily scrunches up her face as she smothers a fry in ketchup.

    I hold my chicken tender hesitantly in my hand, glancing around the table at the other girls. Their eyes stare at me, wide, light, and amused. “What?”

    “L-O-L,” Morgan spells out. “Gurl, you’re supposed to eat chicken with ketchup.”

    “Oh . . . my bad. I didn’t know that. L-O-L.”

    My teammates laugh, and I laugh with them, and we are back to eating more chicken and fries until Emily lets slip a casual comment—“Jeez, you’re so Asian.”

    The smile melts from my face, as if the same noodle steam from that history class years ago has returned to haunt me. “I’m not really that Asian, guys,” I say. “Like, I might look Asian, but I’m American on the inside, I swear.”

    “Gurl.” Morgan sips neon blue Gatorade from a plastic straw. “All you do with your free time is math, and you don’t know that chicken needs sauce to taste good. Definitely Asian.”

    “Gurl, I only do math because my dad forces me to. I was born here, just like you guys. I haven’t even been to China. I don’t even know Chinese. I’m basically American but stuck in a Chinese body.” 

Even amid the red walls and yellow lights, dipping yellow-crusted chicken in red ketchup, with the red and yellow Cane’s™ sign shouting enthusiastically down at me, I cannot see my home country’s colors in myself. 

These weekly outings to Cane’s™ are made of a single ingredient: loudness. The loudness of the restaurant's brightly lit menus, of their squeaky booths and squeaky floors, of the odor of salt and oil sparkling in the air. The loudness of our lipstick, of our spidery eyelashes, of our glittering crop tops and jingling jewelry. The loudness of our giggles and squeals when we gossip, when guys flirt with us. And most of all, the loudness of our food. Hotdogs like sponges spurting out savory flavor in our mouths. Carbs, hot and heavy and oily, melting with soft sweetness on our tongues. Cheese, draped over everything, burning salty on my lips. Here, I speak loudly and laugh loudly, hoping my heart will echo my body. 

    My father doesn’t like my loudness. The air in our home no longer whispers with the warmth of his la mian, but instead whispers with warnings of my American recklessness. He tells me that I should not be so loud, that I should follow his recipe and respect my elders. I should be a shu nv.

Shu nv has no direct translation, but it means something along the lines of “quiet, pure, obedient girls.” It is used to describe the type of girl every parent should try to raise their daughter to be, the type of girl every husband should want. I don’t know what shu nv were like in my father’s time, but the internet tells me what they are like now. Modern shu nv fill Chinese romance shows like flocks of sheep, docile and wordless; they serve dutifully at restaurants and hotels, bowing and smiling and never looking up; they spatter the fronts of magazines and advertising posters with large, shy eyes, ghostly pale skin, and long, elegant legs. They do not look like me even though we share the same heritage. These girls are groomed aggressively, their eyes enlarged by plastic surgeons, their skin hidden under umbrellas from the summer sunlight, their legs starved to perfection. This is not the image of Chinese girls. This is the image of wannabe-western models, a double standard that makes me proud of my loudness, of my court burns and bruises, of my vociferous rebellion against my father’s outdated recipes.

My father tries to explain to me that the shu nv ideal is more about tradition than oppression, but the line that separates the two is fine and fragile, and the line that separates him and me is thickening. Over the years of neglect, my Chinese has become tired, cold, and bitter. My father still clings to its remnants, trying to pry the dead words out of me, but all he can get are loud English questions: Why must I do math day after day and go to Chinese school week after week and visit a deteriorating China year after year? When my father answers in Chinese, I can’t understand him, and his whispers wane into white noise.

What I can understand is the “American Dream”, a dream narrated in English, with letters that flow instead of tangle. The internet and social media speak to me about this dream from every screen, and I soak up all the western slogans of living in the moment and loving loudly. I eat out most nights, and soon fast food becomes the flavorful recipe for my American Dream. 

But fast food is high-calorie, low-content, and requires no sweat, no sore hands, no generational knowledge to make. Fast food is greedy, and I gorge, hurting my stomach because my heart is never satisfied. I force myself to enjoy the taste of these heavy flavors on my tongue, but nights I wake up to barf into the toilet, head spinning with a nausea that grows like cancer inside me.

 

IV. fang bian mian (ramen):

Typically dried and packaged, these curly, golden noodles are known for their potent seasoning and their convenience.

“Truth,” he says.

    I am sitting across from my first high school boyfriend on his bedroom floor, our knees almost touching and our eyes locked into each other’s under the dim ceiling light.

    “Do you ever get jealous?” I ask him, leaning forward with my face cupped in my hands like an eager child. I have been watching too many high school romance movies, and by now their recipe has become entrenched in my mind, their words sliding effortlessly off my tongue.

    He brushes a lock of golden hair from his face, the gaze of his deep-set green eyes falling onto the carpet. He is the embodiment of white, teenage boy perfection—all sharp jawline, high cheekbone, and lean muscle. My friends tell me he could be on the cover of Vogue or become internet famous if he tried. There are few guys at school he could be jealous of, if any at all. 

    “Well, I get jealous of you sometimes.”

    “Of me?” I don’t remember seeing this part in the movies.

    “I mean, you’re Asian, and like, y’all are just naturally smart.” He doesn’t make eye contact. “Like you get good grades so easy, and I have to work my ass off to get the same scores. You got the smart genes, babe.” 

He glances at me, but averts his gaze quickly. 

“Plus your culture is so . . . exotic.” He is smirking now and shaking his head at the floor, as if admiring a figment of his imagination in the carpet. “I wish I had a culture like that.”

The fan on the ceiling is whispering with its white noise. I wonder if I misheard. “What?”

“It’s just—I don’t know—it’s just like something that makes you special. I mean, I’m tired of being just like everyone else, ya know? I wanna feel special. I mean, I’ve been telling people I’m French, because I kinda look French, but that’s not as cool as being Asian.”

When he senses my silence, he says, “Babe, you’re so beautiful.”

My heart begins to beat fast, and I tell myself it’s because I’m falling in love, and I am, but not with him. Over the next few months, his words ignite my self-confidence, his kisses coaxing out my long-dormant Chinese, and his eyes hold in them the true object of my love: the special Asian girl, the smart Asian girl, the cool Asian girl, the beautiful Asian girl.

At school, I eat ramen noodles for lunch, and people notice the smell of my noodles wafting through the halls. They ask me if I speak the language and I pull out strings of Chinese from my throat like hair from a shower drain: old, neglected, tangled words that only make sense to wide-eyed westerners. They ask me what China is like and I tell them that the food is heavenly and that the kids get money every New Year’s, and I don’t tell them that the violent crowds trample the weak, that the toilets are holes in the ground, that most people don’t shower daily, that workers struggle for survivial, that free speech is never spoken of, and that the smog in the sky grows thicker every year I go back to visit. 

I have not forgotten. Rather, I prefer to cover the blemishes on my country’s face as I cover the blemishes on my own face. With foundation made of “superior intellect,” mascara made of “exotic beauty,” and lipstick made of the few Chinese phrases and facts I can remember, I post my newfound identity on social media— “Pumped for Chinese New Year! #chinese #proud”—and I savor the taste of likes on my tongue. I work hard at my Chinese, and I slurp my ramen noodles, and I live by my new recipe, and when one day my father mutters that fang bian mian isn’t authentic, I tell him loudly that I don’t care.

Ramen is convenient, and after I devour it, the soup reflects my face in gold.

 

V. fen si (glass noodles): 

These tough, translucent noodles are known for their slippery texture and their ability to absorb any variety of flavors.

The summer after my sophomore year I undergo thirteen hours of torture administered through airplane food, turbulence, and WiFi deprivation. After I get off the plane, I rush into my grandparents’ arms in squealing embrace, thinking that all the nausea and pain of crossing the in-between is over.

In China, I look for the heavenly food and red envelopes I told my classmates about. But the street food, I find, is now cooked with recycled oil to save money, and my grandfather tells me I am too old for red envelopes. So, I look instead for the exoticism of my fellow Chinese. I find millennials glued to their smartphone screens, I find factory workers with dust-caked wrinkles coughing up chemicals, I find people like ants scrambling over each other for a supermarket sale, I find a man with a protest sign dragged off the street, I find children peeing in alleys, I find middle-aged women exchanging bullets of coarse dialect in openfire, and when I listen hard and glean simple phrases, I find they are talking about me: 

Kan, shi ge lao wai.” (Look, it’s a foreigner.)

The smog has devoured all of Beijing: it is hard to tell day and night apart, to tell where things in the distance begin and end, yet my sight is suddenly crystal clear. I see how broken my Chinese has become—not only is it not exotic, it is not authentic either. It is an Americanized product, processed and packaged and shipped through American streets to satisfy Ameircan tastes. My father always told me processed foods never taste good, yet this is the age of convenience, of aesthetic, of mass manufacturing. 

When my grandfather tells me he wants to teach me a longevity noodles recipe for his eightieth birthday, I think to myself that he will lecture me about the original la mian, about all the hard work that goes into authenticity, about how noodles represent life, and life must be good and long. Perhaps this is my redemption—coming back full circle to the time-tested recipe that has been passed down for generations. But instead, my grandfather pulls out a package of processed glass noodles from the kitchen cabinet his apartment. 

“But Grandpa,” I protest in timid Chinese. “Not using pulled noodles?”

“No, no,” he answers, slicing open the package with a knife and dumping the translucent bundle into a floral ceramic bowl. “Fifty years ago I cooked pulled noodles for your father, but times have changed. In this new world, we don’t need to spend hours making noodle dough.” 

His eyes, draped in wrinkles, have faded from brown to pale gray. This is the gray of the new age, a degenerative force that nibbles at the old colors of the world. This is the gray of the factory smoke that clouds China’s sky, the gray of modern day electronics, the gray of steel skyscrapers, the gray of mass manufactured commodities and mass manufactured cultures. 

“But Grandpa, Father says good things take hard work to make.” 

My grandfather stares into the hazy evening light coming through the kitchen window.

“The hard work was never in the shaping of the noodle dough,” he says. The gray in his eyes and the gray in his voice and the gray in his movements hold sadness, but simultaneous power. “The hard work was, and will always be, in the making of the recipe.” He opens the refrigerator, taking out a pot of cold pai gu (pork rib) soup. 

“Let us heat up the soup I premade yesterday. Soup is very important—it is the backdrop of all other flavors.” He lights the coal gas stove. A couple of tsks and the flames jump from the shadows. As he places the pot on the stove, I realize I never noticed my father making soup when I was young. Perhaps it is because soup is not made on the spot. Rather, the process is slow, subtle, unceasing, and must ao chu lai (soak up) the flavors of all the lives before us. 

My grandfather takes garlic, green onions, bean sprouts, bok choy, and two fresh, freckled eggs from the fridge. I use a pair of chopsticks to mix the eggs, and as the white and the yolk plash against pale ceramic, the soup starts to boil in the background. My grandfather drops the translucent bundle and the vegetables into the purling liquid, and I pour in the eggs. 

“This is a new recipe,” he says. “I myself have not yet figured out how to make it well, but each night, I keep experimenting with different ingredients from the markets.”

We stand beside the pot. My grandfather watches the noodles as they start to soften and spread, flowering in the liquid, and I watch my grandfather. He has used no measuring cups, no kneading board, no sweat, no sore hands. I watch him for a long time as he stands in a halo of rising steam, trying to decide if the gray in his eyes is made of hope or hopelessness. Either way, he is not the wise old grandfather I see in movies, but rather a tangle of Chinese strokes, caught in the web of time, ever grappling with new recipes.

He now dices the clove of garlic and shoots of green onion using a mortar and pestle to grind them together with red chili flakes, wei jin (MSG), and a splash of soy sauce. Once mixed, he picks up a lump of seasoning with chopsticks and swirls it into the soup. 

“Spices are strong, so you must create a careful harmony among the spices.” My grandfather continues to add bits of the mixed seasoning and more of each individual spice to his liking. The art of balancing these high-contrast spices, he explains, cannot be learned from recipe books, but rather takes patience, trial, and lots of error.

As he explains this, I realize I never stepped off board the flight. I am still lingering in the air above the ocean between East and West, because my reality is here amid the turbulence of times and cultures in the in-between. 

When I get back to America, I cook myself many bowls of noodles that taste like bad airplane food. My father, grayer now, has agreed to start reading English books. Evenings, he sits at the dinner table, stretching his lips to wrap around hunks of the new world, while I stand in the kitchen, grinding spices both Chinese and American together in my mortar. At dinner time, I taste my noodles and often spit them back out, but my father continues slurping. 

Over time, I stretch and shape my recipe until one day, I make something that no longer tastes like airplane food: a bowl of fen si in bone broth, with sweet American corn, Chinese Five Spice, and a sprinkling of diced green onions. I use fen si, because they are slippery, yet tough. They cannot thread through three generations in a distinct, straight line like la mian can, because they bend and tangle, defying definition, blending into the background. Yet they can withstand the turbulence of the in-between. Soaking up all flavors indiscriminately, they hold the countries and times within them. They are both flexible and transparent—they see clearly the truth, even as it is ever-changing before them.