Three Generations of Chinese Women Make Dumplings in a Chicago One-Bedroom
a short story by Sarah Huddleston
Lao Lao stands in her kitchen, pressing edges
of dough into crescents, pork & cabbage &
spring onion tucked in to rest under a kneaded roof.
Mother prepares the wok, sliding sesame oil
across the surface until popping bubbles
start harmonizing with the constant whine
of a box fan.
Too little oil, Lao Lao says, Put too little oil,
the dumplings will burn.
Elsewhere, Zhenjiang newscasters bicker
about Sichuan, about the Kuomintang, accent
as biting as an orange slice striking the back
of your tongue. Elsewhere, Mother’s daughter
stares at characters printed on a stack of sun-yellowed
pages, each word as foreign as the province where mother
built herself into a woman.
Xía Lan needs to learn Chinese, Lao Lao says, You don’t
speak Chinese to her at home?
Mother places her knife on the pile of dirtied
china, turns off the stove.
I speak to her, Mother says,
But she needs to know English.
Mother watches Daughter change
the television channel to sesame
street, content to watch puppets engage in garbled
conversations that at least she can pick out some words
she understands. Lao Lao arranges each dumpling
into rows on a cracked china plate, terracotta soldiers
braced for battle.
At least tell me that she can use chopsticks, Lao Lao says,
that she can write her own name, say that she loves me.
Mother folds her hands on the counter, wedding
band dusted in a coat of flour, like frost settling
on branches during the Chicago october.
Mother knows that later, after all that remains
of the dumplings are the pieces seared onto
the wok, she’ll return to her white-walled
bedroom and her husband hunched in
his office and she’ll practice her English
until her lips grow tired of assimilation, but
consonants are still confused, each word
still carrying tonal inflections, each word
still its own song.
Here, Lao Lao says, life happens too fast. Everyone moves
as if time would slip from their fingers if they dared to slow
down. In Harbin, people appreciate the time it takes to do a job right.
Daughter takes a fork, cuts into
a dumpling, steam hissing upwards
into Mother’s ears. Mother hears each
strand whisper of a city fallen to memory:
Remember how a city of ice was built in days, how lanterns gleamed against a freckled twilight.
Remember your swollen feet from wandering through rows of street vendors selling candied hawthorns and bamboo trays of baozi while your mother swept dust from your bedroom.
Remember a time when your mother would sing as she minced ginger and mandarin swelled
from her lips, as beautiful as figure skaters carving circles across the Songhua river.
Mother remembers the bag of dumplings sitting frozen
at home, remembers the hum of the microwave, how
it sounded like a locust’s wings stretching in midsummer.
A vignette of a family finding a brief union through food, but also a glimpse into the unfortunately common experience of losing your heritage.
Biography: Sarah Huddleston is a seventeen-year-old, half-Chinese, writer from Chicago, Illinois. When she is not writing, Sarah dances ballet and experiments with various vegan confections.
Cover photo source: Hannah Zahner https://camillestyles.com/food/how-to-host-a-potsticker-making-dinner-party/