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Three Generations of Chinese Women Make Dumplings in a Chicago One-Bedroom

Sarah Huddleston

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

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