Croissants and Wontons
It's such a nice day to stay home and do nothing. It's overcast and
sprinkling outside as usual, and through my bedroom window I can see
people hauling gargantuan frozen turkeys across the Albertson's parking lot.
It's the most entertaining thing I've seen in a long time. A young, preppy
couple waltzes out of the sliding glass door, arm-in-arm, with groceries
in hand and that we're-so-happy look on their faces. The girl tries hard not
to slip on the slick pavement, but with those shoes, good luck. I get the
feeling it's probably this couple's first Thanksgiving together. Maybe
it's their first, intimate turkey cooking experience in the new apartment
they're co-habitating. By the looks of it, with their lack of rain gear and
excessive University of Washington attire, they're probably transfers,
newbies to Seattle.
They get into their rain-shined gas-efficient economy car and off they go,
out of the University Square shopping center and into the street. They
have out of state license plates, but I can't make it out from my second-floor
I walk to the kitchen to make my morning coffee. The sink is full of
dirty dishes, and I dig in to find the cleanest cup and rinse it out. Sometimes
I would give anything to have a dishwasher.
Aside from a dishwasher, I've got everything I need right here in my own
apartment: coffee, cigarettes and leftovers. I think I'll just stay home
all day and watch people walk in and out of the grocery store, since I
missed my first class anyway. It's the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so
I'm sure I'm not missing much.
I walk back to the bedroom in my robe and stare out my window. No one has
walked out in the past thirty seconds. My books are scattered all over
the floor and the cat is having a field day shredding the lecture notes from
my English class. The economy class ticket I booked to Paris is among my
books, and I run to snatch it before Posey lays her paws on it. What is
it about cats and paper? Posey stops what she's doing and gives me the
guilty cat-look when she sees me coming, but I don't scold her. I figure if
she's having a good time, who am I to stop her?
The rain is starting to come down harder, and just as the next set of
people finally come out of the store, my mother calls.
"Can you come home today instead of tomorrow?" she asks without saying
hello. Greetings are not in her vocabulary. "I have a ton of preparation
to do and I need some help."
Although Thanksgiving is a relatively new holiday in my family, we've
celebrated it with gusto every November since we moved to the States.
Never mind that turkeys practically didn't exist in China and everyone thought
they were just really big chickens our first year, we are now bona-fide
Thanksgiving people. Extended family members fly in from all over the
country and convene in a magic spot, and the airfare generated in our
family alone can probably support a small airline. Anyone who fails to show at
the magic spot on the big night is subject to exile from the family for an
entire year, unless you have a doctor's note to prove that you've
contractedcommunicable disease. But then of course the conspiracy theories behind
the source and cause of said disease would end up as the main topic of
discussion Thanksgiving night, and without a doubt everyone would end up
chatting about every intimate detail of the missing family member's life.
"Since we're on the topic..." they'd say as they shovel rice and turkey
into their mouths.
So nowadays the disease excuse is retired, and it's rare for someone to
not show. The magic Thanksgiving spot is usually determined at random, (minus the
rare occasion when someone volunteers) and every year a different household
within the family takes on the responsibility of hosting. We have so many
households around the country that the rotation is at about every five
years, and this year it happens to be Seattle. It happens to be us.
"Min, I really need your help," my mother says after a long pause. I can
hear the static on my ancient cordless phone.
"I don't know mom, I've got a lot of studying to do," I say with a slight
whine, hoping to hit that soft spot of hers. School takes precedence over
everything in my family. But the truth is I really don't want to go.
I've been psyching myself up to break the news of Paris to her on Thanksgiving
night for the past few months, and I know that if I spend the day with her
I just won't feel right keeping it from her.
"You're not behind in your school work, are you?" Mom asks.
"Oh no, of course not. I'm just trying to get ahead." I'm such a liar.
"Ok, just as long as you're not falling behind," she says as the concern
dissipates from her voice.
It's a long running joke in my family that as long as the kids stay in school and keep up their grades, we can be arrested for dealing crack and mom will come bail us out with a smile.
"So come over and help me, and stop by Chinatown on your way over, okay?"
The okay is a statement, not a question.
I hang up the phone with one hand and reach for the cigarettes with the
other. Posey can feel the tension in the air and books it for the door.
Cats have a sixth sense about those things, I guess. Besides, she hates
it when I smoke in the bedroom.
With a little bit of nicotine running through my system I feel human again
and manage to throw on a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt. It takes me
forever to find a pair of jeans without any tears, and the one decent pair I
finally found were from high school. They're too big for me now. I feel a little
better about being forced to leave the house when I realize that I'm
smoking my last cigarette so there's no way I can stay home all day anyway.
I venture out of the apartment and go in search of my car. Parking is so
shitty in my neighborhood that I practically have to draw myself a map to
find my car the next morning, especially after a night of drinking. When I
finally find my car, I jump in and head for the freeway. The car gives a
deep groan when I climb in. I don't blame the poor thing. After all, it
was born five years before me, and if my car was my mother's ideal
daughter, it would have its degree in medicine by now. But since it has the
misfortune of being my car, it sits on the street every day instead.
The windshield wipers broke last week so I drive extra fast on the freeway
to keep the raindrops from collecting on the windshield. It usually takes
me half an hour to get to Chinatown from my apartment but today I make it
in record time.
I zip in and out of the stores even faster than I drove because Chinatown
is always an adventure, one that I'd like to avoid today. After I get all of
Mom's requested groceries I duck into a liquor store and buy myself a pack
of cigarettes, hoping I won't run into anyone my Chinese-mafia family or I
might know. Scandalous behavior and juicy news travels faster than a
grease fire in Chinatown, especially when it involves the daughter of the highly
respected Doctor Chang.
When I decided after high
school that I didn't want to go to an ivy-league university like everyone else
in the Chang extended family, everyone knew it about the next day. It took another
week for everyone to find out that medical school was nowhere in my future.
"There goes poor Chang's hopes for his daughter to follow in his
footsteps," the dim-sum ladies had whispered in Mandarin as they pushed their steaming
carts of buns and dumpling around the restaurant. "What a waste! That Min is such a smart girl. And what's this about her majoring in English? You can study English in university? Doesn't she already speak English?"
"Hey everyone, I'm here," I say as I walk through the door and take off my
boots. I try to find some room on the shoe rack but it's no use, so I
just add my shoes to the enormous pile by the door.
The house is spotless if you overlook the shoe pile. How can two
middle-aged people have so many pairs of shoes? Mom comes out of the
kitchen with her hair in a neat bun, wiping her hands on her apron. The
late afternoon sun is streaming through the streak-free window and the
golden light softens the lines on her face. She looks tired today, or
maybe she's grown older since the last time I saw her. It's been months.
"Come and help me wrap some wontons for tomorrow night, you know, we're
feeding a small army," mom says with a slight snort and heads for the
kitchen again. This is probably the first time I'm glad she's not a
greeter or a hugger, because my hair reeks of smoke.
She sits down at the dining room table, surrounded by endless
rows of bowls, each topped to the brim with wonton filling.
"I'll be right there," I say as I go to the bathroom in search of soap,
perfume and a toothbrush.
Walking down the hallway that
leads to the
bathroom, I see my framed high school diploma hanging proudly at
eye-level. The glass looks like it was just dusted today.
"Min Chang, Valedictorian," the gold-rimmed document reads in bold
old-English type. I wonder if the damned diploma would be hanging there
if I hadn't beat Maria Spellman for valedictorian, or if the entire family
wasn't going to convene here in less than twenty-four hours. The last
time we had Thanksgiving here I was still in high school, so I guess no one has
yet seen the proof, even though I'm sure my parents wear it like a badge.
I guess my parents have to save face somehow after the ivy-league and
medical school embarrassment, and if showing off my stupid diploma makes them feel
better, what is there for me to do, rip it off the wall?
When I'm minty-fresh, I go back to the kitchen to join mom where she's
humming to herself in a voice so sweet I want to hug her. I stop myself.
Instead, I stand off in the distance for a minute and marvel at the way
she's putting those dumplings together, her small hands expertly folding
here and pinching there at lightening speed. Her exceptional wrapping
skills are compliments of all those years working in the family restaurant
while my father earned his medical degree.
Father was a well-known surgeon
in China, but once we moved to the States, he couldn't even get a job as a
medical assistant. Without a medical degree from an American university,
his experience and expertise meant nothing. So it was back to school
again, learning things he had learned as a young man, but this time as a
middle-aged one, in a different tongue. It was hard on him, and my
mother, too, to move to the land of opportunity to find themselves with less than
they had back home. I was just a kid then, but I remember when my mother
would come home late at night, weary and sore from a long day at the
restaurant, her beautiful black hair disheveled and smelling of grease.
I'd usually be in bed by the time she got home, but I remember I would always
try to stay up, past the point of exhaustion, so I would be awake when she
came in for her midnight visits. She would tiptoe into my bedroom in
complete darkness, sit on the edge of the bed and gently push the
sweat-matted hair back from my forehead.
"You've got to study hard in school so you don't have to work like I do,"
she'd whisper in my ear every night as I pretended to be asleep. As I
practiced deep breathing, she'd tell me all the hopes and dreams she had
for me. "Get good grades and go to medical school so you can take care of
your dad and me when we're old," she whispered. Every night it was the same
idea with slight variations. The only part that never changed was the school
part. Go to school and be a doctor. Go to school and be a surgeon. Go
to school and be a pediatrician. The nights she was too worn-out to talk
she'd hum to me a low, gentle voice. Those were the nights I loved best.
Sometimes if her long hair fell out of her bun as she mopped the floor at
night, a strand of it would tickle my nose as she leaned over me. Those
nights were hard to feign sleep. I wouldn't let myself laugh, though,
because I knew if I woke up, she would just pretend she was checking up on
me and leave. My mother has a tough exterior that not even her only child
could penetrate, and the only chances I had to bond with her were the
nights I could stay up late enough to hear her come into my bedroom.
But after a few years the late night visits stopped. Mom cut back her
hours and eventually sold the restaurant to a relative when father earned his
medical degree and set up a clinic in Chinatown. Instead of humming to me
and pushing my hair back from my forehead at night, she would nag me about
my school work. I was a teenager and school was the last thing on my
mind.I think that's when our relationship began to sour.
"Min-ah! Where are you?" my mother yells in Mandarin. Because she was so
concerned with me learning perfect English as a child, our household had
become English-only, with our native tongue reserved only for impatient
moments and fights over school.
I walk into the kitchen and sit next to her on a hard rosewood chair.
It's one of the only "Asian" pieces of furniture on my parents' house and my mother
takes great pride in it, polishing every week with expensive oils. I grab a
spoon and a stack of wonton wrappers and get to work, and for every one
that I wrap, my mother wraps two.
"So where's Dad?" I ask in my broken Mandarin.
"He had to run to the clinic," Mom answers. "That no good assistant he
hired can't do anything on his own."
I pray that whatever Dad has going on at the clinic will take a while, because it's always
easier to break bad news to my mom, and with my crappy Mandarin it'll take hours.
Mom has always served as a buffer between me and Dad's wrath. I remember the fire in
his eyes when he first heard I was planning to major in English.
I take a couple of deep breaths and empty my mind, trying to think about
nothing but wontons, but the Eiffel tower keeps sneaking into my thoughts.
I practice the deep breathing I mastered as a child and put both my hands
in auto-pilot mode. Wrap, tuck, pinch. Wrap, tuck, pinch. Wrap, tuck,
Think turkey, think Thanksgiving, think tomorrow, I tell myself. You're
not ready to tell her yet. When I look at the pile of wontons I wrapped, they
all look like baby croissants.
"Mom, I have to tell you something," I blurt out when my fingers begin to
cramp and my brain is ready to explode. My hands are white and powdery
from the wonton wrappers, and I stare at them because I don't dare look at
my mother. I continue talking. I'm too afraid to stop.
"I'm going to take a year off school to travel Europe."
Silence. I wring my hands and watch my knuckles turn white. Her piercing
stare makes me wince but I keep my eyes downcast. I bite the inside of my
cheek so hard I taste blood when I speak again.
"I have some money saved up and I've already booked a flight to Paris." I
stumble over the word Paris because I didn't know the Mandarin for it. I
say the word in English with a slight shift of tone, hoping my mother
would catch my meaning. "I'll travel around until I find a city I like and
maybe find a job there or something. I really need a break from the University
for my own sanity, but I promise I'll come back to Seattle and finish my
degree after a year. I've given this a lot of thought, and I really think
it's the best thing for me right now. I can't stay here anymore."
Even though the fan over the stove is on full-blast the air feels stagnant
and stale. The whirl of the blades is deafening, yet the silence keeps
growing louder. I look up at my mother and watch as she takes slow, even
breaths through her nose. I want to shake her, demand a reaction, but
instead I bite my tongue, fighting the urge to fill the silence with my
She puts the spoon down on table and folds her hands. When she looks up
at me I see her wrinkled nose, her pursed lips.
"Min, it's not that easy," she says finally, letting out a big breath.
"It's not just a matter of taking off and coming back. If you take this
time off, it will be very hard for you to go back to school."
Why does she think that school is a joke to me? How can I convince her
that it's not?
"I know Mom, but I will go back to school," I say.
"You don't think I've listened to you all these years, but I have," I
continue as I see an image of my mother stroking my forehead. "All those
times you came in after work when we had the restaurant and talked to me
when you thought I was asleep, I was listening. I took all your words to
heart, even though my actions sometimes reflect otherwise. School is
important to me, too, and just because I'm taking a year off, doesn't mean
I'm giving up. But if I continue on the track I'm on now, I will give
I search her face, try to read her mind. Does she hate me? Will she cry
the way she did when I told her I wasn't going to medical school?
"What can I say? You're grown. I can't tell you what to do. If that's what
you need to do, that's what you need to do," she says with an air of
indifference, sinking deeper into her chair. Even though I know the "do
what you want" response is just one of my mom's lines, I feel relieved. I
knew that I would never have her blessing to take time off school, but at
least she's not freaking out.
"Mom, I promise."
"Were you really awake all those nights?" she asks, looking up at me from
beneath her plucked brows.
"Of course I was. Those were the best nights of my childhood. I looked
forward to your visits even more than leftovers from the restaurant," I
say with a smile. I hated leftovers from the restaurant.
Mom smiles, too, a smile so radiant and rare it's almost a Kodak moment.
Before I can say anything, though, she catches herself and tries to force
a frown on her face.
"We'll talk more about your trip after Thanksgiving," she says, suddenly
looking stern, trying hard to can't hide the warmth she feels inside.
"The last thing we need is a big family discussion about this non-sense."
"Thanks Mom," I say.
I grab a handful of wonton
wrappers and begin the
process of wrap, tuck, pinch, all over again, but this time, the finished
products look more like wontons, and less like croissants.