Scoundrel Time

A Dinner

The pair of chopsticks had gone underground. So had the teacups and bowls, duck spoons and condiment dishes, teapots and plates. Long came home and did not want them around. “They are trash,” he said. “They are barbaric,” he said over the head of his mother, who did not know what he was talking about and for that, he picked up the chopsticks and hurled them against the wall. He meant business.

“In this household we don’t need these!”

“Chinese” had become a contentious word for Long. Ever since he became a young man. And it had not changed; over the years it had worsened. His ego was oceans deep and monstrous, a dragon with a mighty tail, culture as wealth and indigo sweat, filled with gallons of ink and cuisine and castles and more. He did not think he was not the only Chinese person living, but a billion others ate with chopsticks. Nothing more than a simple tool, but even this, a pair of bamboo sticks, would anger Long much.

Long’s mother shut her eyes and set down her pair. She knew by now, whatever she said things would not change. He only did this to her, not others. There was nothing she could do about this situation. She understood many things but could not fully know what was wrong with him, not at all, why did anyone in their right mind do this, Chinese, not Chinese, why did such things matter, son, where were your bones, breasts. She was puzzled for a long while, until one day, she finally understood, and it was only this—“My son wants to kill me.”

He wanted to kill her because he minded her. He found her not good enough. He was ashamed of her, he looked down on her. And he had to package these feelings with “progress,” “modernity,” “Chinese.”


After these thoughts entered her mind they did not leave. They grew thorns, like the stem of a rose, hanging with water droplets. “My son wants to kill me,” she thought. He wanted to make life unbearable for her in the name of family, where he could be whoever he wanted—a lord, dragon, psychopath, delinquent, prime minister, connoisseur, but not a child, for if she, and her name was Mei Yan, mentioned to him the word “son,” a storm erupted again: “Do not give me any more of your Oolong tea.”

Mei Yan picked up her teacup and put water to her lips. This time, she wondered if she could settle things once and for all. To think that it was only yesteryear, when Long was a baby in her arms, the hospital’s fluorescence bright on his open mouth. A tongue like a kitten’s, so soft, so pink, curling out. Eyes that did not want to open, let me sleep more, let me, mother, and when they did they were the most uncanny pair of eyes, the blackest nights. With two stars in them, twinkling like the universe belonged to them.

Then the years flew by like Long owned time. The first steps, the aching wails, don’t let me go, mother, don’t let me fall. The first day of school—a separation, society taking over, its American father and mother with their new sets of rules, so different from the ones she’d gone through in China, that she had to tell her parents in her heart, ma, pa, goodbye, my son would be a stranger to you from now on, to me too. And she was right. Long, with his American face and English, was no longer someone she could understand.

But Long did not know he was helpless when he was a child. He was grown and great. This was foul play, he was being unfair to a mother, whom he only saw as a servant. Some years back he came home and had refused to address her as mother. He had said, cruelly,  “In this society, where you are not a part of, people are equal. That isn’t the case in Asia, or wherever you were born. Over here, we call parents by their names, it’s our culture.”

Since then she was either nameless, or he’d called her, Mei Yan, Mei Yan, get me this, that. A towel, banana, apple, go to the supermarket, I need razors. Razors he wanted to put to his chin in a premature fashion, for having not enough hairs was a humiliation. Mei Yan wasn’t sure if to laugh or weep, at this nonsense for his comparison to American men. Look, she’d wanted to say, this had nothing to do with America. In China, there’d be a million other men, some fiercer than Rottweilers.

But she could not say any of this. America was a castle with its own reality, one Long was sunk in, people were okay, they were fair to you, she only said. But Long had flicked his eyes at her, “No!” he said, “You don’t know anything.” After a while he added, “We do not settle for less.”

She did not ask who “we” were. “We” to her was a grand word, for throughout her experiences in that ancient land she had seen only the hungers of men, the seed of selfishness and corruption and lust. People pushed and shoved, for if they did not, the consequences were rough. Everywhere informants and rumors to make life a living hell. She wanted to ask Long, was “we” so different in America? It had not included a woman with nothing from China.

But he’d answered her, without her saying these things. They were mother and son, their thoughts were bare, and he’d continued to use “we” against the mother, for youth was “we,” against the aging and infirm. “We are different,” he said, “We are the same.” And by these he meant he was better, in every way, Mei Yan did not know what to think—what better or worse, when to her only a reality was given. Whether in America or China, one lived, fell sick, grew rich or poor, and when one was in trouble, most checked out by the first exit. Most would, except for Mei Yan, she would stay for all of this, didn’t he know that?

Whatever he knew or did not. He was doing this because he was afraid of men, not just American. But he’d push his fear onto her. The pair of chopsticks, which Long had hurled without sparing a thought, was scattered. One had landed near the TV set, the other she’d have to find. Or it might be just gone, the apartment had only two rooms. There was no point trying to locate one chopstick. Through the curtained window a weak sun lit. Dusk was drawing near and she’d not turn on the lights, was about to, before the chopsticks flew. Sitting next to her Long said now,

“You already know. You are not American. All these beef stir fry makes me wonder if you can ever cook anything not Chinese.”

And for a moment, a glassiness visited his eyes. Long knew its arrival, it’d turned chilly in the living room, as though heaven filled the room. The knife beside the chopsticks had turned cold, which the mother had set for the baguette, for she’d known he liked it, to put beef slices above the French bread and eat them along with rice. The chair shifted, legs scratched the vinyl floor. Long got up, and with eyes that saw nothing, left the living room, escaped into his own heaven.

Now she was alone with a tableful of marvelous food. This person did not need a mother, she thought. Throughout his earlier years at school, people had praised him, for he was an attractive lad and had done well. Whether in piano or painting, once he’d done a portrait of her, whom many believed in—fantastic colors, just the right shadows. Shut the curtains to the outside world everything was grey, and this had turned her ashen, into someone she did not recognize. It had pained her, angered her, for Long’s doubleness was like a secret. Each time she had listened to his teachers, other parents, smiled without teeth that checked her cheeks. Did he know what he was doing to her, to want her to keep herself hidden, her real feelings folded into a closet, in a home that might as well be ashes, for her failure to be a normal mother, who had given the world one son, not twins.

From the glass kettle she poured more water. Drink up, this was a celebration. Right now Long was in college, an Ivy League, living in a different state, and came home only once in a while. The money for it had been set aside by inheritance, an education fund. Now she was widowed, subsisting on what was left. She was tired. Life in America looked like a dead end, a graveyard, the emptiness of an eagle in the vacuum of the American sky. Regrets to her were like sleeves of old clothes, faded and yellowed, still remembered, for it was her hobby to take photographs of them: A shirt, pants, dress, locket, a pair of forgotten Mary Janes, some her mother’s, now passed away too. There was nothing left for her in her old country of Fujian. She had come too far away, but for a lost brother in Taiwan. Living people who were conscientious took care of their deaths, she knew Long would not want to handle these belongings. They were only useless burdens to him, and slowly she’d packed them in suitcases, carried them to the second hand stores.

Beside the store was a diner. Sometime back she’d gone in. There was a lady there from the poorer areas of Europe. On her solemn face was a tiredness, which could not be cured with rest, as though a yawn had swallowed her even when her mouth was closed. Mei Yan recognized this perpetual yawn. The same tiredness that never left an immigrant. She had gone in for the sudden impulse to understand a foreign soup. Her tongue was still lively then and by taste, could discern the ingredients. Then remade its memory with Chinese ingredients, for respite, against the same old foods, the chewing and dragging of a mouth, without which a person was nothing too.

Now she opened it. All along her hands had been cutting the baguette. She ate the bread plain. The baguette was from an organic supermarket. She could not bake. The oven wasn’t born into her, only the wok, pot, ladle, spatula, knife, not one for bread, but a gyuto chef knife, which she sharpened with whetstone. It was one she had for half a decade, now a part of her. Her mouth yawned. The bread too, swallowing her instead of the other way round. Eating had grown unnecessary, the liveliness dulling, the chewing half-hearted, the bread yawning in her mouth, her face dough. When she had just come to this country with her husband, she’d looked into the mirror and it was no longer the face she knew in her country. It was one that had lost its weight, a halved face, as though a cleaver had divided it.

Still chewing she got up. One by one she took the plates of food to the kitchen. The stir fry, the baguette. The large bowl of Chinese herbal soup, riddled with red dates, wolfberries, wild yam, Codonopsis Root, Angelica Sinensis, Soloman’s Seal, Astragalus Root, dried figs, lily bulbs, scallops, nut barley, coix seeds, overlord flower, double brewed for six hours, the poor chicken’s soul long gone, to keep the nutrition for a man called Long. She should have known, you should have known, mother. This was the way it was for centuries, the man a lord, cowardly or brave, successful or junk, follower or leader, American or Chinese, her work was to brew this wonderful bowl of herbal soup, because she was a mother. Now you knew your worth, today was over but it might still snow, tomorrow a homeless man might want this soup, but he’d tell you the same thing: Mother, in this world, men are lords.

By the sink she cut the baguette and set some on a porcelain plate. With the bamboo chopsticks, she put on them beef. With a spoon she scooped sauce. The sparkle in the knife caught her eye, she moved her sight away. It was not necessary to eat these with chopsticks. She was afraid. She took the plate and went to Long’s room. Outside the door was a picture hanging of Paris in autumn. A man in a black trench coat smoking a cigarette was walking towards a vanishing point, alongside trees browning and amber. She wondered if he’d turn around so she could see his face, or if Long would open the door if she knocked. If she’d recognize his face or the room. She remembered she was once the girl in China, the ones who shook their heads in fright and turned pale. There were many, many kinds of Chinese women living on earth, but he insisted she be like others. She wondered if change was still possible for her, as she set the plate down on a stool and shifted it to the side—son, born in America or China, you are still my son, your country is not your mother, I am.

Back in the kitchen she did not throw the soup away, as she used to. She poured it back in the pot, covered the lid. In the living room, at the entryway, she opened the closet. The umbrellas and jackets hung there, so did the scent of mothballs Long hated. She felt her foreignness keenly, like an erect statue. She put on her coat—it might snow tonight. The air in the dark apartment felt strangely quiet. From a hook on the closet wall, she took the keys. Then Mei Yan left the apartment.





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