The Chinese Restaurant In The Middle Of The Desert
Author: San Mao
Translator: Kara Lee, with copious amounts of assistance from Morporkia. All errors are my own.
It’s really quite unfortunate that my husband is a foreigner. Saying that about my own husband sounds xenophobic, but seeing as countries differ wildly in language and customs among other traits, during our marriage, there have been a few areas where we truly cannot find common ground.
When I first decided to marry Jose, I told him clearly that we were different, not only in nationality, but also in personality, and that we’d likely get into arguments, if not actual fistfights, throughout our marriage. He replied, “I know you have a bad temper, but you’ve also got a good heart. Sure, it’s possible that we’ll try to kill each other, but we should get married anyway.” And so, seven years after we met, we tied the knot.
I’m no Fem Lib flag-waver, but I was totally unwilling to lose, via marriage, the independence of personality and thought that I could maintain while single. So I emphasized that even after we married, I wanted to do things my way or the highway. Otherwise I would refuse to marry.
Jose said to me, “I also want you to do things ‘your way.’ If you lose your personality, then what would I have married you for?”
All right, hearing this gentlemanly sentiment placated me.
As his wife, though, I lost the language battle. That poor foreigner, no matter how many times I taught him the characters 人 and 入, he never could tell the difference between them. In the end I could only speak his language, thus letting him off that particular hook. (But as for any future children — they’ll learn Chinese even if it kills them. Jose quite approves of this.)
I wasted no time in becoming the housekeeper, and the first item on my agenda was manning the kitchen. I completely loathe all sorts of chores, but I am fond of cooking: a few bits of onions, some slices of meat, cook them together and you get a dish out of it! I very much appreciated this particular art.
My mother in Taiwan was completely heartbroken to learn that Jose’s job would take him into the vast African desert wastes, and that I’d be going there with him after our wedding. But he was the one earning the money, so what could I do but follow my meal ticket? No room for argument there.
For a short while after getting married, I cooked only Western dishes. Later on an air package came to my rescue, and I received a whole load of rice noodles, seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, instant noodles, pork jerky, and other assorted delicacies. I was so happy I seized the package and never wanted to let it go. Then a girlfriend in Europe contributed a jug of soy sauce to my pantry, and my “Chinese Restaurant” was ready for a grand opening. A pity that the sole customer wasn’t a paying one. (Later on, the number of friends who came over wanting to eat with us lined up around the block!)
In actuality the things my mother had mailed me really weren’t enough to open a “real Chinese Restaurant,” but luckily, Jose had never been to Taiwan. Jose was so ridiculously proud of his “chef” of a wife that eventually I, too, began to gain some confidence.
The first course I made was chicken soup with vermicelli. Whenever Jose came home he’d always yell “get something going, I’m starving!” In the end, the sole result of his years of devotion was a daily demand for food without even a glance towards his beloved spouse — though this did mean that I didn’t need to trouble myself over any possible loss of looks after matrimony. Anyway, as I was saying, the first thing I made was chicken vermicelli soup. He drank some and said, “Huh, what is this? Chinese noodles?”
“Would your mother-in-law mail noodles from so far away? Of course not.”
“What is it? Give me some more, it’s great.”
I picked some up with chopsticks. “This here is called ‘rain.'”
“Rain?” He looked at me blankly.
Like I said, my philosophy is to pretty much do as I like in marriage, so I just said whatever inspired me and came to mind. “See, these are formed from the first rains in spring that fall in the high mountaintops and freeze there. People who live there pick the rain and carry it down the mountains in bundles and trade it for rice wine. It’s not that easy to buy, you know!”
Jose stared at me blankly some more. Then he peered at me, then at the “rain,” and said, “Do you take me for an idiot?”
I kept my face blank. “Do you want some more or not?”
“Yes I do, you goddamn liar.”
Since then he’s eaten quite a bit of “rain,” and I still think he has no idea what it is. Sometimes I ponder to myself that Jose is kind of dumb, and that does make me a bit sad.
The second time we had vermicelli was when I made “ants climbing a tree.” For this dish, you fry the vermicelli at the bottom of a skillet for a bit, then top it with chopped meat and broth.
Jose was always hungry when he got back from work, and he crammed in a big mouthful.
“What is this stuff? It seems like yarn, or maybe it’s plastic?”
“Nope. This is nylon fishing twine, Chinese workers process it until it’s all white and soft,” I answered.
He ate another mouthful, grinned a bit, and said, “Will wonders ever cease! If we really opened a restaurant, this dish would make so much money. Sweet!” That day he ate quite a bit of processed fishing twine.
The third time he had vermicelli, it was chopped finely and mixed with spinach and meat as a filling in a meat pie, northeastern-style. Jose said, “Huh, you put some shark’s fin into this pie, didn’t you? I heard that’s really expensive; no wonder you only put a little bit in. It’s too extravagant, so please ask your mother not to send any more in the future. I’ll write a letter thanking her.”
I was laughing so hard I was rolling on the floor. “You write it, I’ll translate it, haha!”
One day Jose was about to get off work, and I took advantage of him forgetting about my pork jerky to quickly cut the stash of meat into small squares that I stuffed into a jar and hid inside a blanket. It just so happened that he had a cold that day, and wanted to sleep with an extra blanket. I forgot about my treasure and was sitting around reading “The Water Margin” for the ten thousandth time. He was on the bed, with the jar in hand, looking around. I raised my head and realized that my Precious had been discovered. I lunged to grab it, yelling, “This isn’t for you to eat! It’s medicine, Chinese medicine!”
“I’m stuffed up, so that sounds great.” He grabbed a handful and put it into his mouth. I was furious, but I couldn’t tell him to spit it out, so I said nothing.
“It’s kind of sweet, what is it?”
I said grumpily, “It’s throat drops. For coughing.”
“Cough drops made from meat? What am I, an idiot?”
When I woke up the next day, I found that he’d stolen half the jar to take to his colleagues. From that day forth, whenever a colleague of his saw me, they’d fake a cough, trying to trick more jerky out of me. This included his Muslim coworkers. (I didn’t give any to them; that would have been immoral.)
In any case, married life is spent either eating, or busily trying to make enough money to eat, so it can get pretty boring.
One day I made some rolls, much like “sushi” rolls; I used seaweed as the wrapper and put shredded dried meat inside. Jose refused to eat this.
“Are you actually asking me to eat carbon copy paper?”
I said slowly, “You’re really not going to eat it?”
“Nope, not eating it.”
Great! I happily ate a whole pile of the rolls.
“Open your mouth and let me see?” He demanded.
“Look, I haven’t turned blue. That’s because I used the reverse side of the carbon paper, so it didn’t dye my mouth.” I’m basically constantly bullshitting, so I just said whatever came to mind.
“You’re a damn liar is what you are. I really hate you. Just tell me what this is?”
“You don’t know anything about China. I’m disappointed in you as a husband.” I said, and ate another roll.
Then he got mad, grabbed one with his chopsticks, stared at it with the pathos of a samurai who knows he’s going on a one-way trip, chewed it for an age and then swallowed.
“Ah, yes, it’s seaweed.”
I jumped up. “Yes! You got it! Amazing!” I tried to jump again, but this time he whacked me on the head.
Eventually the Chinese ingredients were almost gone and my “Chinese Restaurant” couldn’t afford to go on, so Western dishes started appearing on the dinner table again. Jose came back from work, saw that I was actually preparing steak, and shouted in surprise. “Make mine medium-rare! And are you frying potatoes?”
But after he’d had steak for three days straight, he seemed to lose his appetite. He cut a piece but then stopped eating.
“Are you too tired from work? Do you want to take a nap and then eat?” Hey, even this old lady can have a bit of warmth to her once in a while.
“No, I’m fine, I just don’t like this.”
When I heard that, I bounded up with a roar. “You don’t like it? YOU DON’T LIKE IT? Do you know how much steak costs per pound?”
“No, dear, I’d like to eat some ‘rain.’ The food from your mother is the best, after all.”
“All right, all right. The Chinese Restaurant will be open for business twice a week, how’s that sound? How often do you want the ‘rain’ to fall?”
One day Jose came home and said, “The big boss called me in today.”
I looked up with a glint in my eye. “Did he give you a raise?”
I grabbed him so hard my fingernails dug into his flesh. “No? So you’re fired? Oh my god, we’re doomed, we’re …”
“Let go and let me finish, you lunatic! The boss said, everyone at the company has been invited to our house to eat except for him and his wife, and he’s been waiting for an invitation …”
“Your boss wants me to cook for him? No way, we’re not having him over, I’m happy to have any of your friends and colleagues here, but it’s just ass-kissing to invite your superior! I still have some integrity in me, you know, I-” I was about to deliver the mother of all lectures on the Moral Character Of The Chinese People, but I couldn’t really explain it well, and when I saw Jose’s expression, well, I had no choice but to choke down my “moral character.”
The next day he asked me, “Hey, do we have any bamboo?”
“There’s plenty of chopsticks in the house, what do you think they’re made out of?”
He rolled his eyes at me. “The boss said he’d like to eat bamboo shoots stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms.”
Amazing; this boss has actually seen the world. So much for looking down on foreigners. “All right. Ask him and his wife to come eat dinner tomorrow. Don’t worry, the bamboo will grow itself.”
Jose gazed at me amorously. It was the first time since our marriage that he had looked at me with the eyes of a lover. What a rare favor bestowed upon me! Sadly, that day my braids were more like frayed ropes and I was doing a good impression of a hag.
The next night, I made three courses ahead of time, and kept them warmed at a simmer. I arranged candles on the table, which had a red tablecloth overlaid on a white one. It looked beautiful. This meal was a rousing success. Not only was the food fantastic, but I also cleaned myself up, and went so far as to put on a long skirt. After dinner, while our guests were getting into their car, they pulled me aside and said, “If our public relations group ever has a vacancy, we hope you can come join our company.”
My eyes lit up. This development was entirely credited to those bamboo shoots stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms.
After seeing them off, it was already late. Quickly I stripped off the skirt and put on jeans, tied my hair back, and started scrubbing the dishes with vigor. It felt nice to go back to being Cinderella. Jose was quite pleased with everything, and said from behind me, “Hey, that dish was delicious; where did you get the bamboo?”
“What bamboo?” I said as I kept washing the dishes.
“The bamboo shoots you cooked tonight!”
I cracked up. “Oh, you mean the cucumbers stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms?”
“What? You–you–you can mess with me all you want, but you dare to pull that on my boss …”
“I didn’t pull anything on him. He himself said it was the most delicious ‘tender bamboo shoots with shiitake mushrooms’ that he had ever eaten in his life.”
Jose hoisted me in an embrace, soapy water splashing all over his face and beard as he yelled, “You’re the best! The very best! You’re like that monkey … the one with the seventy-two transformation of what …”
I slapped him on the head. “Sun Wu Kong, the Great Sage, the Equal of Heaven! And don’t go forgetting it this time.”