The Liu family didn’t agree on much. Nothing at all really, except my dumplings looked like insects, and they did. No matter how I tried, it didn’t matter. They stayed insects. Small lips with off-sized heads, impoverished bellies, and frail vertebrae threatening to dissolve in liquid-thin containers, but this is where the agreement ended.
Each member of my wife’s family had a different solution to my problem. My elder sister (she said I was family and insisted I call her sis) had only a pair of metal crutches to get around in and thought that I might be greedy for experience: “Don’t put in so much filling; when you do, more comes out and you end with less,” she said, showing me how to pinch the filling. Her fingers had a muscular feel; not an unsurprising feature. Whenever she had to leave her apartment, she edged down five very winding flights of stairs, so she was very patient in showing how not to overreach.
But that didn’t change the situation. I could mimic the precise amount; hold my fingers at the same distance apart before allowing my forefinger and thumb to form a circle. But still, my dumplings collapsed from inside and out. I would try to hide them on a tray the same way a weaker soldier might try to lose the self in a line of precisely trained professionals. But my mother-in-law was prepared; she picked out each of my creations, keeping her fingers away from her apron, crisscrossed as the apron was with flowery vines, before depositing my insects in a plastic bag stuck to a nail at the edge of the counter.
Naturally, my mother-in-law had a different theory; her life weighed down not by a hunger for experience but by an obsession with removing all signs of dirt and clutter from her kitchen and living area. Late at night and into the morning, I heard mom (she insisted I call her mom) on her knees, scrubbing away at the linoleum so that after an evening flooded with an oily mix of steam, the tile was a mirror. Mom had no trouble naming my failure. I had not been trained to fold the lip of a dumpling properly, so she concentrated her wide fingertips on pressing down the edges of the dumpling until finally she folded a hand-made wrapper and placed each end to end, while making sure none touched the other. I was next, and to help matters along, I added a slender bit of filling in order that none should spill out, while bringing together the lip so that my dumpling could fit between my index and thumb before dropping my dream creation in with the rest of the crowd.
Mom studied my work, her face acquiring a funereal color. Hu Mei stuck her metal crutch into my heel, then reached for my insect before waving the insect above a faintly lined tile, and with a slight flick of a muscular wrist, sent the dumpling off the backside of the counter into an open plastic bag. All three women agreed the best course was to retreat to the living room and watch Pawnshop II, a show where wealthy Hong Kong businessmen put their souls in hock for the sake of their curvy wives before dad took control of the remote control and switched to Young Detective II where a detective with a boyish face together with Fan Bing Bing, his willowy assistant and sometime martial arts expert, was able to find unsocial types from the smallest pieces of evidence. But that was not the end, by a long shot, Dad having a different theory.
My problem was that I listened too much to women. He didn’t say that I was henpecked. He didn’t have to. But he was clear that I had started too late into the project. I should slice the dough: a satiny sheet dotted with crystals and spread the length of the counter. Dad held a small knife up and cut the sheet in half and apportioned the sheet into six evenly drawn pieces. To emphasize that the procedure was numbered, he closed his right hand in a fist before raising his other hand in the general direction of my nose. Dad took a bit of the filling, put the filling in front of me before placing the filling in the center of the wrapper and folding the wrapper securely, much as if snapping a ribbon to a present. He had me do the same. I drew the dough into six pieces, each precisely the same size, before plopping the filling in the center of a wrapper. All the while, dad kept his arms crossed and glared at his wife and elder daughter, who obviously did not understand men. Dad strode over to survey the result of our joint effort. His face lost color. Dad shook his head before pointing his fist in the direction of his elder daughter who scooped up my creation and hit the plastic bag in stride.
My wife did not give up on me, however. She merely determined that I was better suited for supplies. Li had a lunch date with a college friend and sent me out with new family. Mom washed out the plastic shopping bags. Sis took out a crutch lined with stickers and sunk the other into a small pool below the stoop. Dad followed not far behind, stopping at a Park that had been built by a British Consul at the turn of the century when the Park had been called “No Dogs and Chinese.” Four players occupied a table, plastic tiles slapped on the stone. The Park was surrounded by a pig iron fence having scalloped rails missing. My new family crossed through an opening onto Pu Yin Avenue, which was the main thoroughfare of the District.
A British Consul had widened the avenue for the purposes of training an Arabian stallion that he had imported from Arabia about the turn of the century. The stallion died mid shipment. A bronze statue was set down in its place. The horse had a deeply embedded rump and a mane with a few hairs frozen in mid air. The Consul’s son looked to be twelve and was balanced on a saddle blistered with small bumps which were meant to be Arabian jewels. The boy’s mother carried a parasol and looked upwards at her son. The Consul gripped the muzzle. The eyes of the Consul, his son and the horse were all rubbed off. Mom walked towards the rubbed out and bronzed eyes and past a motor bike which used the sidewalk as an alternate traffic lane. Sis moved out into a flood of taxis and bicyclists until emerging out the other side next to the stallion’s indrawn nostrils.
Even though I had studied their path across the Race Course Avenue (that was the avenue’s original name), when a motor bike started to make its way on the sidewalk, I backed into a restaurant whose specialty was butterfly fish. My new parents had taken me there on my first night in China, and the first floor was lined with aquariums, all with a special heating system so that the tropical fish could maintain a native comfort. One black and white fish pressed its lips against a stained window lit by orange phosphorescence. I looked up at my new parents through one of the aquariums. Mom had her arms crossed, dad spitting sesame seeds against a dug up pavement. I started across the avenue, but as soon as a truck sped through a red light and squeezed between a motor bike and popcorn vender, I retreated to the bottom floor and would have remained the object of a butterfly fish’s affection if sis hadn’t retraced her course across the wide spanned avenue.
Then, sis gave me my second dumpling lesson: “when walking across the avenue, keep a steady pace. Don’t slow down. Never go backwards.”
Sis added for good measure, “Don’t worry. The skilled drivers get close, but don’t worry. They miss most of the time.”
Sis smiled then dug her nails into my wrist when a taxi did a u-turn near the heels of my sneaker and when a motor bicyclist puckered her lips like a butterfly fish before executing a move to trim the excess from my knees, and after a VW sedan forgot about the foreigner and headed straight towards a loosely constructed cart, exploding popcorn through a broken stack, the two of us reached the kid’s jeweled saddle. Mom and dad fell in then with some mill worker on lunch break. But before I could also pursue a crowd disappearing into a flap of a canvas upholding a block-long street market, sis planted me beneath the deeply set nostrils of the bronzed imperialist stallion then gave out my next dumpling lesson,
“You can chase us…at a distance.”
“Don’t worry,” I replied. “I just want to see an open air market.”
Sis smiled, “Don’t come near. If they see a foreigner, the price doubles.”
“On produce?” I asked.
“Especially on produce,” sis looked over: then pointed to a bench near the edge of the Hai River and said that if the show got boring I could wait there.
My family was at the back of the tent: mom in a prone position next to clump of bok choy in a wooden crate; dad beside a tear in a bluish green leaf; sis propping her head on her mom’s shoulder while helping mom tease apart a leaf before studying a wedge of air gathering above my shoulders that I pretended not to see, shaking a yam and listening for what I have no idea. I felt a sharp jab and stared into the eyes of a dealer, who like many residents of my wife’s district, mastered the art of sesame seed chewing. The yam dealer pointed towards a handheld calculator. I paid in full. The dealer smiled, showing a gold filling to an older woman, who I assessed to be his mom. On the way to the meeting spot, I stopped beside a school of cuttlefish gathered about an oblong rock, but this time I left as another guy with a gold tooth scuttled towards me along the muddy floor of the market. I lugged the vegetable back to the meeting spot and waited. An old lady sat beside me on the bench. She spit sesame seeds on the sidewalk. Two hours later, my new family came for me. The old lady was still ignoring me while spitting sesame seeds. I was still cradling a yam with a soft inside. “How much,” sis translated.
When she heard the price mom muttered into the split pavement. Dad spit out a sesame seed which sis explained meant I should worry about my yam, which I did, until the four of us reached the wide-spanned avenue. Mom and dad ploughed through a flood of bikes and taxis. Sis put out her hand, and I waited beside the prominent nostrils of the Imperialist horse while she disappeared behind a 202 bus, threatening to sideswipe a motor bike wielding a cart of German tourists. After two taxis freely raced across the yellow meridian, my elder sis came for me. This time, when a Volkswagen sedan apparently arrived at an understanding with a Saab that my right foot was too large for my own good, I closed my eyes and felt sis’s crutch creaking gently along the expansive pavement until I was face to face with a butterfly fish, kissing a glass lit by warm phosphorescence–and was safe.
The final dumpling lesson took place in two stages. The first started at my first eight-course banquet during my first night in China when I committed my first error. As a guest of honor, the waiter placed a plate of steaming dumplings on the Lazy Susan in front of me, but instead of spooning out a few and passing the dumplings on, I took the well lined plate and started eating. Sis was sitting next to me–she wanted to practice her English–and took the plate from me, telling me I was expected to share. Mom’s face had lost color. It had a funereal pallor. I looked around at the Chen clan (some 15 cousins of mom’s, her 3 sisters, and various hangers on), but they were either pretending not to realize that their new relative was a pig or hadn’t noticed my failure to follow etiquette. Sis must have, though, intuited my embarrassment and put her hand over my own saying, “Don’t worry. They thought the same of dad.”
I wasn’t comforted. She felt that also and took me out of our banquet room. It had a television and sound system, and Auntie Fei was already warming the karaoke hits, which I was expected to perform a fair number as the honored guest. The floors near the aquarium featuring imported butterfly fish had puddles of salt water. Sis was an expert at crossing difficult surfaces and applied her crutches smoothly along the chipped linoleum floor until guiding me to a bench facing the statue of the foreigners plus horse and told me the rest.
“Dad is from Suzhou and at first could not stand northern dumplings. As mom says, he felt they were too heavy, coated his stomach, so mom’s family thought he was a stuck up southerner.”
“How did he change that?” I asked.
“He learned to fit in,” sis tapped my knuckle.
“You mean he gave up his dumplings.”
“Xiaolongbao, that’s what they call it. Yes, and there’s chicken soup inside, and it’s really sweet. It’s hard to speak after taking some. That’s true love,” sis said and puckered her thin lips in a way that let me understand why Li described her elder sister as a Rose of Tianjin–who would have been popular if sis hadn’t been “a handicapped girl,” as my wife put the situation.
“Ya but the soup dumplings weren’t the reason,” sis said. “Mom’s parents didn’t like him. Not at all…. We should go in,” sis added, “and have the fried butterfly. Mom won’t be happy if our foreigner didn’t have the dish.”
Li had said that the fish was pricey and her mom had to go in early to reserve the butterfly fish and threatened the owner if he tried to switch the fatty prize for a scrawny cousin.
“In a minute,” I said, remembering my new auntie who was pressing me with questions like do foreigners do karaoke? What was the reason then?
“My mom’s family remains true believers and my dad’s folks used to own land, though dad actually was from a poorer family. Dad’s father liked gambling a little too much and lost the property, so mom’s parents weren’t really being too fair, but in those times, you were either born into a good red family or not. None of the Chen’s understood why mom picked out dad. Auntie Fei won’t even have him sing along; auntie can go all night with the Sound of Music. But daddy would rather live on Elvis. Each night, he’d sing “My Happiness” to us girls at the table. He’s like you. He has not a string of ambition and is willing to work like a horse for nothing so no hope. Everyone said this about him, my grandma the most pushy, asking, ‘why do you marry such a son of a fool,’ and mom couldn’t explain, but I know we Liu girls say we want a strong fellow. Li had one,” sis paused. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry, I know about Li’s first husband,” I shrugged.
“Well, he was as stubborn as my sis, and I think she learned that it’s better when they give in. I hope you don’t mind, my younger brother.” Sis licked her upper lips.
I shrugged. “I know about Shin.” He was my wife’s first husband.
“So mom complains about dad; it’s her hobby like he can’t make a decision any which way, but I know she likes taking over. She can call him a son of fool and do what she wants.
“There was one time he couldn’t be moved.”
“When was that?” I asked.
Sis pointed to her crutch lined with Amway stickers, “Daddy always blamed himself for this. He had no reason. I got polio just like a lot of babies, and he knows but couldn’t get it out of his head that I was his problem.”
“You should know.”
Li must have told her sis how I had spent a few years of my childhood at the local children’s hospital. The doctors had noticed that I had difficulty walking, “my feet went way too inward” (that’s how one of them put my situation) and I couldn’t do any number of basic tasks, including hold a pen properly–leading to a whole epic of failed treatments too detailed to chronicle here. “Yes I know,” I nodded.
Sis pressed her wide fingertips on my palm. “So dad won’t let me leave. I could go halfway to the dug out center, but sis had to walk with me to the Park, and I would just love to tease her; whenever any of the kids played with her, I would jump in and say we had to go, and she’d have to leave. Li wasn’t happy. I know that, of course. Who wants a crippled sis hanging about? But mom started to complain that her husband tries to make her elder a weak southerner, and when things got really bad she pointed to how he never could get any push up at the College, though I know mom was secretly proud dad was the only one who didn’t have his hand out.
“But mom won. I remember because she shattered my crutch in half, and we had to use her family’s connections in the hospital, and for several months I was like a prisoner. I was six, and daddy apologized and carried me into the Park, which he still called by its old name “No Dogs and Chinese”–I don’t know why–until he laid me down on a bench near the backside gate. I remember hearing but not being close enough to look at the mahjong tiles–the sound of the tiles feeling like firecrackers at Spring Festival until dad carried me to the hospital where they had a new metal crutch. Dad let me have it, this one,” sis pointed to her right, “and ever since then, dad didn’t do anything, he just went along with what mom wanted. She said I was spoiled,” sis smiled, “and made me shop like all the rest of the girls and won’t let dad help me, even with the groceries.”
* * *
Sis managed to carry some bok choy. A bluish green leaf stuck to a scratch on her chin. Li had also told me about her mom breaking the metal crutch and said the metal splintered everywhere and added also a detail that sis left out; “a splinter of the metal stuck into sis’s palm, and a dad took the splinter out with a pin that was fired up in the coal stove. The coal stove had a winding pipe like the flute of a trumpet.” Li stopped. “I didn’t like hearing sis cry. We shared the same rollout in the living room. There were drops of her spit on her pillow.
“But she was a baby, and now I can see mom’s point. You can scrub a pillow if you know what I mean.”
“Sis was able to move after that, and I was alone, not having to walk with her everywhere.”
“You don’t need to worry about me here.”
Li laughed and pointed to the yam that I was still cradling, “You better put that down.”
And I did, sitting on the roll-out couch, which by now had a stick out and was pointing into my lower backside. It might have been that the programming had switched. Dad was watching Pawnshop No. 2: the owners in the Taiwanese soap trying to lure a businessman with a striking gold cap put into hock his soul in order to ensure his wife’s happiness. Because this was all I caught of the plot and only this bit because my wife gave me a snapshot before leaving for the kitchen, I had time to consider Li and her sister’s story, and I started to weigh whether Li’s relationship with her sister had prepared Li to live with a handicapped husband, not that I am comparing my circumstance with my new sis’s situation; what was my problem anyways? Some professional had diagnosed nobody told me what, or I forgot the theory, and there I was, going back and forth to Newington Children’s Hospital, a brick mausoleum on a hill overlooking a turnpike that had seen better days. But anybody who’s been treated inside a place like a Children’s Hospital knows that the lesson stays with you, marks your hands, makes your gestures awkward no matter how you may be on the outside.
Here’s my splinter memory: I was in the hospital with a therapist or maybe a gym teacher, I was five or was it six, and the guy had set up a balancing beam. I don’t recall much, but I do remember the strange mix of his baritone with the sound of traffic hurling up the mountain and felt afraid there would be an accident, mine or someone else’s I wasn’t sure, but when he said it was simple, the bars seemed long, and when he offered to walk me across, I refused. He said I would never learn to walk, not this way, and didn’t I know the lesson that unless you give in there wasn’t a thing you could learn. But he couldn’t convince me that I could balance on a thin piece of wood rounding off at the edges, and eventually, he sent me off with a teacher who let me read in a corner until mom took me off the mountain. These weekly lessons went for a few years until once, I stopped hearing the strange mix of his voice and the rattle-tat of traffic and started learning to run right away when I was in the playground and another kid threatened to pound me in the ground. Then, I learned to run down a hill smaller than the one that the hospital was set on, but I learned all the same.
* * *
At the commercial break for Pawnshop No. 2, Li asked whether I wanted a new dumpling lesson. The Hong Kong businessman was standing next to a counter while contemplating a hocked ring that matched in complexion of his front tooth, and I thought about staying to find out whether the wife of the Hong Konger could obtain happiness but followed the younger sister of the Liu family past the iron stove with a pipe the shape of a trumpet bell and towards a diamond-shaped kitchen window misting up with steam. I studied mom as I would have the gym teacher and watched as she pressed down on the dumplings with her pudgy fingers so this time, I gave in and pressed down, until the lips of the dumpling were sealed and I felt a shiver down my spine. Sis, a regular rose of Tianjin, pretended to be flirting with her new brother before emptying the wicker basket and steaming the dumplings together, mine still the only one without a spine like maybe a butterfly fish, who knows. The four of us had supper and went back at 8:30 promptly to watch Fan Bing Bing, the sometime martial arts expert of Young Detective II, give a lesson on how to float above a red tiled roof.