Seven Thousand Miles

As I write this, I am sitting in a crowded café on the ground floor of our hostel in Xi’An, a city exactly 7,674 miles from home. At home, seven thousand miles away, Jesse’s mom and sister are moving most of their belongings into a house they’ve rented about ten minutes from our house. When we return in two weeks, it will be the first time we have lived that close to anyone we’ve been related to in almost a decade.

This past week, we spent two nights in a city just south of Beijing. Renqiu is not a place tourists visit. There isn’t a restored temple there, nothing old to show off, nothing sparkly or shiny. No markets of souvenirs await Western pocketbooks. It’s a town of 300,000—a “small town,” our friend Faye calls it, though it is several times larger than the city we live in—and most people there work for the Petrol companies. We passed several flocks of sheep on our way into town.

In the apartment complex where Faye’s parents live are both of Faye’s aunts and uncles. In the apartment complex next door, a short walk away, live Faye’s grandparents. We spent the afternoon with Faye’s grandparents, playing mah jong, listening as Faye’s grandfather played traditional Chinese music. And then, as he whipped out a harmonica and started playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Faye’s grandmother let me help make dumplings. We crowded around a small table—Faye, her sister, mother, aunt, father, and I—and spooned meat and vegetable filling into delicate dough rounds. We pinched them closed, and Faye’s family was too polite to make fun of my clumsy offerings, which sat next to their perfect ones. These people have been making dumplings their whole life, and I thought then of my grandmother and her pie crusts, the way she knows the exact right measurements, the way she knows the texture the dough needs to be by touch, the way her fingertips have been trained by decades and decades to know how to make it perfect.

I thought of my mother making buttermilk biscuits. By sight, by memory, by touch. Perfect every time.

I wonder what I will perfect over the course of my life. What dishes will become my staples? If I have children, what food will they remember me by?

I am loving almost every moment of China, but the one thing I am looking forward to about coming back—above all others—is living close to family. Knowing that ten minutes away will be people who are connected to us by blood and history.

Now, I just need you to help me convince my parents to move to Wilmington.

But until then, I will think of my mother’s buttermilk biscuits and my grandmother’s pie crusts, and I will come home from China in two weeks, and I will try to recreate these dumplings myself. 

They spoiled us forever. 
They spoiled us forever. 

Eggs en Cocotte

Some of my best childhood memories begin at my grandparents’ s house, my father’s parents, whom we called Bunu and Buna, which are the root words of bunica (f.) and bunicu (m.) (meaning grandparents in Romanian), a diminutive meaning good, or the good one.  It’s so fitting that we called them that, because in my fortunate childhood both sets of grandparents were safe and beloved people, their homes, kingdoms of wonder that incited both fear and delight. 

Bunu and Buna lived in a house about 5 km away from our home. We often walked there, my sister and I, hand in hand to be safe.  Or if we had money, took the tram, though that was a less than pleasant experience, as my I was afraid of some of the beggars and pickpockets who rode the trams and particularly liked to give small children stern lectures and sometimes more, regarding our “egalitarian government” who made everyone such varying degrees of poor, there was no equality even in that. Most often we would give them our money, saved for that drippy cone of soft serve banana ice cream, or later (after the fall of the Communist regime) the ever elusive, ever expensive, ever worth fighting one another for every bite, the Twix bar, come to us straight from the exotic Hackettstown, New Jersey.

There would have never been Twix bars at my grandparents’ house, because they were poor, old-fashioned, no nonsense people, who woke and went to be bed, as the expression says, with the chickens. People who mostly grew their own food, whose only frivolity was a flower garden, and elaborate desserts that my grandmother spent days making at Christmas time. They made their own soap, and my grandmother knitted dresses, sweaters and scarves, from wool and occasionally mohair, which was harder to obtain. She loved to needlepoint and on plain white muslin would embroider landscapes and people with thread she dyed in an array of colors. My favorite one was of a young girl herding her geese on the shores of a lake.   

Though neither of them had more than four years of primary education, they were learned people. They read the Bible and various poems and hymns in the evenings, sitting with their cups of rose hip or chamomile tea and quiet, buttery lamplight. From the other room in the midst of our child’s loud squealing, we could hear their voices drifting, sometimes reciting psalms, sometimes praying. They loved each other deeply, fiercely, in that quiet way people of a different generation loved each other, without great displays of passion, but with the affectionate twinkling glance, the occasional teasing, the holding of the hand or the arm, the conversation of any and every small thing. 

When we were small children, our cousins and us would gather there for playtime in a large swing my father, grandfather, and uncles built for us, a swing that for us was a ship, a house, an airplane, a realm of monsters and fairies. I was captain, teller of adventures, scriptwriter for our plays, sometimes a fairy, a wood nymph, sometimes the various monsters (zmei) or knights from our collective imagination. This time was my precursor to writing. I was bossy, energetic, and tough, and to my mother’s chagrin, without an ounce of girliness in me. 

When we tired of the swing, we would run through the garden, hide amongst the tomato stalks, incur my grandfather’s wrath, who dearly loved all living things, especially is grapevines and tomato plants. And with good reason, to this day I’ve never eaten tomatoes like his, grown in a dark, rich soil, ripened under summer’s unforgiving sun, the size of grapefruits and cantaloupes, although to my child’s imagination, the size of pumpkins, or watermelons. Sometimes, we would pick them off the vine, not waiting even for salt, and ate them like apples in the shade of the house. Other times, if our impatient bellies allowed, my grandmother would chunk them, along with fresh green onions, crumbles of salty feta, and a little bit of oil, and we would eat every bite, arguing for who got to dip the bread in the remaining juices. Such pleasure!

If we had been good a few days in a row (which wasn’t very often) we would be allowed to get the eggs from the chicken coop. This was a mostly scary affair, as the hens were territorial and not unwilling to peck our small hands. Some, after laying an egg, would do a tour of the coup crowing loudly and proudly to the others. This was the opportune time to get in there as thieves, and walk away unharmed with our russet, robin’s blue, or golden boon. But more often, the smart and adaptive hens would sit on their eggs, clucking angrily when they saw us, greedy-handed children, and we had to be as gentle and invisible, to get under them and sneak out those beautiful eggs, still warm, truly fresh. 

They would get cracked in a pan of searing oil, so that the yolk stayed soft and runny, and the whites would form a crunchy crust, which I loved. We dipped bread in the yolk, bit, dipped into a steaming cup of chocolate, bit. Bliss for our small, sunburned bodies, our aching bellies, and sometimes aching arms and legs from all that running and playing and mischief. 

To this day, I can’t eat an egg without thinking of my grandparents, of their stern affection, of their generous feeding of so many of us. They cared for us when our mothers went back to work, their care a benevolence that allowed discovery, adventure, and a little trouble even. My grandfather would sometimes join our games, chase us playfully with a big stick, threatening to punish us for eating fistfuls of unripened grapes. I’ll cut off your head like a snake’s! he would say, and we would scatter laughing, pretending he was our dragon, descended from the mountain to eat us. 

I feel such happiness even now thinking of that time, though my grandparents have passed, and missing them has lost some of its ache, though none of its joy. I am in my kitchen cracking eggs into ramekins en cocotte, nestling them upon sliced onions, and fragrant basil leaves. I bake them long enough for the whites to set, but for the yolk to still be soft. We eat them with toast and tomatoes and Brebis sheep’s cheese. I tell my husband these stories, and for a moment we are both there, at that table set outside under the walnut trees, with my grandmother slicing tomatoes at dusk, and we lazily shoo the flies away from all that juice that stains our lips, and fingers, and clothes. 

The recipe was inspired by this one from Food52, with adjustments, such as basil instead of arugula, and a splash of milk in each ramekin for added airiness. This dish must be eaten with toast, tomatoes, and salty feta. 

Gone

This weekend, someone very close to me lost her brother to suicide. I found out just before I left for our excursion to Yangzhou, a city about an hour and a half from Nanjing. The day was gray, rainy. We brought umbrellas. I climbed aboard our bus, still reeling from the text I had gotten before leaving.

We drove in the rain, passing fields where people were planting rice, passing huge power plants belching smoke into the gray skies. The roads were slick. I listened to music on my phone and watched the rain streak down the windows.

At Yangzhou, we walked in the rain around Slender West Lake. Our tour guide, Mr. Li, pointed out what he felt we needed to know. Bridge 24, most famous bridge in all of China. Oh, but this one is not the original bridge. The original bridge burned 1300 years ago. This one was built about twenty years ago. But, all the poets have written about Bridge 24. And here, here is the rare black cedar wood. We could see the paint chipping at the corners, but we said nothing. We smiled and nodded and followed along, under our umbrellas, our hair frizzing and our shoes and socks soaked through.

The day continued, gray and hard, as we walked through beautiful gardens, as we negotiated stone steps slick with rainwater. That afternoon, we drove home through more rain, and I sat facing the window, hoping no one noticed the tears on my face.

I looked at everyone we passed. The farmers dropping the rice plants into the wet fields. Drivers of other cars. People on their balconies. I thought of all the people I couldn’t see, the workers at the power plant, the people living in the houses we passed, the children in their car seats. One person who was on the planet the day before was no longer here. One person was gone. No one in China knew about it but me, no one knew about the pain of his family, no one knew. I cried. How many people in these houses had suffered the same loss? How many parents have buried their children?

That evening, we all went to dinner near our university. We had meant to go to a Chinese noodle shop, but it was packed, and our group too large, so we wandered until we happened upon a Japanese restaurant with empty tables big enough for all of us. We took off our shoes and sat cross-legged on blue and white cushions. Paper-lined doors were slid shut, and our group was closed off from the world. The walls were neutral, beige, the table dark brown, little blue and white porcelain bottles of soy sauce in the middle of the table, an air conditioner above us purring cold air onto our heads.

I ate omuraisu, or omu-rice, an omelet wrapped around fried rice, a dish I had had in Tokyo a little over a decade ago with Marianne and her mother, and for a moment I was back there, I was young and abroad for the first time, with my brand-new passport, with its first stamp. That evening in Tokyo, we three had ducked into a tiny restaurant, down a flight of stairs, that had only two tables and served only two dishes: omuraisu with red sauce and omuraisu with white sauce.

Back in Nanjing, in 2014, I ate and thought. This omelet was tender, the rice filled with vegetables and meat, the ketchup streaked on top sweet and tangy. The day felt distant. The rain, far away, the gray skies gone, everything was light and soft paper lanterns. One of the student’s fathers is going in for surgery this week. Tumors in his lungs. I thought of Tom. And of my friend, her grief, the shock, the questions—how was he gone? How could he be gone? How can someone, alive, now be dead?

That night, I called her and we wept together. I cannot be with her, I can only hear her voice and cry, and say, it shouldn’t have happened, it’s not supposed to be like this. There is not supposed to be this pain, but there is. Here it is. Here it always is.

The next day, the group returned to the Japanese restaurant. I had already eaten earlier, so I just drank a juice. I don’t know what it was, because I could read neither the Chinese nor the Japanese description, but it was sweet and white. And we went around the table and talked about our favorite parts of the day. A family dinner. Sitting at the low table, on our cushions, our shoes outside the door.

There is something about travel that is healing. An escape, a chance to be alone with one’s thoughts. And my thoughts return, always, to people. There are eight million people in this city, medium by Chinese standards. And every single one of them has a life I know nothing about. They have lost brothers. They have loved their aging parents. They have prayed for children. And I live apart from them, from their pain and joy, and when I am at home, I am not wondering what Chinese man has not woken up again for the first time.

This weekend was Dragon Boat Festival, a Chinese holiday to mark the death of a Chinese poet who drowned himself in 221 B.C. He died on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, a month considered “poisonous” because it’s the time when pests are active, when diseases spread. The poet’s body was never found, but legend goes, people threw zongzi, or rice dumplings, into the river to feed the fish, so they wouldn’t eat his body. And I eat the zongzi now, the rice wrapped in banana leaves, I eat as I walk through gray days, as I, a world away from my friend, cry for her, for her parents, in a country where no one knows them, where no one knows what has happened.

Every day, I pass people on the street who are mourning people I never knew, just as I mourn for my friend’s loss. I can say only a few things to the people who bring me noodles, who make my coffee. I can ask simple questions, I can point to things. I cannot ask them why people die, I cannot ask them why cancer, why suicide, why why why, I cannot ask them this, and they cannot answer. And so, they bring my order, and I eat, and I pay for my food, and I say, xie xie, thank you, and walk back into the night.