Monday, March 06, 2006

When East Side Girl Met spiceboy, Part Two: Eating With Chopsticks

Click here for Part One

(Winter, 2001)

It was late on a Friday night. spiceboy and I sat at a table in a packed Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh’s North Oakland.

The mood was rowdy, and the air was fragrant with garlic and ginger. All around us, Asian students laughed, joked, drank tea, and visited at each other’s tables. The thumping of music and voices drifted in from a back room. I scanned the crowd, looking for anyone I might know, but there was no one.

A waitress approached us, slapping a pot of tea on the table and handing spiceboy a menu written entirely in thick black Chinese characters. She then addressed him in Chinese, throwing only the most cursory glance in my direction. Even though I had been working for spiceboy’s restaurant for nearly three years, I’d never really heard him speak Chinese before. He gestured to the menu, his voice rising and falling in staccato-like syllables as he pointed to one item, then another, then another. His voice sounded different somehow. Deeper. It was a side of him I hadn’t known existed. But I had been seeing a lot of things differently about him lately.

At the table next to us, a group of Indonesian girls chattered to one another--a nonstop, rapid-fire stream of vowels and consonants. They tossed their shiny black hair over their shoulders, exposing the beautiful, dusky skin of their faces, which seemed even duskier around their jaw lines and their eyes.

My own hair was still pulled back into a greasy ponytail from my dinner shift at Spice World. I imagined for a moment that if I freed it from its barrette, it would swing forward around my face in a glossy curtain, like the girls' at the next table. But my hair was not thick, dark, or straight. It was red and fine, and I knew that if I took it down, it would fall in a clump onto the nape of my neck and stay there, like a snarled ball of yarn.

spiceboy filled my teacup, then his. While he poured, he explained that in Chinese culture, if you want more tea, you should tap your finger on the table. He demonstrated, tapping his index finger against the tatty tablecloth. His nails were rather long, and there was a faded burn mark along the side of his thumb, just at the knuckle. On the fourth finger of his right hand was a gold band. I asked him where he got it.

“My mother gave it to me for Chinese New Year,” he said. “To keep me out of trouble.”

We stared at each other for a long moment. He lifted his teacup to his lips and slurped loudly. I placed my napkin on my lap and fingered the plastic chopsticks in front of me. There were no forks on our table. I glanced around, and saw that there were no forks anywhere. This made me nervous.

spiceboy noticed me noticing. “Do you want me to ask the waitress for a fork?” he asked.

“No. I’m fine.”

The waitress reappeared, covering our table with plates, bowls, and platters. I had grown up with Chinese food from quickie takeout joints—General Tso’s Chicken. Beef and Broccoli. Won Ton Soup. But this spread was unlike any Chinese food I’d seen before. There were no garish pink sauces, no hunks of battered, fried mystery meat. Instead, the colors reminded me of lush green forests and tall brown mountains.

spiceboy dove in with his chopsticks, lifting the food first onto my plate, then his. He took great care with his task, explaining the food to me as he put it on my plate, and I could see how important this was to him—giving food, sharing food, eating food.

The dishes were earthy, glistening, fragrant. There was tofu with large braised black mushrooms, coated in a silky looking brown sauce. There was a whole fish, head and all, steamed in ginger, garlic, and soy sauce. There were snowy white mounds of rice. There was also a plate filled with vegetables, steamed to a deep emerald color.

spiceboy lifted some of the greens onto my plate, then onto his own. “It’s do miu,” he said, deftly snagging a piece with his chopsticks and lifting it to his mouth. “Chinese pea shoots. Try it. It’s great.”

“Do miu,” I repeated. The words felt clunky in my mouth, but not as clunky as the chopsticks felt in my hand. They were long, thick, and slippery, and every time I attempted to pick up a piece of do miu, the chopsticks crossed and the vegetables fell back onto my plate, splashing sauce onto the tablecloth.

spiceboy ate with both an ease and an urgency I’d never noticed in him before. He deftly maneuvered his chopsticks, grabbing pieces of mushrooms, vegetables and rice and lifting them easily to his mouth.

I tried mimicking the movements of spiceboy’s chopsticks with little success. No matter how many times I tried, my do miu kept plopping back onto my plate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the Indonesian girls at the next table watching me. She murmured something to her friend, who jerked her head in my direction and giggled.

At the same moment, our waitress reappeared and, quicker than a flash, placed a fork on the table.

When he does not want to answer a question, when he’s had enough of a conversation, or when he’s gracefully ignoring an uncomfortable situation, spiceboy is capable of making his face perfectly blank. The planes of his cheeks tighten. His eyes become hooded. His lips form a straight line. It’s like pulling down a shade-- all of the usual roundness of his features gives way to smooth, clean lines.

He affected this face as he eyed the fork, which sat there between us, the unspoken symbol of our many differences. The fork was a dividing line between the person I had been and the person I would become.

I laid down my chopsticks, balancing them across the edge of my plate, just as I’d seen spiceboy do. I flicked a grain of rice from my shirt sleeve. I took a sip of bitter, tepid tea from my tiny teacup.

The noise of the restaurant swelled up up up—laughter, music, the clinking of serving spoons on plates. The consonants and vowels and nouns and verbs and prepositions of many different languages floated all around me—a crazy alphabet soup I could not understand.

I was totally out of my element. I was an outsider looking in. I was the lone fork in a drawer full of chopsticks. It was both thrilling and frightening.

I picked up my fork, speared a piece of do miu, and lifted it to my mouth.


Blogger Robyn said...

I like the way you wrote this entry. :)

I didn't know water spinach was called do miu. Oops.

I ate dumplings today with a fork. :|

5:22 PM  
Blogger yaya said...

YAAAAH! What a fantastic tale and I was egging you on - hee! You have a great way of writing - love it....

6:25 PM  
Blogger kate.d. said...

this is great. you captured sound really well - it seems like a crucial part of the atmosphere, and the story.

i look forward to more installments :)

11:23 AM  
Blogger artdetective said...

I really enjoyed reading this post -- as well as Part One. Your proximity to the material really shines through the way you write about it. I can't wait for part three...Could this be a novella?

6:54 PM  
Anonymous quinny said...

You know, you really should learn how to use the chopsticks, especially since you're getting married to the guy.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Style Girl said...

you are so lucky that you are able to see/have another culture come into your life! and it's a culture that would be very interesting to learn about!

12:35 PM  
Blogger tina said...

Really wonderful. Can't wait for the next installment.

4:46 PM  

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