by Yuemin He
Grandma Wang felt relieved when the doctors discharged her husband from the hospital. Half a month earlier, her 86-year-old man had been rushed—because of heart and circulatory complications—to the best hospital in the city. His left ear had been badly infected and oozed yellowish pus, and he had been complaining about unbearable pain and tightening in the chest. The doctors attended to the old man calmly, but Grandma could sense great anxiety and weariness in their three daughters from their subdued murmurs, slouched shoulders and darting glances at her and the old man. It was true that the old man could have died at any moment and she, being temporarily left unattended at home, probably weighed heavily on her adult daughters' minds as well.
Now, four days after returning to their comfortable condo, Grandpa was lying, eyes closed, on the spacious bamboo couch in the living room. His head was propped up on a colourful cushion embroidered with two entwined phoenixes, one smouldering red and the other sunshine yellow. A few pages of the evening newspaper lay half-folded on his belly, rising and falling as he inhaled and exhaled. The old man still snored the way he had for the past fifty years that they had been together.
Yet, Grandma did not feel particularly comforted. Before dozing off, the old man had been chatting with her about the golden mini-oranges on the dwarf tree planted in the big porcelain pot. Big Daughter had bought the pot and plant two years ago and put them on the shaded balcony connected with the far end of the living room. The scent of golden oranges occasionally wafted in when the glass sliding door was open, and chatting about the plant usually left the old couple contented and happy. And on this late summer morning, the tiny golden spheres that hung from the branches of the tree had looked particularly appetising. But this morning's conversation had not ended where it should have. Right before dozing off, the old man had suddenly mumbled, "Old girl, for lunch, I want a bowl of noodles. Don't forget the lard."
Grandma's face had darkened and her body had stiffened, void of its usual ease and equanimity. Like Hamlet, she faced a dilemma, "To add lard or not to add lard?"
Like many people in the rest of the world, the Chinese traditionally obtained cooking oil by rendering leaf lard from pigs. Grandma had never tried rendering herself. It was always the old man's chore, one of the few perks of being married to a fantastic cook. Whenever he felt like it, the old man would boil, on a low, slow fire, chunks of leaf lard and a little water in an iron wok. Once they dried up, he we would fry them again for a long period, until all the oil had been extracted and what was left was only golden and brownish crackling.
To Grandpa, oil cooked from leaf lard was the best in the world: it was as white as snow, and when you let it sit and cool down in a mug, wide-mouthed pot or jar, it became curd-like and looked thick, silky and smooth and smelt very aromatic. If you added a teaspoon of it to a bowl of noodles, the noodles tasted so delicious that you instantly wanted another. If you used the oil together with a pinch of diced spring onion and black pepper to make a soup base, your soup would smell so tempting that you'd think you were already in celestial heaven.
After they got married in the early sixties and gave birth to three lovely daughters, one each year, they had no money. They were so poor that they had to send Big Daughter to live with Great Grandma, Grandpa's widowed mother. She lived alone in a small town and to see her Grandpa had to take a train and then a bus and then walk. She only had two pairs of pants—which she wore day in and day out—and absolutely no skirts, let alone dresses. His girls, too, had few clothes and had to wear hand-me-downs from their sisters or cousins. Their shoes—handmade by Great Grandma—were often mended and passed down from one girl to the next. Small Daughter sometimes complained that nothing new went to her first.
Naturally, leaf lard was very rare and precious in those days. Everything was rationed: sugar, eggs, milk, grain, liquor, cigarettes, cloth, meat, soap and vegetable oil. Grandma would often watch the old man buy fatty tissue from pigs, using the ration coupon they had, to make cooking oil. That oil had a yellowish tinge, smelt slightly burnt and contained small bits of crackling. Nevertheless, it was still very precious and the coupon went further that way. Grandpa sometimes chided Grandma because she wanted to buy clothes for the girls, "Ai, woman, you know nothing! Don't you know to get them girls fed is more important than to get them clothed? If they grow up like sticks, nobody will marry them!"
Back then, Grandpa was muscular and energetic and worked as a carpenter for a provincially owned company. The company moved from place to place, building factory warehouses, bungalows and even hotels. To this day, Grandpa was still very proud of the exquisite woodwork he had done on the rafters of a hotel that accommodated not only domestic but also foreign guests. Using scrap wood planks, bamboo cane or concrete, he would make a stool for one family, a low table for another. Those families would compensate him with a big winter melons or fish just out of a nearby mountain stream. These exchanges always took place quietly. Grandpa tried to keep the family afloat, and he regularly sent money to Great Grandma and Big Daughter. Life went on gingerly.
The winter Big Daughter was five, news started to spread that the canteen of the construction company was slaughtering two fat pigs for the New Year's celebration. Grandpa was a friend of the head chef, who controlled how much was scooped into the workers' bowls and mugs as they lined up for food. Grandpa went to the canteen right away and walked straight behind the counter.
"Hello, Master Chef, I haven't seen you for tea in a while."
"Hey, Old Wang. What wind has brought you here? I know you wouldn't come to see me if you hadn't smelt something," Master Chef joked with an inquisitive smile on his face.
"Well, I heard you are killing pigs." Grandpa did not try to be subtle. "Need help?"
"Help me eat?" Master Chef chuckled. They were used to talking in this manner.
"Why not?" Grandpa also laughed. "We two can do a better job."
"True, you and I are seasoned," Master Chef nodded thoughtfully. He had several assistants under his tutelage, but they were not particularly competent. "What do you want in return?" Master Chef knew the rules.
"The leaf lard?" Grandpa replied with a question. "I have a big family."
"Well, as long as you don't try to take over my job here, you will have the leaf lard," and then Master Chef added, "of one pig."
That Sunday, Grandpa and Master Chef each put on a rubber apron and a pair of rubber gloves. Then they dragged the big black pigs one by one out from the pigsty to the back of the canteen. For more than a year, the pigs had been growing freely on the slops of the kitchen, and now it was their turn to serve those who had served them. The poor animals seemed to sense what was waiting for them, and they howled and yowled and refused to leave the pigsty. Still, Grandpa, Master Chef and two others succeeded in slaughtering the pigs with a long sharp knife, while from a distance, a large crowd of construction workers watched. Everybody was told to be quiet; only the cries of the poor pigs and the grunts of the butchers were heard. It was not a pretty scene, and the men used the whole day to scrub, boil, gut, saw and butcher the sacrificed pigs. When everything was done, only the blood that had soaked into the ground told the story of human survival.
Grandpa returned home with an elegant slab of leaf lard. Grandma and the two daughters were delighted and watched expectantly, as Grandpa turned the fat into refined cooking oil. Everyone was patient. When the oil was cool, he poured it into two enamel mugs with lids and allowed everybody to have a few pieces of salted crackling, which tasted crunchy and savoury.
Grandpa then started to look for somebody who would be returning to Great Grandma's town before Chinese New Year. Not everybody could afford to travel home for family reunions, but there were always some. Grandpa found a co-worker, Little Hong, who agreed to help. On the day Little Hong was to depart, Grandpa took out the mugs from the makeshift cupboard. It took him a second to decide which mug to give to Little Hong because one mug was slightly larger than the other. He picked the larger one and accompanied it with a brief note, which Great Grandma later needed someone to read for her. Grandma and the two daughters observed from the side, not saying a word. Just when Little Hong reached for the door, Grandpa pushed a bag of local walnuts into the young man's hands. "Happy New Year! Much obliged."
Half a month later, Little Hong returned. He brought back gifts. The dark red padded cotton shoes were for the girls. But as soon as they put them on, they started to whine. As always, the shoes were too big, and their style begged for mockery from older boys. Grandpa silenced the girls quickly, "Your feet grow fast. The shoes will soon be perfect … Those boys have shoes, but no Grandma." The girls didn't seem comforted, even though they did not dare to point out that the boys had rubber shoes, and that rubber shoes were the true shoes.
Great Grandma had also made black cotton shoes for Grandpa and dark blue corduroy shoes for Grandma. Neither Grandma nor Grandpa knew where the material for the shoes had come from, but both thanked Little Hong profusely.
"Thank you, we should not have troubled you so much." Grandma added more boiled water to the mug of water she'd offered Little Hong.
"No need to say thank you, no need. You see ...," Little Hong hesitated. "Old Wang, please do not get angry with me. Your mother, she insisted that I bring this back."
Little Hong put a mug on the dining table next to the girls' bed. It was the exact same mug he had taken with him. Grandpa and Grandma stared at the mug, first with confusion and then with tears welling up in their eyes.
The mug was not full, but not empty, either. Great Grandma had scooped out some of the oil and sent the rest back.
"Hack, hack, hack." Grandma was jolted awake from her reverie. The old man was coughing on the couch.
"Are you OK?" Grandma asked gently. She wasn't sure if Grandpa was awake or only coughing in his sleep. The old man used to smoke tobacco and coughed a lot, in sleep or not. Even after the doctor had admonished him repeatedly to give up smoking, he had still smoked. Nobody could do anything about it, until one day he gave up smoking abruptly. When asked, he'd said, "I have had my share of tobacco. And … isn't everyone saying second-hand smoking is more dangerous than smoking itself?" Now even when one of his sons-in-law brought him cigars from South America and told him they were from Cuba, he only took one out to sniff or look at longingly.
"Hack, hack, hack." Grandpa coughed again. Grandma turned down the fire on the stove, where she was warming water to wash the breakfast dishes. Then with a cup of boiled water, she returned to the living room, only to discover that the old man was snoring again.
The sun had climbed to the high point in the sky, but it was still early to prepare lunch. Their three meals were generally taken one hour later than those of other families. They did not like to use electricity, the elevator, the bus or the shower at the same time as others did. At their age, they were very good at coping with power failures, traffic jams, low water pressure and other inconveniences of the modern, congested world.
Because the old man did not need her, Grandma went back to the kitchen and finished the dishes. She then took out a bag of green pea leaves from the fridge and began to pick out the older pieces. Pea leaves were highly preferred for cooking noodles and soup, but lard was no longer acceptable these days. It occurred to Grandma that the last time that lard had still been valuable was in the nineties. By then, the girls had all married and moved out. They came home every, or every other, weekend.
In those days, Big Daughter came back with younger Grandson Wei Wei and her husband. Ever since Great Grandma had died, Big Daughter seemed to have become closer to the rest of the family. Before that, she had acted like she had been the abandoned one in the family. She would insist on having her own bed while the other two daughters shared one. She seldom fought with her sisters, but the other two were constantly fighting for each other's things, including clothes, hats, purses and skin lotion. She was also the one always on the edge.
Second Daughter and her husband had not wanted children. She had been, and still was, a journalist for a magazine. He'd worked as an intern in a local hospital, but was now the number one or number two dentist in an internationally famous hospital. They were busy, busy and busy. Grandma sometimes wondered if the couple ever ate together at home because several times she'd overheard Second Daughter telling Grandpa that she had just been to this restaurant or that hotel. Always with friends, colleagues and others. The couple were also the ones who'd visited only every other weekend.
Small Daughter and her husband had already had a son by then. The boy, nicknamed Jun Jun, had been very talkative, though now as a young man, he barely spoke to anybody except for his buddies. Small Daughter had gotten married young and become a mother young as well. Jun Jun was actually the older of the two grandchildren. The two boys had been unable to get along with each other; they'd fought for toys, or to be the first into the bathtub or out of the elevator. But, as soon as Grandpa cut in, they would unite and act almost like twins. They'd often fought about which TV channel to watch, but as soon as Grandpa sat down on the couch and ordered the TV switched to an opera, they'd united, protested and insisted that Grandpa go back to smoke on the balcony. Back then, Grandpa and Grandma had still lived in a crammed two-bedroom apartment and Grandpa still smoked tobacco in one of his many pipes. Miraculously, while the daughters had never dared talk back to the old man, the two grandchildren won repeatedly in their united efforts against him.
In the nineties, because of economic reforms and government open door policies, the Chinese were no longer short of food. On the free market, all kinds of food were available. As long as they had money, the Chinese basically could purchase anything they wanted. Lard gradually yielded its way to other cooking oils—fresh vegetable oil from local farmers, old quality brands from renowned grocery chains, fancy vegetable oil manufactured by joint Chinese and foreign ventures and even imported canola and olive oil.
But change had taken place more slowly in Grandpa's kitchen. Occasionally, he would still render lard and ask his daughters to take some back to their own homes. Sometimes, they would ask him to render some for them. This usually occurred when one of the sons-in-law, or one of the daughters, was away—for a business trip, for fun, for professional training, for a college reunion, for whatever reason. The other half of the couple would then want some lard for a quick fix of noodles or soup. Grandpa was happy to help. He rendered jars of lard, and the children and grandchildren ate the bulk of it. Grandpa was pleased that he was still needed by the younger generations.
Yet, there had been one near crisis. One evening, after supper, Grandpa went out to have a stroll in the street. A few neighbours greeted him, and he also asked about them. At the east end of the street, the butcher sold pork and beef in a shack with a black linoleum roof.
"Hello, Old Wang. Have you eaten supper?" The middle-aged butcher waved his hand warmly.
"Ate, ate." Grandpa was in good mood. "Still selling meat?"
"Almost done, almost done." The butcher replied. "I have some fatback left … Want it? I will give you a super good price."
Grandpa had no intention of purchasing lard that day, but night was falling and the street was becoming quiet. He took a quick look at the fatback. It didn't appear the best in the world. But then, he guessed the butcher must be eager to call it a day.
"OK, put the lard on the scales," Grandpa directed the butcher.
The next morning, Grandpa took out the fatback and rendered it while Grandma went downstairs to play mahjong with some old ladies. By the end of the week, when the three daughters and their family visited, Grandpa had already placed two ceramic jars of oil on the counter near the apartment's entrance: one jar was full of oil from the newly purchased fatback, the other held oil he had rendered earlier from fine leaf lard. Since Grandpa and Grandma were getting older and they needed less, Grandpa decided to give both jars to his children.
That night, the whole family had fried Chinese green beans, mapo tofu, steamed bass and chicken soup. After dinner, the grandsons played soldiers on the balcony and the sons-in-law chatted with Grandpa about how the real estate business was heating up more each day. Small Daughter did the dishes, and by the time she'd untied the apron and hung it by the kitchen door, everybody knew it was time to leave. Grandpa had a famous saying, "The host won't be able to relax until the guests are gone." No one was a guest, but it was nevertheless the time for goodbyes.
"Oh, I almost forgot. Here are two jars of oil. Take them with you," Grandpa offered to his daughters.
"We still have some," Small Daughter said turning to her sisters. "You guys can have them."
"Take this." Grandpa took one jar and placed it in the hands of Big Daughter and then grabbed the other and passed it on to Second Daughter.
Over the next two weekends, only the families of Big Daughter and Small Daughter returned to see Grandpa and Grandma. Although everybody was used to the regular absences of Second Daughter, when the following week, she and her family did not show up again, Grandma started to worry. Small Daughter called her sister twice, but both calls went unanswered.
The next day, as she had promised Grandma, Small Daughter called Second Daughter again. "Stop calling repeatedly!" Second Daughter snarled.
"It's me, sis. What's up? Yesterday we didn't see you. Is everything OK?"
"What could have gone wrong? Let … Me … Alone!" Second Daughter hung up petulantly.
Small Daughter was stunned. She did not know what had gone wrong or how to proceed, but she knew she had to call back. This time she started to speak before Second Daughter had the time to cut her off. "Ma has been worried and asked about you."
"Worried about me? You think me an idiot? Without me the earth won't stop turning," Second Daughter snapped back.
"Sis, tell me what's wrong. You are pissed off, but we don't even know why!" Small Daughter pleaded.
"What's wrong? Why did they give me the bad oil, and give her the good oil? Have you heard the expression, 'Both sides of my palm are flesh'? Really? ... Give me a break!" The howl increased in volume.
"But how do you know yours is not as good?" Small Daughter asked.
"When I talked with the Big One the other day, she mentioned that this time her oil was REALLY white!"
Small Daughter finally understood what was wrong. "Oh, it must be a misunderstanding … Why would Ma and Ba prefer one daughter over another? You probably just happened to have picked the jar with the less refined oil," Small Daughter said, trying to pacify her sister.
"Remember, I am Second Daughter! The … Invisible … Second!" Her voice could not have been more sarcastic.
"Come on, sis! The jars looked very alike. You think Ba would deliberately give you the not so good one? Even if Ba had deliberately passed it onto you, does that mean he loves you less? One of us three had to get it, right? … And have you ever seen big sis throw a tantrum because she alone grew up with Great Grandma? You know Ba loved Great Grandma a lot, don't you? But he left her behind."
Second Daughter stopped howling though she continued to sob loudly.
Small Daughter kept going, "You guys don't have kids yet; you don't know what it is like to have kids. I am glad that I only have one and don't have to do all the work of balancing. Imagine how tough it was to have so little but still have to feed so many mouths … I know you are not fussing over lard, but there is really no need to make such a big deal of this. If Ma and Ba found out, what would they think?"
Small Daughter continued console Second Daughter and gradually sound stopped coming from the other end of the line. Eventually, Small Daughter was not even sure if her sister was there anymore. After a while, she hung up the phone and walked into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. The sound of crying, muffled by running bath water, lasted for a long time.
The next weekend everybody showed up, as if nothing had happened.
"Dong, dong, dong." Somebody was knocking on the door.
"Coming," Grandma rushed to the door and looked through the peephole. It was Jun Jun. She opened the door.
"Grandma. This is for you," the young man said, handing her a plastic bag.
"Shhh … Grandpa is sleeping!" Grandma took the bag. It was not heavy. She stood aside a step, gesturing for Jun Jun to come in.
He was a tall, strongly built young man now. When he smiled, he looked just like Small Daughter. At the age of twenty-one, he was attending a local university. This much Grandma knew.
"I am not coming in, Grandma. I have to go." Jun Jun waved the phone in his right hand. An ear plug remained in his left ear.
"Really? Such a hurry?" Grandma asked, disappointed.
"I will come back another time … Bye-bye, Grandma!" The young man was already retreating down the hall. "Oh, Mom said it has to be eaten very fresh," he added as he walked to the end of the hall, before making a left turn for the elevator and disappearing.
Standing in the hallway with the bag in her hand, Grandma felt a loss. She wondered when the little boy she had helped raise had disappeared.
Nowadays, young people had a lot of money, so much more than their parents used to have. They bought expensive phones. Ai Feng Le (Love to the point of being crazy!). Grandma chuckled. People are crazy, especially the young ones. They stood in line for days just to get that crazy phone. They walked with it in hand. They went to sleep with it under their pillow. They pressed on it when they ate with family or friends. They played with it in restroom stalls. The newspapers reported that some had even died because they were using their phone while walking: they'd fallen into improperly covered manholes, construction sites, big water puddles, you name it. Or they'd walked into traffic and got hit by cars. Grandpa once joked that when those people died, they should have their phone with them. "That way they can call back and report what it is like to be dead while infatuated with their iPhone 6!"
People bought expensive foreign cars, too. Bie Mo Wo (Don't touch me!). Grandma chuckled again. Such a ridiculous name! If you didn't want it touched, don't show it off! When you showed it off, you were inviting people to look, to touch, to admire, even be envious! But those people liked to show off. They pressed the horn, blasting very loudly in traffic. So loud sometimes that Grandpa and Grandma could hear it on the seventh floor. Even when they didn't see it, they still heard it, smelt it in the smog and felt it in the complaints of their neighbours and friends. On those occasions, Grandpa would comment, "See how those people are burnt by money? Doesn't a BMW run the same as any other car? It's the same. What a shame! It does not have an extra tire!"
Grandma chuckled again. She carefully closed the door, making sure to double lock it, and returned to the kitchen with the bag. There was a foam box inside. Grandma removed the container, and taking a pair of scissors from the counter, cut the string that tightly bound the box. Roughly one kilogram of matsutake mushrooms lay inside with an icepack underneath. Grandma knew this type of mushroom because her daughters had brought some home before. She also knew the steep price.
"It's like eating gold," Grandpa had criticised on one such occasion, even though he had not had to pay.
"It's very nutritious. It's called green food. Good for your health. They say it is particularly good for people with heart problems," Big Daughter had said, improvising a special function for the mushrooms.
"Yeah, so good that it can match my lard." Grandpa had laughed.
The old man had not been kidding. He'd cooked the mushrooms with fine lard. The soup was so fragrant that he's declared it was not right to discriminate against the pigs and say that they did not match fresh flowers! Weren't mushrooms just the flowers of the fungi!
The three daughters found Grand impossible to persuade. They could never convince him to be more generous with his money even though he was no longer short; or to catch up with modern times, a suggestion he always dismissed with his famous adage that, "the more advanced, the more backwards, and the more dangerous"; or that the youth of today were not especially weird and were just as good as earlier generations; or to stop eating lard (even though his doctors constantly advised him to avoid fatty food), because, as he always insisted, Great Grandma had lived to be ninety-one years old, and one of the reasons was the lard he had concocted for her.
Grandpa's claims to infallibility always made everybody laugh. No matter how tense the conversation, how stubborn its participants or how strong or weak Grandpa's body, his words made everybody laugh. And everybody knew that Grandpa was very proud of the fact that he had waited on Great Grandma so well.
The lard had become impossible to ban in the family, as a strange phenomenon had gradually emerged: from time to time, Grandpa would render lard, put the oil in jars and ask his daughters to take it home. They would complain that they no longer ate lard, that they didn't want it anymore, but by the end of the day, they would all comply with the old man's orders and take the oil with them. When they got home, their real headache started because they had to decide whether to eat it and, if they did eat it, how to eat it; or whether they should give it away, and if so, to whom how. Grandma had never figured out what the daughters did with the lard, but she knew that after a while, lo and behold, Grandpa had again brought back some leaf lard, usually the very best kind, the type he couldn't resist even at his age and state of health. Then he rendered it, put the oil in multiple jars, offered it to the daughters, who complained at first but complied in the end. When they got home, more headaches began …
What a cycle! What a stupid old man! What a bunch of funny children!
"What a cycle! What a stupid old man! What a bunch of funny kids!" Grandma chuckled and realised that she had been absent-minded. She looked up at the wall; the clock pointed to 1:30. She went back to the kitchen, put water in a little stainless steel pot and turned on the stove fire.
It was time to wake up the old man and cook lunch.
Yuemin He is a Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, where she teaches literature and composition. Her writings include publications in The Emergence of Buddhist American Literatu
re, Religion and Arts
, and Oxford Anthology of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
(2nd edition). In her spare time, she does some creative writing. Her short stories "Accidental Sex Education" and "Love When Birds Can't Fly" were published in Yuan Yang
and Northern Virginia Review