by Nina Powles
A pair of pink plastic chopsticks with blue and green flowers printed on the ends where you hold them. A small bowl full of instant noodles. The room smells like chicken stock and jasmine tea. Steam starts to tickle my nose. My grandmother, Popo, watches me from her lacquered chair.
This is one of those very early memories in which shapes are blurred and colours flare out from them in waves of sudden light. Pink and yellow plastic, deep blue Tibetan carpet. I don’t know if all the parts of it are real or if they came together later in a hazy collision of photographs and dreams. But I know what happened next. In a moment when no one was looking, I tipped the bowl upside down. The rim hit the wood with a loud clatter, flinging noodles onto the table and my pink chopsticks onto the floor. My mum shouted aiyah! as I knew she would. But in the memory-dream, Popo hasn’t moved. She sits still, watching me.
I only wanted to cause chaos, but I think it might also have been my first act of rebellion. No more chopsticks. No more noodles, at least not that day.
This was short-lived, of course. I willingly ate noodles of some sort almost every day growing up, so much so that they’re known as Nina Noodles at my aunt and uncle’s house.
But the time came, when I was around five, when I started to hate my weekend Chinese classes. I had bad dreams about the red and gold banners strung across the doorways and the high-pitched nursery songs they used to make us sing. None of the other kids looked like me. None of their dads looked like mine. The sounds of the languages and dialects they spoke with their parents were familiar to me, and I knew a few words, but I couldn’t speak back. Eventually my mum stopped using Chinese at home, or eventually I stopped listening. Words vanished along with the sounds.
míng 明 / a sun日 next to a moon 月
yă 雅 / a tooth 牙 next to a bird 隹
Big hips, brown eyes, brown hair that turns lighter during a New Zealand summer. The way I look means that people don’t usually know that I’m half Malaysian-Chinese. The way I look has given me enormous privilege my whole life in a series of predominantly pākehā (New Zealand European) spaces: a white school, white university (in the English and Creative Writing departments at least), white suburb, white poetry readings. The way I look means I can lie and sneak away when a guy approaches me in a bar to say he really likes mixed girls and asks, ‘can I guess your ethnicity?’ The way I look means there’s a lot I don’t understand and never will. The way I look makes it easy for some people to see me as no different from them; it sometimes makes it easy for me to see myself that way, too.
My grandfather, Gung Gung, picked my Chinese name when I was born. It’s also my middle name. 明雅, Míngyă, means something like ‘bright elegance’. I only really learned how to say this name of mine correctly when I was seventeen (rising tone, falling-rising tone) and only learned how to write the characters when I was twenty, after years and years of avoiding the question in that classroom game of what’s-your-middle-name, muttering ‘never mind, it’s Chinese’, as if that were the same thing as not having one at all.
Wow there are so many Asians here now / oh I forgot /
oh but you don’t count anyway /
I starved myself of language, but I couldn’t starve myself of other things. All these dishes I’d been eating my whole life, just as crucial in the memory-map of my childhood as people and places. Wanton noodle soup, Cantonese roast duck, my mum’s crispy egg noodles and her special congee. All the thick, sweet smells of yum cha restaurants where my parents have taken me to eat all the same dishes every single time, ever since I was born. I remember peeling sheets of rice paper from the bottom of steaming charsiu bao and scrunching them up into paper flowers that I hoarded under the table beneath my feet. I remember using one finger to draw one of the few Chinese characters I knew on the steamed-up glass: 米, mĭ, the character for rice, like an open flower or a six-point star.
When we moved to Shanghai when I was twelve, there was a whole new landscape of sound: voices speaking quickly in rising falling waves, chaotic but familiar. I built myself a new home out of new colours, new friends, and new foods: mooncakes, sesame pancakes, fried eggplant, black tea, and dumplings.
To remember, to re-member. Remembering as the opposite of dismembering. To put something back together again. A sun next to a moon, a tooth next to a bird.
I taught myself to cook around the same time I decided to pick up Chinese as one of my subject majors at university back in Wellington, along with English Literature. I was hungry to create, to make things with my hands, to relearn and recover what I'd lost.
Xu Ayi, our family’s housekeeper from when we lived in Shanghai, had written down her recipe for dumplings, jiǎozi, and given it to my mum. My mum translated it into English and transcribed it carefully into her own cut-and-paste recipe book made of collaged scraps of newspaper and magazines. I used this recipe to make my own in my Kelburn student flat, trying out different fillings according to which vegetables were the cheapest at the market: spinach instead of Chinese cabbage, spring onions instead of chives. I researched all the different intricate ways to make cōng yóubǐng, spring onion pancakes. I combined them into a method of my own, kneading and folding the layered dough before class in the early morning so that it would be ready that night, my hands coated in flour and sesame seeds.
When she was younger, Popo was a brilliant cook. Her kitchen was hers and hers alone. There was always something cooking, some soup or congee made from the bones of last night’s meat. Because I can’t speak Hakka, the Chinese dialect my mum’s family speak at home, we only ever have simple conversations in a mix of Mandarin and English, usually about food. She never said very much about her life. Or was it just that I never asked? Maybe, before her health deteriorated and talking wasn’t really possible anymore, I could have found a way to ask: what’s your favourite dish to cook? What flavours remind you of when you were a little girl? What things did your mother teach you?
On a visit to Malaysia a few years ago, the last time Popo was healthy and lucid enough to talk with us, my mum acting as translator as usual, I asked her for the recipe for her chicken and eggplant curry. It had been years since she last cooked but still she knew it by heart. After dinner, the three of us sat round the table: Popo explaining the steps in Hakka, Mum translating into English, me writing everything down. In the background I could hear Gung Gung watching a Cantonese soap opera upstairs and the soft clicking sound of moths and mosquitoes flying at the netted windows.
When I last saw her, six months before she passed away, Popo could never remember whether she’d turned the light off in the upstairs rooms and always went back to check again and again. She could not remember if she’d offered you a napkin, and offered you another and another. But some other things are harder to forget.
女 (woman, feminine): a curved standstill / a breath being held in /
It is tiring being a woman who loves to eat in a world where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled, put away. In a world with a long history of female hunger of all kinds being associated with shame and madness. The body must be punished for its every misstep; for every “indulgence” the balance of control must be restored. To enjoy food as a young woman, to choose every day to free myself from the guilt readily expected of me, is a radical act and an act of love. My body often feels like it’s both mine and not mine, neither here nor there. Too much like this, not enough like that. But whatever it looks like, my body is what lets me feel hunger.
We must have been fourteen or fifteen, eating burgers at our favourite expat American diner in Shanghai, licking salt and ketchup off our fingers. We were best friends: two half-Chinese girls, one with darker hair than the other, one a little taller, both with nails painted black. An older white man passed close by our table. ‘You two must be hungry girls,’ he said, raising an eyebrow smugly and walking on. We stared after him, incredulous, mouthed What the fuck. Then we looked at each other and started to laugh because we didn’t know what he meant exactly, only that it was true.
I've been learning Chinese for over three years now but there are still days when language fails me, when food feels like the only thing I have to tie me to this other home my family brought to me from far away.
There are things that pass from one hand to another, from mothers to daughters, between sisters, between cousins, between friends. A hot curry puff straight from the oven, a secret batter recipe, a special technique for slicing mango.
One day I tried making Popo’s curry in my one-room flat in Wellington. I read all the ingredients labels of all the curry powders at the supermarket to find the closest match: coriander seeds, cumin, fennel, chilli, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cardamom. The rich-scented list of words repeats like an incantation in my head. I bought fresh roti canai from the handmade roti shop on Kelburn Parade and carried it home in a southerly storm. The curry turned out terribly; too watery, flavourless, the eggplant overcooked. But for a while my little kitchen smelled like cumin and coconut and crushed ginger. Like running in from the tropical rain, like Popo ladling rice into our bowls, like the lit mosquito coil and the flame lighting up my mother’s hands as she carries it towards me. These things I don’t need language to understand.