Two meals in Chongming

by Rose Lu

The first time I went back to Chongming Island, my maternal grandparents killed a goat. My sentimental eight-year-old self had seen the animal while it was alive, tied to a post and chewing a pile of frayed leaves at its cloven hooves. During my protected existence in New Zealand, I had not witnessed the slaughter of a single animal. We had been away from China for only three years, but it felt like my entire life had already shifted and left. This trip must have been a sort of homecoming for my mother. For me, it was a strange and new adventure.


I stared at the still body of the goat on the concrete courtyard outside my grandparents’ house. There was a small crowd of neighbours gathered; goats weren’t killed very often. One neighbour inserted the nozzle of an air pump into the goat’s slit throat. Another pumped at the other end. The goat’s abdomen became bloated and distended, stretching almost to the point of translucency. They spoke in the Chongming dialect I could barely comprehend, one telling the other why the goat was being inflated. I didn’t understand the explanation.


The goat was cooked in a rich brown stew with vegetables. My family and the neighbours crowded around a small table, laughing and jostling and eating from a big clay pot in the middle. My grandma, smiling with her crescent moon eyes, placed several pieces of goat meat into my bowl. I knew they had killed this animal for me and it would be rude not to eat it. All I could see was the goat lying prone on the hard ground, belly pregnant with air, dark blood pooling beneath its neck. I put the meat in my mouth and chewed deliberately. It was tougher than I thought it would be. I swallowed and tasted nothing.


It would be eighteen years until I set foot on that island again. By then, a bridge had been built from Shanghai to Chongming, so you no longer had to brave the heaving ferry journey. The majority of my extended family had relocated to Shanghai. Most of my maternal grandparents’ neighbours were gone, too; in their old age, it was necessary to move in with children. Only my paternal grandparents stubbornly remained. These are the things my mum tells me in the car as she drives me to Wellington airport to catch my flight to China, this time alone. I couldn’t place why I had to go back after all this time, but it felt like something I needed to do. 


My cousin meets me in Shanghai. The last time we saw each other we were five years old and living on the island together. We had made mischief as kids, running through muddy fields in our thick hand-knitted jerseys. As more sedate adults, we wander through the Shanghai exposition centre neighbourhood, thinking about dinner. She scrolls through recommendations on her phone, and exclaims when she finds a restaurant that does Chongming food nearby. 


Before we are even seated, I’m flipping excitedly through the menu. We order dishes from my childhood that never had the honour of being printed on a menu. We order dishes that my parents aren’t able to source the proper ingredients for in New Zealand. We order more dishes than we could possibly eat. I take photos of every single one of them and send them to my parents through WeChat. There’s red roasted pork, sweet and sour spare ribs, stir fried Chongming grass, chilled spaghetti squash, hairy crab on rice cakes, braised chicken, and thinly sliced Chongming lamb. They respond with the salivating emoji, an emotion fundamental to everyday life in China. ‘Eat a bit more! We wish we could be eating those hairy crabs!’ 


The next day I board the bus to Chongming. I go to my paternal grandparents’ house, a third-floor apartment across from the hospital where my grandad worked his entire life. We go for a walk. We pass a flattened lot, with a high fence covered in government propaganda. He explains that’s where their old house was, before the government bought the land off them and reallotted them to their current apartment. We arrive at the rusted iron gate of my maternal grandparents’ former home. He opens the gate and we stand in the courtyard. I think about the last time I was here. The place is a lot smaller than I remember. 


He pulls a ladder out of the house and leans it against the mandarin tree out front. It’s the reason we came, to pick the bright orange fruit. He starts filling up one of the many bags, a man over eighty still sprightly enough to climb to the top of an unstable ladder. I grab a mandarin closeby. The skin is slack around the fruit, peeling away easily and quickly. It is my first mandarin of winter, juicy, fresh, and delicious. I wonder how I could have forgotten a flavour so strong on my tongue. I eat five more before I start helping my grandad bag them. 


Dinner that night is a humble affair. We have my favourite dish, red roasted pork. In the dish is a vegetable, a bit like a taro, that I haven’t had before. He tells me the name several times, but new words in the Chongming dialect never seem to stick. It isn’t restaurant quality like the red roasted pork I had the night before. It’s more like the one my parents make, with thinner and less salty sauce. I put the meat in my mouth and chew deliberately. It’s tougher than I thought it would be. I swallow, and it tastes like home.