Audrey Sioeng, age 16
This essay was written as part of the Ofrenda Community Project, a collaboration with the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County. The inspiration object was the Chinese Hanging Bells — an embodiment of Chinese culture and science, and a testament to the wisdom of Chinese people.
Silken Red String and Sunshine
long noodles: longevity
It’s Chinese New Year, and we ring in new beginnings with smiles as my grandma lifts noodles up, up, up, as high as her head. Deeply inhale the kitchen, her kitchen, scents wafting with the hope she will live as long as these golden noodles symbolize. The cameras go off and one day this spontaneous picture of Mà (grandmother), face split into a rare smile, will be worth our collective weight in the egg rolls only she seems able to perfect. Watching the incense smoke rise, we follow Gong (grandfather) to pray to our ancestors for protection and many more new years and birthdays with 紅包’s (hohng bah-OW), eagerly chattering about how much our youngest cousins have grown and how my dad plans to grow his beard until Christmas to be Santa.
dragon beard candy: street market royalty
Midnight, and our little enclave of 西安 (shee-AHN) is afire with warm dragon’s breath and the scent of sugar and scorpion skewers. Our eyes gobble new delicacies as puffs of cotton candy float past our heads and sesame permeates the night. The tents are alive and at the center we see two men push and pull at dragon beard candy, 拉 , 拉, 拉 (lah, lah, lah). It tastes sweetly nutty, my mom tells me, and I can only imagine how many gods must sleep on these pillows of candy floss, watching as the blown sugar animals play in these streets.
jelly cups: bamboo friends
We’ve bought the same jelly cups from Costco for as long as I can remember. On forest green lunch tables, we unzip our lunch bags and look around at everyone else’s, despite the fact that there is, but a few feet away, a sign that says, “DON’T SHARE YOUR FOOD.” That would go against our nature and the bustling economy of lunchtime. My best friend produces a jar of brown seeds with a seam etched through the middle of the tiny droplets. Golden medallion wish seeds spill into her palm, and at fifty seeds we will free our friend and become the fun-loving Pokémon we were last year. Except we won’t, because by that time we’ll be much more interested in gossiping on the jungle gym and figuring out how to swing three people on two swings. Someone at some point called the invasive plants by our waiting bench “moon flowers,” and to this day I don’t know their name.
one yuan popsicles: The Great Wall of China
When my parents wanted us to see how far our roots go down, we traveled to China, the land of umbrella hats and one-yuan popsicles. We drank in the brief moments of damp shade in the dragon’s every turn. The people of the Middle Kingdom did not always love their wall. It’s no wonder people can see it from space — many people sacrificed their lives to build it. There are bodies in the brick, driven to the ground, labor and hopes edifying through the ages. We sweat on their sweat and we suck on popsicle sticks long after the cool relief is gone. We chase my brother’s back — it seems that he has always been one step ahead. I may be older, but I always wanted to be a one-yuan popsicle: sweet, sought-after, sticky. Perhaps I’ve read too many books, but I have always craved the thought of leaving a legacy. It never occurred to me that all that was ever left of the popsicles was a wooden stick. Is that all I aspire to become?
xiao long bao: waiting with koi
I loved jacaranda trees before I knew their name. A part of me fancies that this part of Arcadia is mine, and mine alone. The purple of their petals, though, I can’t be sure: Is my favorite color less mine if it was my mom’s first? We sit on concrete benches, and I pretend there’s koi in the stream by the sparse bunches of bamboo. We wait for hours in front of Din Tai Fung — I’ve spent a number of weeks watching the people on display pinching meat into dough through grubby windows. My sister got a concussion here once, on the handrails. And the back table was always ours, though I miss the days when I didn’t know how much the bill the adults fought for was — the 小龍包 (shee-OW lohng bah-OW) tasted better that way. The restaurant, with their koi and dumplings, left that building behind and with it, me and my glasses of condensation, paper umbrellas and chopstick guides.
osmanthus wine: starless nights
I’ve eaten 饅頭 (mahn TOW), but it tastes best at four in the morning with osmanthus wine, peach blossoms in my hair and a basket full of ripe 批杷 (pee PAH). I cry chrysanthemum petals as I learn how to fall into these starless nights, curled up in the snug corner of my mom’s mattress, eyes transfixed on the Chinese drama. I smile for their happiness, admire their jade pins, and envy the way their hearts crack and shatter into shards of colored glass. I plunge into their stories with reckless abandon until it’s over, when the reality ends and bends and I can only wish in my moonlit bedroom with the ashes of an eternal, ten-mile love poem. A world, a redemption, lies in the strings of the 古箏 (goo juhng) and 二胡 (ehr HOO) brimming with untamed rebellion and forgetful lotus water. I will never understand how they can make ink flow like deliberate, roaring rivers, to be drunk on eloquent Chinese, famished for the illustrious ambrosia on bamboo scrolls and unfinished 國畫 (GOO-aw HOO-aw). I promise myself that one day I will be married in red.
instant ramen: stormy days
It is a shame that not all days are made of silken red string, embroidered with mandarin ducks and sunshine. Rain clouds press behind my eyes. I sit there for some while, a nearby glass half full. My mom used to have a small blue china cup but I can’t recall where she left it. Thirsty, I lick the briny broth from my chopsticks. Sonder* tastes of tender steam and MSG broth. Petrichor** reeks of fresh breath and formless strokes of gray, blankets feeling more like my forgotten homemade forts — safety hazards of precarious pillows and strategically placed mattresses that I used to hide out in at times like these. Tear-stained windows remind me of slipping memory, and I get lost in the noodles. I grasp them with my chopsticks and they whisper, 加油！(tsee-au yoh), as I smile, content, into the soup. My ancestors toast a round of tea and their overturned cups (washed for free in the rain!) chime in the wind.
紅包 hóng bāos /hohng bah-OW/ — red envelopes
西安 Xi’an /shee-AHN/ — a city in China
拉 lā /lah/ — pull
小龍包 xiǎo lóng bāo /shee-OW lohng bah-OW/ — pork dumplings with soup inside
饅頭 mán tou /mahn TOW/ — steamed bread
批杷 pí pá /pee PAH/ — loquat, a small round fruit
古箏 gǔ zhēng /goo juhng/ — a type of zither with 21, 25 or 26 strings that are plucked
二胡 èr hú /ehr HOO/ — a two-stringed bowed instrument, sometimes called the Chinese violin
國畫 guó huà /GOO-aw HOO-aw/ — a traditional chinese painting
加油 jiā yóu /tsee-au yoh / — add oil (a cheer)
*Sonder: The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own
**Petrichor: A pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather