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I take a deep breath before pushing open the swing doors. Noise spills out, a cacophony of Mandarin and Cantonese, and I step aside so Ma can walk inside before me. It's not that I'm being nice-I mean, I am, but I'm also being sensible. Ma grew up in Jakarta's Chinatown, a place heaving with people, and she knows how to make her way through a crowd. Any crowd. If I'm the one leading the way, I'd be squeaking, "Excuse me-oh, sorry, Ah Yi-um, could I just-I have a reservation-" My voice would never be heard above the din, and we'd be stuck outside the restaurant forever. Or at least until the dim sum rush died down, sometime around 2 p.m.
As it is, people surge behind Ma as she scythes a path through the throng of families waiting for their tables, and I would've lost her if I wasn't keeping a death grip on her arm as if I'm all of three years old. She doesn't bother stopping at the front desk. She strides in as if she owns the place, eagle eyes scanning the large dining hall.
How can I describe the chaos that is a dim sum restaurant in the heart of San Gabriel Valley at 11 a.m.? The place is filled with close to a hundred round tables, each one occupied by a different family, many of them with three to four generations of people present-there are gray-haired, prune-faced Ah Mas holding chubby babies on their laps. Steaming carts are pushed by the waitresses, though if you called them "Waitress" they'd never stop for you. You must call them Ah Yi-Auntie-and wave frantically as they walk by to get them to stop. And once they do, customers descend like vultures and fight over the bamboo steamers inside the cart. People shout, asking if they've got siu mai, or har gow, or lo mai gai, and the Ah Yis locate the right dishes somewhere in the depths of their carts.
My Mandarin is awful, and my Cantonese nonexistent. Ma and the aunts often try to help me improve by speaking to me in either Mandarin or Indonesian, but then give up and switch to English because I only get about 50 percent of what they're saying. Their grasp of the English language is a bit wobbly, but it's a heck of a lot better than my Mandarin or Indonesian. It's yet another reason why I find it extra hard to order food at dim sum. More often than not, everything good is gone by the time the Ah Yi notices me and understands my order. Then all that's left is the lame stuff, like the doughy vegetarian dumplings or the steamed bok choy.
But today, ah, today is a good day. I manage to get my hands on two lots of har gow, something that Big Aunt will certainly appreciate, and I even get hold of lop cheung bao-Chinese sausage rolls. Almost makes the whole ordeal of coming to weekly dim sum worth my while.
Big Aunt nods her approval when the Ah Yi puts the bamboo steamers down in the center of our table, and I feel an almost overwhelming need to beat my chest and crow. I got those shrimp dumplings! Me!
"Eat more, Meddy. You should keep your strength up for tomorrow," Big Aunt says in Mandarin, plopping two pieces of braised pork ribs on my plate while I carefully place dumplings on everyone else's plates and pour them tea. Second Aunt cuts the char siu baos into two each and places one half on everyone's plate. The table being round means all the dishes are equally within reach of everyone, but Chinese family meals aren't complete without everyone serving food to everyone else, because doing so shows love and respect, which means we all need to do it in the most attention-seeking way possible. What's the point of giving Big Aunt the biggest siu mai if nobody else notices?
"Thank you, Big Aunt," I say dutifully, placing a fat har gow on her plate. I always reply in English no matter which language my family is speaking because Second Aunt says listening to me struggle through Indonesian or Mandarin makes her blood pressure rise. "You eat more too. We're all counting on you tomorrow. And you, Second Aunt." The second-biggest har gow goes on Second Aunt's plate. Third biggest goes to Fourth Aunt, and the last remaining one goes on Ma's plate. That shows that Ma has brought me up well, to look out for others before ourselves.
Big Aunt waves off my platitudes with a heavily jeweled hand. "We are all counting on each other." Heads of big coiffed hair nod. Fourth Aunt has the biggest hair, something that Ma is always complaining to me about in private.
"Always such an attention hole," Ma said once, which was equal parts horrifying and hilarious. I asked her where she heard "attention hole," and she claimed that she heard it from our neighbor Auntie Liying, which is such a lie, but I've had twenty-six years of living with Ma and I know better than to argue with her. I simply told her it's "attention ho," not "hole," and she nodded and muttered "ho, like ho ho ho" before going back to chopping scallions.
"Okay," Big Aunt says, clapping once. Everyone sits up straighter. Big Aunt is older than Second Aunt by ten years, and she basically raised her sisters while Nainai went to work. "Hair and makeup?"
Second Aunt nods, bringing out her phone and putting on her glasses. She uses her index finger to tap on it, muttering, "Apa ya, the name of that app-Meddy make me use for hairstyle. Pin-something."
"Pinterest," I pipe up. "I can help you find it-"
Big Aunt shoots me a stern look, and I wilt. "No, Meddy. You mustn't help. If Second Aunt can't find the app tomorrow when she's with the bride, we will lose face for sure. We're supposed to be professionals," she says. Or at least I think that's what she says. She's speaking so fast I find it hard to follow, but I definitely caught the Mandarin words for "lose face"-a favorite phrase of hers.
Second Aunt's mouth purses, and her left cheek twitches a little. Just as Fourth Aunt irritates the crap out of Ma, Second Aunt and Big Aunt have a lot of friction between them. Don't ask me why; maybe it has to do with being the two oldest. Maybe it's something in their complicated pasts. There's been a lot of drama with my mom's family, especially back in Jakarta. I've heard bits and pieces over the years, mostly from Ma.
"Ha!" Second Aunt crows, brandishing Pinterest on her phone as if it's a sword she's just managed to pull out of a stone. "I got it. This is the style that the bride chose. I practiced on Meddy's hair and it looked wonderful." She turns to me and switches to English. "Meddy, you got photo I take of your hair?"
"I do," I say, quickly taking out my phone. I call up the picture and Second Aunt holds it side by side with her phone, showing off the two pictures to everyone.
"Wah," Ma says. "It's so similar to the model's! Very good, Er Jie."
Second Aunt gives her a warm smile.
Fourth Aunt nods and replies in English, "Yes, they're nearly identical. How impressive." Her English is the best of all of theirs, yet another thing Ma will never forgive her for, even though Ma's English is better than her older sisters'. Ma insists that Fourth Aunt has a penchant for using big words (i.e., anything with more than two syllables) just to needle Ma. I think Ma might have a point there, but it's just one of the many truths we will never know.
"The curl not show up well with Asian hair," Big Aunt says. The fact that she's speaking English means she's half-directing the admonishment at me. My insides writhe with guilt, even though this is very definitely not my fault. "Why you choose blonde hairstyle?"
Second Aunt glowers. "I didn't choose. The bride choose. Customer always right, remember?" She stabs her har gow and bites it angrily.
"Hmm." Big Aunt sighs. "Should have tell her it look different on Asian hair than on blonde hair. But," she adds, when Second Aunt looks about ready to burst, "never mind. Too late now. Moving in-"
"On," Fourth Aunt says.
"Eh?" Big Aunt says.
"On. It's moving on, not moving in. Moving in is what you do when you move houses."
"Moving on. Okay." Big Aunt smiles at Fourth Aunt, and Fourth Aunt beams back so hard she might as well be a kid again. Ma says Fourth Aunt is Big Aunt's favorite because she's the baby of the family, and she was such a needy baby that she stole Big Aunt's heart right out of her chest.
"She snatch it right out," Ma has grumbled many times. I didn't bother asking if Ma, as the second-youngest sister, had been Big Aunt's favorite right up until Fourth Aunt was born.
"Flowers?" Big Aunt says in Mandarin once more. I relax a little.
Ma's back straightens. "All taken care of. Lilies, roses, peonies. Ah Guan will take everything to the island in the morning."
The island she's talking about is Santa Lucia, a large, privately owned island off the coast of Southern California that boasts pristine golden beaches, dramatic cliffs, and, as of a month ago, one of the most luxurious, exclusive resorts in the world-the Ayana Lucia. Tomorrow is the start of a two-day wedding weekend extravaganza for Jacqueline Wijaya, daughter of Indonesia's largest textiles company, and-I kid you not-Tom Cruise.
Sutopo, that is. Yeah, the groom's name really is Tom Cruise Sutopo. I checked. It's exactly the kind of thing Chinese-Indonesians love naming their kids after-famous people and/or brand names (I have a cousin named Gucci, who moved very far away as soon as he was legally able to), or some form of misspelling of a popular Western name. Also case in point: Meddelin. My parents were aiming for Madeleine. Growing up, my cousins called me Meddlin' Meddelin, which is why I never, ever meddle in anyone's business, ever. Well, that and also the fact that my mother and aunts meddle enough for the whole family.
Anyway, Tom Cruise Sutopo's parents own . . . something. Something large. Palm oil plantations, coal mines, that kind of thing. So it's a wedding between two billionaire families in a newly built resort, which is why Big Aunt and all the rest of us are understandably nervous. How we managed to land these people as clients, I have no idea. Well, I do. Fourth Aunt's husband is-let me get this straight-Jacqueline's cousin's father-in-law's brother. So we're practically relatives. Everything in Chinese-Indo culture is like that; everybody is somehow related to everybody else, and deals happen because somebody's in-law knows someone else's friend's cousin.
I thought that our cheesy-as-hell company motto, which Big Aunt is supremely proud of-Don't leave your big day to chance, leave it to the Chans!-would've scared away the bride and groom, but they actually found it funny. Said it made them even more certain that they wanted to hire us to cater their big day.
Ma rattles on about how she's managed to get the rarest flowers. "The arrangements are going to look-what do you say in English, Meddy? Exsqueezed?"
"You mean exquisite?" Fourth Aunt says, and Ma gives her the deadliest side-eye in the history of all side-eyes.
"Very good," Big Aunt says hurriedly, breaking the radioactive glares between Ma and Fourth Aunt. "And last one, songs, all okay?"
Fourth Aunt's face goes from icy glare to satisfied smirk. "Of course, the band and I have been practicing night and day. People keep coming by the studio to listen to me sing, you know." There are two versions of Fourth Aunt's life story. Version one has to do with her being a celebrated child prodigy with a voice that newspapers described as "angelic" and "a national treasure." She was well on her way to stardom, but chose to leave it all behind when all her sisters decided to move to California. Version two has her as a so-so singer who cunningly convinced her entire family to uproot themselves and move to California so she could pursue her pipe dreams of breaking out in Hollywood. One version is Fourth Aunt's; the other is Ma's.
"And the cake?" Second Aunt says, side-eyeing Big Aunt. "Our centerpiece needs to be perfect, unlike that unfortunate thing you made for Mochtar Halim's daughter's wedding." She gives a dramatic sigh. "Nobody has a face anymore." Hmm, that can't be right. I parse the words slowly in my head. I think she's saying Big Aunt has made all of us lose face. I really need to brush up on my Mandarin.
Anyway, the point is, Second Aunt has made a really low blow. Cheriss Halim's wedding is her favorite topic, because Cheriss had requested a fiendishly tricky cake-a five-layer upside-down tower, with the bottom layer as the smallest one and the top as the biggest. Big Aunt, with years and years under her belt as head pastry chef for Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, was confident she could do it. But something went wrong. I don't know what, maybe she didn't build enough structural support, or maybe it was just an impossible task for a beach wedding in the middle of a SoCal summer. Whatever it was, amid the guests' horrified gasps, the humongous tower had leaned over in slow motion before collapsing on one of the flower girls. It was the only time we'd ever gone viral, and Second Aunt hasn't let Big Aunt forget about the incident since.
Big Aunt's nostrils flare. "I'm just here to buy soy sauce."
Okay, that definitely can't be right. I lean toward Ma and whisper, "Why's Big Aunt talking about buying soy sauce?"
"Tch," Ma says. "This is why I always say to you: pay attention in Chinese class! Big Aunt is saying to Second Aunt to mind her own business."
"Thank you for being sooo caring, Meimei," Big Aunt is saying. Phew, she's really mad now. She only refers to the rest as meimei-little sister-when she wants to remind them who's the eldest. "Of course everything is ready. The cake will be perfectly fine; please don't worry about me." She gives Second Aunt a smile that I can only describe as "so sweet it's deadly" and then turns her attention to me.
I shift in my seat. Big Aunt, like her title, is larger than all her sisters. I guess twenty years as a pastry chef will do that to you. She wears her size well, and it makes her more majestic, more convincing. There's a reason she's the one who meets with potential clients. I hate the thought of disappointing Ma, but the thought of disappointing Big Aunt actually keeps me up some nights. Maybe it's the result of spending most of my life in the same house as my mom and her sisters. Ma and I only got to move into our own place a year ago, after the family business started turning a steady profit. We all still live in the same neighborhood, a mere ten-minute walk away from one another, and I feel the weight of their expectations, as if I have four mothers and all of their hopes and dreams have been placed on my shoulders. I'm basically driven by a mixture of caffeine and familial guilt.