At the news of her mother’s death, Natalie Tan returns home. The two women hadn’t spoken since Natalie left in anger seven years ago, when her mother refused to support her chosen career as a chef. Natalie is shocked to discover the vibrant neighborhood of San Francisco’s Chinatown that she remembers from her childhood is fading, with businesses failing and families moving out. She’s even more surprised to learn she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant.
The neighborhood seer reads the restaurant’s fortune in the leaves: Natalie must cook three recipes from her grandmother’s cookbook to aid her struggling neighbors before the restaurant will succeed. Unfortunately, Natalie has no desire to help them try to turn things around—she resents the local shopkeepers for leaving her alone to take care of her agoraphobic mother when she was growing up. But with the support of a surprising new friend and a budding romance, Natalie starts to realize that maybe her neighbors really have been there for her all along.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Roselle Lim
A horned lark perched on the concrete balcony outside my window, framed against the colorful paifang of Montreal’s Chinatown. Ma-ma, who shared my love of birds, would have gasped at the sight of it. It was so still, I could study it closely: in the morning sun of steamy hot July, the smudge of gold on its throat seemed to have been created by a paint-dipped fingertip, and the dark markings along its collar, cheek, and crown inked by a calligraphy brush.
The lark stared back, its tiny, black eyes studying me before it serenaded me. The melody transitioned from an ordinary song to one that was haunting and familiar: “Sono andati?”
My admiration of the feathered visitor turned to dread. Every person had a song humming under their skin to the beat of their heart. “Sono andati?” was my mother’s. The only reason I’d hear it now was if . . . I lurched to my feet and shooed the messenger from my ledge before turning my back on the window, refusing to listen.
The rain came once my feathered vocalist had departed. It echoed the same tune, pinging against the gutters and metal roof, imitating timpani drums instead of the robust strings and brass of an orchestra, delivering the meaning with tiny percussive notes I couldn’t ignore.
Ma-ma was gone.
Numbness traveled through my limbs, emanating from my heart, freezing me in place. Reeling from the loss of my mother, I could do nothing but stare out the window.
I needed to go home to San Francisco. By the time I packed my bags and left for the airport, the melody had followed me into the interior of the taxi. The sputtering vents of the air conditioner complemented the dancing raindrops on the car roof. The aria played on ordinary surfaces, a constant impromptu performance only I could hear.
The last time I heard this music had been on vinyl, spinning on an ancient turntable Ma-ma had once fished from a dusty flea market. Sesame oil sizzled in the air, popping out of a hot wok filled with stir-fried enoki mushrooms, mustard greens, baby bok choy, and strips of pork tenderloin. My mother had danced by the stove against snakes of smoke emanating from sticks of sandalwood incense stuck in nearby pots of ash. The scent filled our tiny Chinatown apartment.
Ma-ma had always predicted some sort of curse would claim her. She subscribed to superstitions as if they were horoscopes—welcoming their vagueness instead of recognizing them as worthless generalities. She avoided the number four because it represented death and misfortune, while seeking out lucky eights. She made no important decisions on the fourth day of the month but postponed them until four days later, on the eighth. Once she had mentioned that she made sure she didn’t give birth to me on the fourth. I laughed when she told me. My birthday ended up on the seventh, a day short of her ideal date, seeing that Ma-ma could only control so much.
It didn’t matter anymore, of course, because she was gone. What would I do now?
I thought about calling Emilio, but I had burned that bridge a long time ago. Tears slid down my cheeks. Tiny crystals sang a sorrowful melody against my skin before trickling down into a glittering pile on my lap. I gathered them in my hands. Such was the beauty of sadness: it transformed the hollowness of the heart into something as precious as the loss it suffered.
An unfamiliar number flashed across my phone’s screen. It came from a San Francisco area code. My past called to me.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Natalie? Natalie Tan?”
I didn’t recognize the voice. My skin prickled. “Yes, it is.”
“This is Celia Deng. You gave me your number before you left in case of emergency. I’m sorry to call under such circumstances, but it’s about Miranda.”
Ma-ma. I knew why she was calling. A heavy weight sank to the bottom of my belly. Celia continued: “I don’t know how else to put it, but she passed away this morning. I’m so sorry. It was sudden.”
Ma-ma was the only family I had left in this world, and we hadn’t spoken in years. As her daughter, I was expected to obey. By refusing, I’d caused an estrangement between us that was justified by our culture. She had called me a few times after I moved out. The conversations played like a broken record: a rehash of our arguments in the apartment, of two people talking over each other, not listening to what the other one was saying. After I left the country, the calls stopped. She must have realized that the miles between us represented the ones in our hearts.
I had left San Francisco in anger, and as time passed, silence became a habit. All of my unspoken words to my mother now hovered in the air, swarming in swirls of black until I could no longer see through them. I slammed my eyes shut, unable to tell Celia that I knew and was already on my way to the airport. How could I explain that hearing Ma-ma’s song had already told me all I needed to know?
“The entire neighborhood is shocked. It was so sudden. I spoke to your mother last night and she was fine. Well, as fine as she could be with her various ailments. We were watching our favorite K-drama and were considering what to order in next week.” Her voice went soft, lost in the memories she’d shared with Ma-ma. “I can’t believe she’s gone. I know you didn’t leave on good terms . . . but Miranda loved you very much. She spoke of you often and told me the sweetest stories.”
Although I had no right to resent her for her closeness with Ma-ma, a tiny ball of jealousy curdled inside my chest, nestled inside the numbness. “I’m heading home now. I’ll take the next flight out.”
“See you soon, Natalie.”
I ended the call before I realized I hadn’t thanked her.
I didn’t want to go back home, but there were Ma-ma’s affairs to settle—and what would I do with her apartment? I certainly couldn’t live in it.
There was nothing left for me in San Francisco, no friends, no family. Our neighbors in Chinatown had known Ma-ma’s agoraphobia meant she couldn’t leave the apartment, yet when I was growing up they had never visited or offered aid. Even Celia, whom I’d left my number with, was a stranger. She’d always been my mother’s friend, not mine. My father had abandoned our family before I was born, so I was tasked with the sole responsibility of taking care of my homebound mother. While our neighbors’ indifference had taught me the valuable lesson of self-reliance, their inaction contributed to the heavy burden of responsibility I’d carried as a child.
They were content to remain bystanders while I had become a caged bird, first as Ma-ma’s helper, then her keeper. For as long as I could remember, my mother’s dark spells had been a part of her, as day coexisted with night. I loved her all the same, though my memories of those times held a certain fuzziness at the edges like that of an old afghan. When Ma-ma’s reservoir of sadness overflowed, she retreated to her bedroom: paralyzed, weak, speaking in endless whispers. I brought her cups of hot oolong. Food was ordered in until I was old enough to cook.
I would sit by her side, stroking her dark hair, threading the inky strands through my small fingers. My mother’s cheek was smooth and decorated with rivers of tears. Nothing I did could banish the sadness, so I stayed with her, hoping my presence would ease her pain and that most of all, she would be reminded she was loved.
And things would have remained this way if she’d accepted my desire to go to culinary school. But she’d adamantly denied me my heart’s wish, insisting on college instead. I didn’t need her permission to pursue my dreams, but I had wanted her support and blessing. I realized then that I had to leave and go out on my own. I couldn’t stand another day of fighting with her. She refused to acknowledge that I wanted a different path.
It took me two years to save up fifteen thousand in tuition for the first year of culinary school in the city while working three jobs. The glorified closet I’d lived in still sucked up most of my income. Rent in San Francisco was steep, even with three roommates.
When I started culinary school, I thought it would be easy, but the pressure of fulfilling my dream crushed me. Self-doubt suffocated me and made my hands shake. I ended up failing all of my courses, and I’d blamed Ma-ma.
But I’d refused to return home in defeat. I’d used the opportunity to travel, something I was deprived of while caring for my agoraphobic mother. I decided to go around the world and find a culinary education through other means. My dream had always been to open my own restaurant, and I couldn’t competently do this without learning more first.
And so I’d traveled, funding my journeys with the humility to work any menial job. One stint as a painter had had me dangling off the side of a building in Prague as the strings and woodwind section of an orchestra practiced in the courtyard below. As a dishwasher in Cairo, I’d snuck off into the night for a ride in the desert to see the Pyramids. My peripatetic lifestyle hadn’t allowed me to make many friends, but the practical education I’d received from working in kitchens was invaluable. I hadn’t achieved my original plan of getting a degree in culinary arts, but I’d successfully defied Ma-ma and learned just the same. However, my dream of running a restaurant remained unrealized.
And now seven years had passed and Ma-ma was really gone.
After I settled her affairs, nothing would tether me to San Francisco. Perhaps when all was done, I could return to traveling, but to where? Now that my mother was gone, the world suddenly didn’t hold as much allure as it once had.
Despite our falling-out, I had lost the only person in this world I cared about. It had always been just the two of us. My grandmother, Qiao, died before my parents were married. My father was gone. Ma-ma and I had clung to each other for love and survival until I’d left.
As strange as my mother had been with her quirks and superstitions, my memories of her and our time together were stitched into the thickest of blankets, ready whenever I needed comfort. And I needed it now.
While I was gallivanting across the globe, my mother had died alone.
San Francisco undulated with hills against the blue of the bay. As the cab headed from the airport to my mother’s home, the balmy late-summer breeze threaded its way through the open windows into the strands of my long hair, sending it flying like fluttering ribbons of black silk.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that my mother had known she was going to die, but hadn’t wanted me there when it happened. She had always told me, “Death is not meant to be seen. It’s an immovable force that claims every living thing. Might as well strap yourself to a tree to witness a hurricane.” Perhaps my mother meant to spare me some pain from the inevitable.
What do I do now?
I had planned on leaving Montreal soon. I had been there for a year and was searching for the next port, even while my anemic bank account urged me to seek stability. Most twenty-eight-year-olds had family, careers, a foothold in some sort of direction—wanted or unwanted. After all this time, I found myself yearning for the very same thing I’d sought when I left—a career doing the thing I loved most of all, cooking.
Now that I had worked in the kitchens of others, more than ever I wanted a restaurant to call my own. Something small and humble, serving authentic Chinese dishes. Massive establishments with armies of servers and kitchen staff held no allure for me. I craved intimacy, to know and see my customers and develop a relationship with them.
Ma-ma had been my first cooking teacher, helping awaken in me a lifelong fascination with food. It still cut me that she of all people had denied me what I’d desired most. She claimed she was protecting me from inevitable misery: she didn’t want me to have the life of being trapped in a restaurant. Ma-ma had said I was destined to fail if I chose this path. During one of our fights about it, she finally revealed to me that my grandmother, Qiao, had run a restaurant and needed my mother to run it as well, but Ma-ma had refused.
The revelation about the family business excited me, and I grew more determined to pursue my dream, knowing that Laolao had done so as well. Ma-ma did her best to enforce her will. The old restaurant was below our apartment, but it was boarded up and had fallen into massive disrepair. And besides, Ma-ma told me, the kitchen would be my cage: no room for a husband, family, or a life outside it. She painted a miserable life of cooking for others while struggling to feed myself. She herself had never wanted the life Laolao had intended for her: in her eyes, the hours were far too long, the frequent interactions draining, and the thought of catering to the whims of others left her miserable and unfulfilled. The most hurtful thing she said to me? That no matter how hard I tried, I would never cook as well as Laolao. No one could.
Dreams, even modest ones, had a steep price. Mine had cost me my mother and given me the silence of seven years.
Now that silence could never be breached.
The taxi dropped me off by the Dragon Gate at Bush Street. I saw it right away: the neighborhood was different. Dusk’s veil failed to hide the increasing number of converted office buildings and upscale, big-name chains moving in where bodegas and apartments used to be. These buildings used to be small businesses that housed hives of families. I’d read that the boom in the real estate market in San Francisco, fueled by the tech industry, had created a housing crisis for those with low and middle incomes. Ma-ma had been lucky that she owned our building, otherwise she would have been prey to the mass evictions that occurred. Growing up, I was accustomed to an insular neighborhood where the faces were as familiar as my own, but more and more, the demographics were changing. Gentrification was devouring Chinatown. Even knowing this, however, I hadn’t expected the neighborhood to change so much in seven years.
I pressed my hand against one of the stone lions guarding the gate. This symbolic archway at Grant Avenue and Bush Street, marked Chinatown. I’d grown up seeing this beautiful monument outside my window. In the past, the paifangs were the magical doorways of my universe. My mother’s reclusive ways had afforded me a sort of freedom: even as a small child, I’d had the run of the oldest Chinatown on the continent while performing errands for my mother that she wouldn’t leave the apartment to do herself.
A gathering fog brewed at the base of the gate the way steam rises from a perfect bowl of noodle soup.
I was home.
I should have gone straight to the apartment, but I feared the finality of what awaited me there. Instead, I kept my head down, veering by my old front door, speed walking past the familiar shops of our neighbors, hoping the fog would thicken like salted duck congee to conceal my arrival. I should pay my respects and visit them after my time away, but I wanted to do no such thing. I rationalized to myself that, just this once, my grief justified dismissing these cultural expectations.
I headed toward Stockton Street, escaping my deserted block with its faded signs and dwindling businesses. My neighborhood was struggling, as it had been most of my life. However, rumors abounded of a golden age during my grandmother’s lifetime. I had mentioned this to Ma-ma once and she dismissed it as a fairy tale, wishes of those who couldn’t change their ill luck or destiny. She had been a firm believer in the Chinese adage of keeping one’s eyes on one’s own plate and swallowing one’s misery. Even though this wasn’t how I wanted to live, I feared I had internalized that proverb and made it my own.
I turned the corner to face Old Wu’s restaurant, the Lotus. Since the main entrance and windows faced Stockton Street, it was considered outside of the neighborhood, remaining prosperous and seemingly untarnished from the decay that had gripped its residents on my street. Its facade showcased the old world with its curved tiled rooftops, second-story balcony, and golden Chinese characters raised high above the entrance. A string of red paper lanterns zigzagged across this section of the street, bobbing in the breeze like ripe cherries in a bucket of water.
I had an unpleasant history with this place and its owner, but after so many years away, perhaps Old Wu had retired. My growling, empty stomach, and sudden cravings for cheung fun, zhaliang, and yin-yang fried rice, overrode any misgivings.
Evening had fallen and, as expected, the restaurant was nearly full of Chinese clientele. The noise from the dining room crackled in my ears, and I plucked out bits and pieces of conversation like picking up kernels of rice with chopsticks. Ma-ma and I had switched between Chinese and English at home. She was responsible for my fluency in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Old Wu, who’d always manned the takeout counter like a vigilant sentinel, wasn’t there. I exhaled as the tension left my shoulders. An edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and the latest issue of Scientific American lay together wedged beside the cash register. No sign of the man, but his reading materials of choice remained, so he must be around somewhere. I chalked up his momentary absence to good luck.
The hostess greeted me at the podium, then led me to an empty table. Since Ma-ma had never left the apartment, we’d always gotten takeout, so I had never eaten inside the restaurant before.
I ordered our preferred three dishes and poured myself a cup of jasmine tea. I wished every restaurant had the customary teapot of jasmine or oolong waiting at the table. My stomach gurgled, impatient for the food to arrive. I’d purposely ordered more than enough for one person—the three dishes meant leftovers for tomorrow.
The server soon brought large platters of cheung fun and zhaliang along with various condiments for dipping. Cheung fun was a delightfully surprising dish: nestled within the flat, translucent rice rolls were plump prawns. Zhaliang were crispy, long fritters wrapped in rice noodle. This was a favorite because of the combinations of contrasting textures: tender steamed rice noodles and crunchy golden fritters. The taste of these two dishes was determined by its accompanying dressing: spicy if paired with hot mustard, salty with soy sauce, and sweet with the peanut sauce.
I helped myself to three each of the fritters and rice rolls. I first used the soy sauce on my portions, savoring the chewy noodle and prawns, then alternated between the peanut sauce and the hot mustard. Before I could dive in for a second helping, the last dish arrived.
Yin-yang fried rice was a feast for the eyes and the senses. Swirls of cream contrasted with an orange tomato sauce to form the iconic pattern. Underneath the sauces lay a bed of yang chow fried rice containing a bounty of minced jewels: barbecued pork, Chinese sausage, peas, carrots, spring onions, and wisps of egg. Slices of white onions and pork emerged from the tomato sauce while shrimp and sweet green peas decorated the cream. Which side I preferred depended on my mood. The tomato sauce was tangy and sweet while the cream was subtle.
I dipped my spoon into the cream side, heaping the rice into my bowl. This was comfort in my time of need, nourishment and a sense of stability when grief threatened to crumble the earth from under me. After this meal, I would face the emptiness left by Ma-ma’s passing.
The steam rising from the fried rice dish obscured my view of the entrance, which meant I was completely surprised by the ambush I faced next.
“How dare you come in here!” Old Wu shouted as he walked to the edge of my table. The food in my mouth lost all flavor. I instantly reverted to the cowering seven-year-old girl I had once been, fingers gripping the sides of my seat.
He pointed at me, his index finger a thin dagger made of flesh and bone. Wu’s reedy build had always reminded me of a malevolent grasshopper. “Natalie Tan. It was your fault that your mother died alone. What kind of a daughter are you?”
I couldn’t answer. His question had wounded me where he had intended it to—into my very being. He was right: I was guilty of the greatest transgression. Filial piety was sacred in my culture, and my mother had died while I was 3,100 miles away. I trembled, speechless from his judgment and my shame, as his onslaught continued.
“You left her alone for years. You knew she never went out. You knew this would happen! She raised you on her own and took care of you. This is how you repay her? You come back too late to be of use!”
I could say nothing to defend my actions. If I hadn’t left her, Ma-ma would most likely still be alive. I’d have been there all along to ease the strain, or at the very least been able to call an ambulance for her this morning, when she passed. Maybe that would have made all the difference.
“You’re not welcome here. Get out of my restaurant.”
I lowered my spoon to the plate without making a sound and reached for the handle of my rolling suitcase. Eyes downcast, I pushed myself away from the table.
“Mr. Wu, please,” a familiar voice spoke, the same one from the phone earlier today. “Have some compassion. She just lost her mother.” Celia Deng stood beside me, her firm hand resting on my shoulder, resplendent in a navy frock with a white hibiscus pattern. She was a decade younger than Ma-ma at forty-eight, yet despite their age difference, they were close friends. There was no trace of gray in her curled hair. Her subtle perfume smelled like cut gardenias. She continued in firm but gentle tones. “She must have arrived from the airport and wanted to get something good to eat. You can’t fault her for choosing your restaurant.”
Blood rushed to my face, bringing a welcome heat. Why was she defending me? Was this an act of pity? Old Wu’s harsh face softened. “If it was your idea, then I apologize.”
“I’ll take her home now. I’m sure she must be exhausted from her flight. I’ll pay the bill.” Celia squeezed my shoulder as a cue to leave. I reached for my suitcase and took my place beside her.
He cleared his throat. “No, it was my fault, Celia. Don’t worry about the bill.”
“No, no. Business is business, Mr. Wu. We all need to make a living.” She reached into her purse for her wallet.
“I refuse to allow you to pay for my error. Put your wallet away, Celia.”
“I’m one of your most loyal customers and I don’t want to lose my standing. Please, I insist.”
This was a familiar dance, and I’d have laughed if Old Wu were not involved. The tug-of-war to pay the bill was a common cultural occurrence involving everything from mad dashes to the till, to calling the restaurant or telling the server ahead of time who would be paying. In most cases, the end result required the server’s patience in waiting for the resolution. The performance of paying the bill demonstrated the traits of generosity and hospitality so prized by our culture.
Celia emerged victorious and left two crisp twenty-dollar bills on the table before she linked her arm with mine and escorted me out of the restaurant. Old Wu returned to his post without further comment. My heated cheeks remained the sole trace of the old man’s earlier tirade. The details of the incident might fade, but I would never forget the shame.
“I’m sorry about Mr. Wu,” Celia murmured. “He’s set in his ways and he doesn’t understand your relationship with Miranda. He’s probably still stinging from your laolao’s death decades ago.”
Old Wu was of the same generation as Laolao. Ma-ma had seldom spoken of her mother because their relationship had been complicated at best, but I’d always yearned to know more about my grandmother.
“He knew her?” I asked.
“Of course. Your grandmother’s restaurant was once the jewel of Chinatown.”
I unwound my arm from hers in surprise. Information about my grandmother had never flowed freely from my neighbors.
Celia smiled. “Qiao and Miranda loved each other, but both wanted very different things.” She paused. “Miranda asked us not to mention your laolao to you. I have honored her wishes until now.”
Ma-ma. I still couldn’t believe she was gone.
“How did it happen?” My voice dwindled to a whisper. If Celia weren’t in such close proximity, she might have missed it.
“It was the strangest thing. Anita Chiu found her outside your building, collapsed on the sidewalk. I still don’t know why Miranda stepped out.”
A sudden hope swelled inside me, mingling with the shame and guilt. Ma-ma’s agoraphobia had kept her confined upstairs. The building could have been on fire, and if she had to walk across the threshold for safety, she still wouldn’t have been able to. Had something changed over the years I was gone? “Was . . . she’d been able to leave the apartment?”
“No. It was so unlike Miranda. I saw her two nights before when I came for a visit. She looked fine then. A little pale but within the normal range for your mother.”
Why had my mother stepped outside?
I was thirteen, on my way to the bus stop, when I tripped over a crack in the sidewalk across the street, opening a deep gash in my shin. Ma-ma had seen the whole thing, her face plastered against the glass of the windows, but she wasn’t able to come down and help me. The combination of sheer panic, anguish, and helplessness on her face was forever burned into my memory.
Why did you go outside, Ma-ma?
“It is a mystery to all of us. But the important thing is that you’re here now.” Celia paused to gather her breath before continuing. “Her body is at the morgue. I can go with you in the morning, and if you want me to, I can help you plan the funeral. Miranda wanted a traditional Buddhist ceremony. We can do a private one and rebuild your family shrine.”
“You had one. I saw it once, but Miranda put it away after your grandmother died.”
Laolao died long before I was born. Ma-ma had only spoken of her as one would a favorite fable, presenting merely the morals of the tale and leaving the details vague on purpose. Guilt gnawed at me for wanting more than what my mother had given, but now that she was gone, the opportunity to know anything about my grandmother was lost. Regret flooded me: I should have pushed harder. Laolao was a part of me too.
“With your mother the way she was, I know you’ve never been to a Chinese funeral. Do you know what to do? Let me help you. It’s the least I can do.”
Celia’s kindness crept in to surprise me. Such was the vulnerability of grief: every act of concern was felt more deeply, for the path to the heart was clear. It mattered not who was offering, this was what I needed now, and I was grateful.
“Thank you,” I said. “I don’t know what to do or how to even begin arranging this.”
She patted my arm. “After having arranged the funerals for my parents five years ago, I know the ins and outs. I’ll be your guide.”
We stopped at the door to Ma-ma’s apartment. Celia gave me a tight embrace. “I’m really sorry about Miranda. Would you like me to come in with you?”
I shook my head. “I need to do this alone, but thank you.”
“I understand.” She nodded. “Oh! And before I forget, beware of the cat.”
“I’ve been feeding the little piranha for Miranda. She picked it out a month ago. I was both delighted and supportive of her decision until Meimei drew blood. The kitten is very cute and only likes—liked—your mother. Don’t be insulted if she hates you.”
Meimei. Little sister. Ma-ma chose the name well. The idea of my mother having a companion made me smile. She should have done it years ago. My gaze drifted to the faded scratches on Celia’s forearms, which I hadn’t noticed until now. “Thank you for the warning and for everything else.”
“You have my number. Call me when you’re ready.”
Celia returned to her building and left me standing alone by the door to the apartment.
By the time I turned the key, climbed up the stairs, and stepped into my mother’s apartment, I was crying. A trail of sorrow followed me. When sadness made an appearance in my life, it always brought the weight of the ocean with it.
I locked the door behind me and set down my luggage in the foyer.
It was like traveling back in time—nothing had changed. From the bird figurines my mother collected to the small cracks in the pale lemon walls she had so carefully painted, it was exactly as I remembered. The layout of the apartment was modest by San Franciscan standards but generous compared to the closets I had lived in the last few years. Two bedrooms, one bathroom, a combined kitchen and living area, and access to a seldom-used rooftop patio. Three windows overlooked Grant Avenue and provided a clear view of the green tiles of the paifang, the ornate arch marking the edge of Chinatown at Bush Street.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the familiar scents of the apartment: oolong, jasmine, and tikuanyin teas held in vintage tins in the pantry; pungent star anises and red Sichuan peppercorns mingled with pickled ginger and dried chili peppers in the collection of spices above the stove; the musty scent of newsprint from the stacks of Chinese newspapers Ma-ma subscribed to; and the subtle perfume of phalaenopsis on the windowsills.
Home, but empty in a way I’d never experienced.
On the kitchen counter, a long envelope stuck out from one of the slots of the unplugged toaster. Ma-ma had never eaten toast in her entire life. She had bought the appliance for me because I’d loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on toast for lunch. The paleness of the crisp paper matched the shade of sliced bread. Ma-ma’s elegant script spelled out my name. The pristine corners betrayed its age: this had been placed there recently.
Goose bumps rose on my skin.
I picked up the envelope and ripped it open. My fingertips skimmed the rippled surface where the pressure of Ma-ma’s pen had marked the paper. My heart clenched, squeezing inside my rib cage like a captured bird. Written on sheets of onionskin were my mother’s last words to me.
I had imagined your homecoming to be full of joy, sugared fritters, and late nights listening to the tales of your travels. I wanted to hear your stories and all about the new dishes you’ve tried.
I attempted to write you this letter every year, and until now, I could never finish it. At first, it was because of pride: I wanted you to come to your senses and come home because you knew I was right. Then as the years grew longer, I didn’t care anymore about who was right or wrong. I shouldn’t have allowed the silence between us to stretch on for so long. I never reached out because I was afraid that you didn’t love me anymore.
I love you so much.
I’m sorry for not understanding your wishes.
I’m sorry I tried to impose my will on you.
I’m sorry for all the hurtful things I said, that you would never cook like your grandmother, words uttered in desperation and spite.
These were my fears. I pinned them onto you, hoping you’d claim them as your own and abandon your dream. I wanted you to stay close to me. Instead, I lost the very person I loved most in this world.
I will always love you, dear heart.
Your presence in my life helped me forget its fractured state: my heart has been broken since before you were born. I fear it will be my undoing, but I have accepted this. It’s my burden and mine alone to bear.
Before you came into this world, your grandmother and I quarreled, just as you and I have done.
She wanted me to be someone I’m not, just as I tried to do the same to you.
You should have the freedom to choose your own way. I understand this now. You are more like your grandmother than I was willing to admit. And that isn’t a terrible thing by any means.
Your grandmother helped build this community. She came from China with nothing but her mother’s wok and the cooking skills she had learned from her own mother. All by herself, she opened a restaurant, and her dishes brought people together: strangers, bickering relatives, newcomers, and old-timers alike. Her establishment welcomed all and was the jewel of Chinatown.
But I refused to honor my mother’s legacy.
Because of this, I have watched the street die. The neighbors are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. They will lose everything they have worked so hard for. If your laolao’s restaurant were still around, this would never have happened. People came from miles around to eat there. She kept the neighborhood alive.
I lied to you about the restaurant. I told you that it was in a horrible state of disrepair. I did this to dispel any illusions you might have had about running it. But I was wrong to turn you away from what you sought.
If you want to reopen the restaurant, you have my blessing. It is dirty and dusty but still operable. Perhaps it is your destiny to follow your grandmother and save the neighborhood once more. Follow your dreams, beloved daughter.
The letter was dated yesterday. It fluttered to the floor as I braced my palms against the counter.
I wished her written words could have taken to the air and shattered the long years of silence between us. What she said about my cooking, all those years ago, had left lingering scars. I’d wanted to prove her wrong, and yet I still hadn’t accomplished my goal. I’d been so angry that I allowed myself the luxury of reticence until it became a habit.
If only my pride hadn’t kept me away from her while waiting for an apology that never came. If only I had treated her as if she were the fickle clouds dispersed by the winds, instead of the eternal mountains. Clouds were mutable, mountains immovable. If only.
I wandered into the living room and sank into the faded sofa.
You are more like your grandmother than I was willing to admit. My mother had seldom spoken of Qiao. For years, I’d yearned for any memory Ma-ma could afford to give. But I’d never begged, for thinking of her seemed to bring my mother pain, and I’d loved her too much to press.
Ma-ma had also seldom mentioned my father, but I never wanted anything to do with him. My mother’s anger toward him had become my own, an inheritance I welcomed as a reaction to his abandonment.
My fingers dug into the cushion, squeezing the thinning foam underneath. And the restaurant. It had been boarded up on the first floor, forbidden to me because it was too dangerous to enter. But now I knew: my mother had lied when she told me it was ruined beyond all repair. My dream had been right beneath her all these years.
She wanted me to follow my dreams.
I broke into sobs, my chest heaving, gasping for breath from the pain of loss. My teardrops formed tiny crystals and fell hard against the linoleum. The ache within my rib cage swelled with every gulp of air.
As I cried, my gaze fell upon the wooden lotus-shaped bowl on the coffee table. Bought at a flea market, the bowl’s subtle wood grain reminded me of melted chocolate. It served as a replacement for the ceramic bowl I had accidentally broken before leaving. I traced its rounded petals before dipping my fingers inside it, into a small sea of teardrop crystals. Ma-ma had collected my tears since birth: first saving them in silk pouches, then graduating to bowls. I hadn’t understood why she’d wanted to keep them. She told me that she always wished to keep a part of me with her, and that there was beauty to be found everywhere—even in sadness. When Ma-ma cried, her tears took days to dry, leaving salt trails in their wake. The fragile salt disintegrated into nothingness.
Where was the piece of her I got to keep with me? Everywhere I looked I saw reminders of her presence, but nothing rivaled the power of her last letter lying discarded on the kitchen floor. I rushed to pick it up, pressing it tight against my broken heart. There was nothing I could do to bring her back.
When I finally stopped crying, I gathered the tiny crystals into my hands, pouring them into the bowl on the coffee table to join the others. A stray sunbeam struck the center, illuminating the ceiling with dancing prisms. I marveled at the display. Ma-ma always found the beauty in unlikely objects.
A soft meow interrupted my thoughts. A powder-puff-shaped creature emerged from the hallway. A pink rhinestone collar sparkled around her neck, complementing her glacial blue eyes. Meimei? I had almost forgotten about Ma-ma’s kitten.
She approached me without hesitation and rubbed herself against my calves, weaving in and out of my legs until I bent down to scoop her into my arms. Her snowy fur was softer than I imagined. I carried her to the high-backed chair. Sitting down, I lifted her to my face so our eyes could meet. She batted my nose in defiance.
“Hello, Meimei. You and I loved her the most, and now we have to start grieving her.” Sorrow swelled in my throat, cutting off my words. I held the cat against my chest and sighed. Purrs emanated from her tiny body, waves of vibrations that washed across my skin like the most comforting of massages. I held her closer and smiled when I noticed she had dozed off.
“Oh, little one. You have me now.”
Perhaps a part of my mother remained after all.
Reading Group Guide
NATALIE TAN'S BOOK OF LUCK AND FORTUNE
1.How did the relationship dynamics between Qiao and Miranda differ from those between Miranda and Natalie? Is there a repeating pattern, and if so, what is it?
2.Cultural expectations drove Qiao and Miranda apart. What did Qiao expect from her daughter and, consequently, what did Miranda expect from Natalie?
3.The imagery of birds appears throughout the book. When do they occur and what do you believe is the meaning behind each occurrence?
4.Miranda’s agoraphobia debilitated her greatly, from not being able to travel with her husband to not being able to help her daughter after she fell outside. How might her life have turned out differently if she had been able to get help early on?
5.Was Natalie selfish for leaving her mother and traveling all over the world, or is she justified in pursuing her dream?
6.What do you think is the effect of the magical realism incorporated throughout the book?
7.Daniel evokes a strong emotional and physical reaction from Natalie from the very beginning. What makes him different from the previous men in her life? Do his family dynamics affect their relationship in any way?
8.Natalie is used to running away from her problems. At what point does she realize she can’t run away from her troubles at home? What external and internal factors is she running from?
9.Food is a huge element of the book, connecting the residents of the Chinatown neighborhood. How does food impact your own life and the way you interact with others?
10.Natalie’s father is absent throughout most of Natalie’s life, yet clearly he has a large presence in it. How do you think his absence has affected Natalie and the decisions she has made?
11.Were you surprised at the identity of Natalie’s father? In retrospect, in what ways did he act like a father to her?
12.After her mother’s death, Natalie stays at her home with the intention of reviving the neighborhood, but in turn, its residents end up guiding and encouraging her. What are the small and big ways that they help Natalie?