I dream of ramen killing Po Po
In my dreams, fresh ramen noodles strangle Po Po in her sleep. Thick and chewy, the flour-based noodles wrap around her neck and squeeze tight till her snoring is silenced. The tonkotsu broth rises from the floorboards with nori appearing like clouds above me. My tears turn into minced pork that falls upon bamboo shoots.
I wake up in a sweat with soy sauce lingering on my tongue, its fermentation making it taste alcoholic. Throwing the sheets off, I race to the bathroom and stare in the mirror, slap my chubby cheeks, and wonder if a ghost followed me around.
“Morning,” mother says as she pours hot coffee out for us all.
My father attempts conversation, but I just grab the cup and go.
I do not take cream in my coffee; sugar is out too. They’re great in other things but not in my coffee, which has notes of blueberries in the aftertaste.
In my messy room there is a cookbook staring at me from the corner. Propped up on a few unread novels is the Yan Can Cookbook, a mainstay of my father’s kitchen expertise.
I have never read it, not a single page.
The eyes of Yan fill me with shame as he asks if I can cook. I do cook, I cook a lot, I have delved deep into recipe books to find delicious treats within. Yet I stray far away from my roots, far away from Yan. The closest I have been is to Hong Kong. That is not to say I dislike food from where my family comes from—well, half of it.
I grew up putting soy sauce on eggs and oyster sauce and sesame in my noodles, and I believe my heart tastes like the deep crimson barbecue pork that you see in Chinese butchers’ shops.
Yet shame fills my glazed heart and I set Yan on his back, so he stares at the ceiling with an eternal smile.
I am a mix of Chinese and Eastern European, I eat all things. I feel guilty, though, when I enjoy a hot bowl of ramen in the middle of a frigid Canadian winter.
School is but a short trip on the Green Line and I sip at yet another black coffee. This wakes me up, the beans are burnt and bitter, but it is what I need now. I think back on the dream and feel the scorching liquid envelope me again, but I push it to the back burner.
Out of penance, during my break, I walk a few blocks and get a red bean bun as if that would ease the relationship I never had with Po Po, my grandmother who used to give me red envelopes filled with money. I would say thank you, but I always wondered if she knew that I meant it. She taught me how to use chopsticks, and I used that knowledge to slurp ramen noodles.
My grandmother was born in China and fled her village from a wave of violence, fleeing all the way to England, where she would pass away decades later.
I could not attend the funeral.
The thought burns in my mind as I walk back to school stomach rumbling, even as I munch on the sweet earthy bun. The dark red follows me wherever I go. I do not know if it is good luck or mocking threats.
The violence that had plagued my grandmother did not exist in the food I ate. It existed in memory, or at least that is what I began telling myself every day. I would pass my favorite place to eat and avoid it like it pointed guns at me. The staff stared curiously at a boy they only knew as a customer run off like a scared fox when they saw me through the glass.
For weeks, fear gripped my heart, but one night when fresh noodles were once again strangling my Po Po, I saved her. I pulled them off and dragged her body to the top of the soup bowl and I could see floating fish cakes.
When I awoke, it was still night. The sun was far from rising and the sky an endless black expanse, like a starless sheet. I sat in my bed and stared at my hands. I tried to hold invisible chopsticks. I twirled noodles that did not exist.
When I looked up, I swallowed the salt of soy sauce, and my heart pounded. My grandmother sat at the foot of my bed holding a bowl of rice.
The sun sprinted into the sky and the birds chirped like static.
She said nothing to me as I bowed my head in guilt.
She didn’t answer and disappeared—leaving me alone in the night once more.
I drank my coffee when I awoke and ate an egg fried in bacon fat on white toast. My dad had learned that from his parents, my Po Po, and I remembered it.
When I bundled up for my commute, I thought about her cheeks that reminded me of my own. We were two chipmunks storing food for a winter that was very present.
Snow fell on my cheeks and I stomped my way through the ice in a long wool coat, hands buried deep in my pockets. A red scarf was around my neck, a gift from China given to my father but worn by me.
In my classes I felt my stomach dictate my mind, I am always hungry. I tried every restaurant in the area, but my mind seemed to be set on a bowl of ramen. Rich and savory it would be perfect after a long morning lugging around a coat and bag through the hallways, with squeaking boots.
Just outside the building, I let my breath cloud my eyes, and I walked towards the restaurant. Just a hop and a skip away across the street and down the precarious steps, I did not even listen to the welcome. I followed the waitress’s motion towards the last empty table. The menu was slapped in front of me and I briefly saw my reflection in the plastic. I set the menu down again and took off my coat.
I thought about my dad’s heavy-lidded eyes, which he inherited from both his parents. Yet my eyes were wide open. I saw the superficial feature and gritted my teeth wanting to scream. My eyes betrayed me; I was born shameful in my mind.
I missed the waitress completely, she stood over me with her notepad waiting. I felt the words catch in my throat as I felt the silent anger of history wash over me. I remembered in that moment the time my Po Po asked me if I would learn Chinese.
I said I would learn Japanese.
I wondered if I broke her heart that day.
I broke my own heart in that moment and simply apologized and left. My stomach growled angrily as I sat on a frozen bench. I didn't even brush the snow off. I let it melt so my ass was cold and wet. I let the feeling sink in when I heard a sleepy voice.
“Hey, Frank.” Monica sat next to me and lit a cigarette. Thrusting her Bic lighter into her purse, she took a pull and looked at me. “Hungry?”
“Very,” I muttered.
“I thought you said you were going for ramen?”
“I’d rather sit on a bench right now.”
“I see,” she tapped out ash, “Wanna talk about the cold bench?”
I laughed. “No, not really.”
“Alright.” We sat in silence for a while, and she took another cigarette after burning the first all the way to the filter.
“Have you ever thought of quitting?” I asked without thinking.
“A lot of times, but I just can’t shake it. Not yet, anyways.”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“You can let things stay with you, but you have to approach it eventually. I’m stressed as it is. So, quitting smoking isn’t top of the list, you know?”
“Have I ever told you that I don’t make ma pao tofu with ginger?”
“I’ll be frank with you Frank, I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s a Chinese dish of ground beef and tofu and black beans.”
“And easy,” I fidgeted with my hands. “Do you think my grandmother would scold me for not using ginger?”
Monica gave a sidewards glance and laughed, “Does it taste good?”
“There ya go, negative Nancy.”
I smiled and laughed, “I’m not negative, just worried.”
“Afraid of a ghost, are we?”
“Yes actually, a vengeful one.”
“Grandmothers are powerful beings, aren’t they?”
“Yeah they are. I think I need to have an honest chat with her.”
“You go do that; my smoke break is done.”
She left me alone on the bench. I decided to skip lunch that day.
When I fell asleep that night I did not dream of ramen. I dreamt of a block of tofu bathed in black bean sauce. It was fluffy and warm, so I sat down and waited for my ghost. She arrived in a thin sweater and red slippers. She shuffled along and I jumped to my feet. She had never seen me so tall and marveled at how I had grown. I sat her down next to me and we glanced at the sky that was like a porcelain bowl with painted clouds.
“Hey Po Po.” I hugged her tightly and smelled green onions in her hair. “I never learned Japanese, haven’t learned Chinese either though so, umm, yeah.” I clasped my hands together. “I don’t want to apologize for what I said. I just want you to know that I understand what I said and hope you understand my non-understanding if that makes sense.”
She stared at the sky.
“Have you ever had ramen before?”
She shook her head.
“One moment.” I stood up and felt the tofu wobble. I dipped my hand into the ground and pulled a full bowl of ramen with all the fixings that appeared where the tofu had been. Chopsticks grew in my free hand and I handed both to Po Po.
It was my turn to stare at the sky.
I heard her slurp the soup and small "mmmms" could be heard. The smacking of lips and the quiet chewing bounced around the bowl we were sitting in. “I want to believe you’d like ramen; I don’t know if I could’ve gotten you to try it when you were still around. I like to believe, though. Good food is good food, and I want to share it with everyone. I hope you understand that I will always cook ma pao tofu, but I won’t make ramen. I only desire to eat it,” a sigh drifted from my lips. “I hope you understand Po Po.”
She finished the bowl and handed it to me. I placed it next to me and watched the painted clouds drift around the rim. I waited, not expecting an answer, and felt her prod my arm. In her hand was a red and gold envelope. I took it with a small bow and held it in my hands. When I opened it, I saw a simple message, “You add the right amount of garlic.”
I laughed and she laughed with me. I laughed till tears streamed from my face, before I knew it I was crying my eyes out. I awoke to my pillow soaked in tears.
They were salty, like soy sauce.
This article originally appeared in The Food Issue, published November 3, 2020.