It’s the dead of a Bay Area winter, which some might say is barely winter at all. Call it the undead of winter then. Still, somehow the leaves remember to drop, and the children remember to kick them on the way to school. All the trees are bare around Crestview Elementary except the juniper and holly hedges lining the school’s façade, and the redwoods circling the play yard.
Charlotte Leung is among the second-graders arriving outside portable C-2. Through its windows, she can see a red glow. Ms. Abercrombie has brought several Chinese lanterns with battery-powered lights and hung them about the classroom. This week is the start of the Year of the Goat. After the flurry of peeled jackets, the children are instructed to begin gluing segments of a paper dragon on sticks. Today, everybody will learn special words in both Mandarin and Cantonese, but no one will attempt to explain which word is which. Nor will anyone explain the difference, even though Charlotte very well could.
Behind their desks, the two other Asian kids glow almost as brightly as the lanterns from all the sidelong glances. One girl, Tien, is actually from Vietnam, which, the class is reminded after being directed to the spinning globe that never got completely unsticky from the chocolate milk disaster the month before, is not China at all, but is just below, very nearby. Tien doesn’t say a word, but the teacher’s aide, a white raisin of a woman who has joined Ms. Abercrombie to help, says, “Tet is the Vietnamese new year right?” She then turns to Ms. Abercrombie, adding sotto voce, “like the Tet Offensive.”
Ms. Abercrombie smiles dimly with a swallow. Charlotte watches from far behind her eyes, which are far behind her face, and likewise, far behind her desk, wondering what is “offensive” about it. But she doesn’t ask. Her mother is white like Ms. Abercrombie and the teacher’s aide, but is only offended when her father, who was originally from Hong Kong, doesn’t listen to her. Her mother gets madder and madder while Daddy gets quieter and quieter. Now, Charlotte devotes herself to cutting a dragon claw with purple snub-nosed scissors. A bowed erhu keens from one of the class computers.
Lunchtime comes earlier than usual. Ms. Abercrombie is on the classroom phone twice, while the foursquare boys begin making spit balls out of the lime and carmine construction paper. Brandon and Tony have straws, and two other boys try to tussle for them. Brandon is the one who, when a dog ran beside the playground during recess last week after Ms. Abercrombie announced the upcoming Chinese New Year, said the Chinese like to eat dogs. Of course, he made sure to say it loud enough for Charlotte to hear. Now he writes “woof” on a piece of paper and flashes it her way. Then, he crumples it up to make more spitballs.
The class has been told not to bring lunches today because there will be a traditional Chinese lunch, but some kids have their own anyway. Some kids are allergic to everything, and some kids pretend to be. Charlotte doesn’t look at Brandon when they thread arms through jackets and walk single-file up the hill to the cafeteria. Her knees feel weak. She tried to get out of coming today, but her father got that look he’d get sometimes. He didn’t need to say a word.
The other second-grade class is already inside, and the commotion allows Charlotte to grab ahold of Amy, who Ms. Abercrombie has started keeping on the other side of the classroom, and at the other end of the single-file lines. But you can’t separate the inseparable for long. Amy has big dark eyes, tan skin, black hair and laughs easily. Amy is full Chinese, but Amy’s parents let her be in the sun as much as she wants. Although Charlotte has been too embarrassed to invite Amy to their apartment above her parents’ restaurant, she has been to Amy’s house several times. Amy’s family eats lots of Chinese food, but it tastes different. Amy’s parents burn incense in their meditation room and wear sandals even when it is cold. Amy told Charlotte once, very matter-of-factly, that she is something called adopted.
Charlotte and Amy stay with locked arms while the teachers set up a line for food. Amy is talking; she talks a lot. The boys are elbowing each other at a safe distance. Behind them there are stacks of bamboo steamers near the corner of the cafeteria. Ms. Abercrombie is rushing around with plates and utensils and napkins, her many bracelets jangling, while the teacher’s aide stands there looking tired with a couple of other adults by the food. One of them is—
“Oh my god, my dad is here,” Charlotte says in disbelief, cutting Amy off.
“Wait, what?” Amy spins.
Charlotte feels herself turn bright red, red as the construction paper, as the lettering on their take-away boxes stacked at home beside where she does her homework. Just then, Ms. Abercrombie points her face at a slight upward angle and claps her hands, jangling her bracelets once again. “Today everybody,” she gathers eyes around the room, “we are so excited to have what’s called dim sum! So let’s all give a big thank you to Mr. Leung for being so generous!”
Every face turns to Charlotte during their chorus. She catches her father’s eye briefly, then leans her head onto Amy’s shoulder and pulls Amy’s hair over her face. But Charlotte can’t shut her ears. She hears clapping, giggling, and then one of the boys makes a fake puking sound.
“Brandon Mack. That is not respectful,” Ms. Abercrombie says, walking his direction. “Brandon,” she announces, “will be the first to go to dreaded table number seven. Go now, please.” The cavernous space gets quiet as he thrusts out his lower lip and walks to the small table by the double doors at the back.
“Now,” Ms. Abercrombie continues, “for those with peanut allergies, there are post-its in front of the dishes with peanuts. Otherwise, don’t be shy about trying something new.”
A number of kids race ahead and take a look while still carrying their lunch pails. They are deciding whether or not they are allergic today. Ms. Abercrombie notices and encourages them to try. Some do. Some don’t.
Charlotte glances over to see her father standing with his plucky chef’s forearms crossed. He looks proud, nodding in a conversation with the teacher’s aide. It doesn’t look like she has told him about anything being “offensive,” and he doesn’t seem to care about the group not partaking. How could he not care? The non-participants cluster at one of the six tables, but they dominate the room with their bright pales and loud plastic packaging. The foursquare boys, minus Brandon, are all there with their identical Lunchables and Capri Suns.
Charlotte ends up with a couple of char siu bao, two siu mai, two har gow, and some mustard. She feels the eyes of several of the girls who have never tried dim sum.
“Which ones are sweet?” she hears.
Ms. Abercrombie leans over, “Most of them are kind of savory except this one and this one.” She knows Charlotte is too shy. Or in shock. Or overwhelmed. Or proud, like Daddy?
She takes a bite, but she can’t taste a thing. Her whole body is weak and numb among so many faces twisted with strange nectars of the new. Daddy nods at her like, go on, Charlie. Show them who you are, my little bao—a nickname he uses less frequently these days, and will soon cease saying altogether, distancing himself, as she gets leggier, more feminine, less bun-like. For now, she takes a breath and again does with chopsticks what others do with grubby fingers: raise dumpling, dip mustard, bite down.
Beside her, Amy gives a much-needed demonstration on how to use chopsticks, and several begin to try. A minute goes by with the sound of falling sticks and excited chatter. Charlotte looks up again with one grin for Amy, and one for her father, but he is already heading for the double doors. Then, to her horror, he stops and crouches down at dreaded table number seven.
All Charlotte can see is Brandon’s lubberly mouth hanging open “for flies to enter” is what Daddy might say. Daddy generally keeps his mouth closed, especially over his flaming stove—except when he gives instructions to his staff. Now she sees a bamboo steamer full of items in front of Brandon. Other kids have started to watch. Ms. Abercrombie and the “offensive” lady are watching too. Brandon takes a dubious bite, as Daddy stands up tall. He crosses his arms like before, not saying a word, while Brandon begins to chew. He chews with a clotted face. Ponderously, clumsily, there seems to be no end to the chewing.
Years later, in Charlotte’s head, he is chewing still. Chewing long after they graduate from Ms. Abercrombie’s class and move to portable C-3 with Mr. Frunkle; after fourth and fifth grades both joined at the hip with Amy; after the two of them have a falling out over Charlotte’s first crush and Amy’s zillionth; after Charlotte finishes high school and goes off to college, never having acted on her second crush on one of the bussers from her parents’ restaurant; after Charlotte gets a call one day at school from her mother who announces that she’s leaving both her father and the restaurant; after the restaurant quickly goes belly up with no one to place orders or do the books; after a difficult first year in the dorms trying to forget about all the drama back home, maybe even trying to pass as less “Asian,” but then joining an ASU, wanting to honor her father who’d gone downhill fast, fighting bouts of pancreatitis with a gravid little pot belly, until he died suddenly at a stove in a one-room apartment, cooking for no one.
For years, Charlotte has felt guilty, in part, for not having done anything to help out at the restaurant after her mother left, and, in part, for her mother staying in a bad relationship for so long—until she, Charlotte, was safely installed in college—though her mother keeps saying it was her duty to protect her from a fate like hers, a woman behind the scenes. Now a decade has passed not behind the scenes at all, but in scenes, in relationships, in a career. Charlotte has even fallen in love and gotten married. Yet there he is sometimes, that Brandon, chewing still. She can picture him so clearly, as she sits at her kitchen table full of take-out dim sum and feeds herself a steamer of siu mai, while keeping a hand on her nineteen-weeks-pregnant tummy, wishing her father could see her now. He’d turn around from his old stove at the old restaurant with his slow, gracious nod and his faraway smile—for his little bao, and the bao inside. Somehow, she never thanked him for that day so long ago; what he said to Brandon without words, in the language he spoke with his mouth closed.
Feeling the kicks of what should emerge, come April, as her child,
she swallows and thanks him now.