Genre: NA Multicultural Contemporary
Title: AMERICAN PANDA
“Mei!” my mom greets me as she frowns and pinches my sides. “Did you gain weight?”
I bat her tiny hand away easily. Even though she’s four foot ten and eighty pounds, she puts her hands on her hips and stares me down. Well, technically, she’s staring up at me, but her eyes say she’s the boss. My five-foot-three, one-hundred-fifty-pound frame will never be good enough for her. My genes come from my dad. Ahem, my five-foot-seven, two-hundred-fifty-pound dad. I will never be Asian-skinny. I personally like that I don’t look like a chopstick that will fall over when the wind blows, but apparently I’m in the minority.
My mom shakes a bony finger at me. “You need to be careful, Mei. How will you ever get a man?”
I turn to my dad for help, but his head is conveniently in the trunk. He emerges with a pink Chinatown bag and the usual cooler of homemade Chinese food.
My mom continues chattering. “I brought papaya, to make your breasts grow. They much too small. Like mosquito bites.” She pokes my breast. “And we brought all low-fat food since you’re getting chubby. I also pickled some vegetables. They’re in the old mayonnaise jar.”
My dad grunts and nods his head toward my mom. Translation: Your mother worked hard to cook you food so thank her now or I will get angry.
“Thanks, Mom,” I say robotically. “For the food,” I add quickly, worried she’ll think I’m thanking her for insulting my breasts, which, for the record, are twice as big as her double A’s.
“In Chinese,” my mom scolds. “If you don’t practice, you’ll forget.”
“My Chinese is fine, mom. Xie xie,” I add to avoid a fight. “Where do you want to go to lunch?” I ask my dad. He’s not one for words unless they are about food or basketball.
“Wherever you want.”
“How about Bertucci’s? I’m in the mood for some pizza.”
My dad shakes his head. “Mother doesn’t like non-Chinese food.”
“No, I like pizza,” my mom interjects.
“We’ll go to Chow Chow,” my dad concludes, naming the only Taiwanese restaurant in Massachusetts.
After we transfer the food to the communal refrigerator of my MIT dorm, we do our usual Chow Chow routine. Dad drops Mom and me off at the corner so we can get a table while he searches for elusive street parking. We’re longtime friends with the owner, Ling, because we’ve been going to their restaurant since I was a baby. The usual crowd waiting for a table is smushed into the narrow entrance of the restaurant. My mom pushes through mercilessly and the hostess immediately motions to the wait staff. Two waiters abandon their tasks to push three tables together to hold the massive amounts of food we will order. The other patrons glare daggers. I cover my face in shame and follow the hostess underneath red, ceiling lanterns to our extra-large corner table.
The mix of patrons is the usual: college students, families, and people my parent’s age. All Chinese, of course. The pungent smell of stinky tofu—yes, it’s actually called stinky tofu because it’s fermented, rotten tofu—wafts through the restaurant. It smells exactly how you would expect. What else is named stinky? Even poop doesn’t have its smell in its name.
“Yuck,” I mumble. Even after twenty-one years, I’ve never acclimated.
My mom sniffs and smiles. “Smells like home.”
“Smells like garbage.”
“It’s just like the chee-se,” she says, separating the word cheese into two syllables.
I shake my head. “Cheese doesn’t smell like this.”
“You’re right. Cheese is gross. This is so much better. And tastes delicious. Just try it. Once you eat it, you won’t think it smells bad anymore.”
“Okay. I’ll do that after you eat some poop,” I grumble inaudibly.
I sit next to the paper umbrella mounted in the corner. The Chinese calligraphy wallpaper makes me smile. This place feels almost as much like home as my parent’s kitchen. Add some plastic wrap over the furniture and it actually could be my parent’s kitchen.
“I’m going to go buy some bread,” my mom says.
I already know this is coming but can’t help protesting. “Seriously? Right now? Just do it later.”
“Save time.” She ambles across the street to the Chinese pastry shop to buy her lunch for the week, leaving me to bathe in the stinky tofu smell.
The waiters place our drinks on the table. We come so often we barely have to order. My dad’s plum smoothie is placed next to my mom’s sweet soy milk, and all three water glasses are placed in front of me with a raise of the eyebrow. If they didn’t use such tiny glasses, maybe I wouldn’t need so many. They leave without talking to me; they always wait for my parents. It’s funny how authentic Chinese restaurant waiters prefer Chinese people over even Chinese-American people. I may as well be white. Sometimes I wish I was.
I prop the menu up to fend off the other patron’s glares. Why do we have to rush in here when it takes twenty minutes to get all three of us seated? I stare at the menu even though I already know it by heart.
My mom leaves her ginormous bundle of bread at the front since we have to fill the table space with Chow Chow food. She begins talking before she even reaches her seat. “I need to talk to you before your dad arrives. Don’t get mad at me.”
My mom knocks down my menu-shield. “I have this friend and her son is interested in meeting you.”
“I’m not interested,” I respond immediately. Even though I know the effort is futile, I have to at least go down fighting.
“Just listen! He’s Taiwanese, and—”
“—he went to Brown, got a masters at UPenn, and is now studying to be a doctor at Tufts.”
I laugh. “Brown and Tufts? I thought you only approved of Harvard or MIT.”
“Well, you’re getting old. I change my standards. You made me. Your eggs are getting cold.” My mom jabs a finger into my belly.
I squirm away. “Remember in high school when dating a boy was equivalent to murdering someone? Or not getting into a top-10 school? But the second I arrived at college, my eggs are suddenly shriveling up and I have to hurry and find a husband to make babies with?”
“Yes. You finally understand. Do you want your child to be born with Down Syndrome? You need to have one soon. And this boy is perfect. His family is very well off. The dad started two companies that went public. But you’d never know they’re rich. So humble and frugal.”
Ahhh there it is. The money. “Why is he so pathetic that he needs his mom to find him girls to date?”
“Well, he’s shy. He’s a good kid. It’s hard to meet people when you’re like that.”
I laugh again. “Right. I’m sure he’s not an anti-social nerd with poor hygiene. It’s because he’s just such a good person that he can’t meet anyone.” I have nothing against nerds.