Genre: NA Multicultural Contemporary
Title: AMERICAN PANDA
Mom mercilessly pushes through the crowd of waiting patrons, and the hostess immediately motions to the wait staff. We’re longtime friends with the owner, Ling, and have been Chow Chow regulars since I was a baby.
Two waiters abandon their tasks to push three tables together to hold the massive amounts of food we’ll order. As we cut everyone who’s been waiting patiently, 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 parents’ 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.
My mom sniffs and smiles. “Smells like home.”
“Smells like garbage.” Even after twenty-one years, I’ve never acclimated.
“It’s just like the chee-se,” she says, separating the word cheese into two syllables. “Except chee-se 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 mumble to myself.
I sit next to the paper umbrella mounted in the corner. The Chinese calligraphy wallpaper makes me smile. This place feels as much like home as my parents’ kitchen. Add some plastic wrap over the furniture and it actually could be my parents’ kitchen.
I wait for my mom to go across the street to buy Chinese bread for the week, but she sits down and folds her hands.
“I need to talk to you before Dad arrives. I have this friend and her son is interested in meeting you.”
This again. When I was in high school, my mom thought dating a boy was equivalent to murder. Or not getting into a top-ten school. Then, the second I arrived at college, I had to find a husband.
Even though I know the effort is futile, I have to go down fighting. I’m not ready to settle down with the “perfect Chinese Ivy Leaguer” handpicked by my parents. Well, handpicked by my mom. My dad will go ballistic at the thought of me dating. He still thinks I’m five years old.
In my head, I hear my best friend, Lexi, telling me it’s normal to want to choose your husband and not limit him to one ethnicity and eight colleges. Or in her words,
“Mei! Listen to me! He’s Taiwanese, and he went to Brown, got a master’s at UPenn, and is now studying to be a doctor at Tufts.”
“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. She frowns, then pinches a fat roll. “Did you gain weight? Are you even exercising?” I clamp my mouth shut, afraid I’ll reveal how much time I’ve spent away from studying for dance class.
She’s teeny-tiny without trying, but my genes come from my dad. Ahem, my 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.
She pokes my breast. “Why can’t you gain weight in your breasts? They much too small. Like mosquito bites. I bring papaya for you next week. To make your breasts grow.” She shakes a bony finger at me. “You need to be careful, Mei. How will you ever get a man? 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 dates?”
“Well, he’s shy. He’s a good kid. It’s hard to meet people when you’re like that. Don’t worry, he’s perfect.”
“Oh, so you’ve met him?” I ask even though I already know the answer.
“Well, no, but his parents are such great people. That’s all you need to know. If it’s looks you’re worried about, he’s gorgeous. His mother said so.”
“Oh great, that makes me feel so much better—an unbiased opinion.”
“And everyone at Bible study is trying to get Mrs. Shu to introduce her son to their daughters. She’s refused every one of them, but she came to me about you.”
“Uhh that’s creepy. She doesn’t know me.”
“Yes, but she knows me,” my mom says as if I’m stupid. “Since I’m a good person, you must be good. And she’s seen a picture of you.”
I nod, understanding now. I’ve met the daughters of the Bible study women. It’s not as great of a compliment as you might think.
“I thought you didn’t want me to have an overbearing mother-in-law after what you went through with Nai Nai,” I say, reminding her of the crap my grandmother has put her through. I’m already afraid of meddling Mrs. Shu.
“Exactly! Mrs. Shu will be a great mother-in-law. Not overbearing at all.”
“Right, because she’s been so normal so far.”
I sigh. Sarcasm doesn’t translate. “No. Stop finding me dates.”
My mom slams her hand onto the table. “Your mother knows best. You’ll see. At this rate I’m going to have to pay for you to freeze your eggs. Like what my friends do.”
“Maybe we’ll see what Dad has to say about this.”
I escape the insanity by dragging my fossilized eggs to the bathroom. When I return, my dad has arrived. “Hey Dad, guess what Mom and I were just—”
My mom cuts me off. “Look! Hanwei’s parents!” She points in a much-too-obvious way.