When I was 20 I flew to Taipei with a plane ticket and the hope of finding a place to live and somewhere to study Chinese. I took a cab to a hotel, where I stayed for three days, mostly in the tall narrow box of a bathtub, too scared and lonely and unsure of everything to venture out. Starvation finally drove me down to the lobby. I said, having practiced it over and over, “Wo e si le. Fanguan zai nali?” which translates as “I’m dying of hunger. Where is a restaurant?” The three glasses-wearing Chinese men behind the counter leapt up with cries of concern, led me outside and pointed across the street. Once there I scanned the menu, scrawled on long tendrils of paper pinned to the walls, until I recognized the two characters for potstickers. I ordered 16, at a penny apiece, and ate them all. Those potstickers live in memory, visceral memory, like everything Adrienne Su describes in her wonderful poem below. I still dream about them.
Substitutions, by Adrienne Su
Balsamic, for Zhenjiang vinegar.
Letters, for the family gathered.
A Cuisinart, for many hands.
Petty burglars, for warring bands.
A baby’s room, for tight quarters.
Passing cars, for neighbors.
Lawn-mower buzzing, for bicycle bells.
Cod fillets, for carp head-to-tail.
Children who overhear the language,
for children who speak the language.
Virginia ham, for Jinhua ham,
and nothing, for the noodle man,
calling as he bears his pole
down alley and street, its baskets full
of pickled mustard, scallions, spice,
minced pork, and a stove he lights
where the customer happens to be,
the balance of hot, sour, salty, sweet,
which decades later you still crave,
a formula he’ll take to the grave.
For more information about Adrienne Su, please click here.