The single hand of the clock looked almost ominous as it ticked. The burning red “M” in the center constantly reminded him of his task; the fact that this single letter could have so much of an impact on him only served to stress him out even more. Somebody made an exclamation in the distance. The voice sounded so far away to him, a whoosh by his ears. It finally occurred to him that it was a reminder from the judges that he had only five minutes left.
His dish would be a meticulous, carefully crafted masterpiece of precision and passion; created to exhibit the identity he had so desperately constructed for himself- a white man, an All-American. Those who saw his jet-black hair and almond eyes and yellow skin didn’t know him, he’d say.
He had always wanted to fit in, whether it be on the middle school playground, the college football team or in the Caucasian-dominated workplace. His parents, oh, they are old-fashioned, he’d explain. I prefer the American way of things.
He was a sucker for approval, and he despised the way people gawked at his “Oriental” features, and the painful feeling of alienation that haunts him to this day. His plan was to eradicate all ties to his Chinese background, and to prove himself worthy of being deemed as part of the superior race, the gweilos, the ones to be feared and admired. The dish he has almost completed would capture just that. Yes, the dish would be worthy of a prize.
He had no idea why he had chosen the kumquats. Sitting smugly on the bench, they stared at him, as if daring him to pick one up and slice it in half and have it perched right next to the confit pork shank and quinoa and bacon-roasted Brussels sprouts. It would be a shocking contrast- they can’t possibly come together. The flavors would be off, the balance would be off, the entire dish would be off, and he, too, would be off. Off the stage and headed back home. No, he shook his head. It would never work.
He had never liked kumquats. That was what he had always told others. Deep down, he relished the gentle sweetness of the fruit and how it mingled with the subtle bitterness of the smooth, supple skin. When it was Chinese New Year, he would make secret trips to Chinatown, and he would position himself right next to a kumquat bush, tapping on his phone or smoking a cigarette to avoid strange looks. Darting quick, furtive glances at nearby pedestrians, his fingers would creep along the lush leaves and branches of the plant, find their way to a perfectly plump fruit and pluck it swiftly off the twig. He’d run the tips of his fingers along its silken skin, admiring it with a bizarre fondness.
Then he’d gently rub it with the corner of his shirt, and plop it in his mouth, savoring the fusion of seemingly contradictory flavors that somehow all worked together to form an intriguing, exotic delicacy. He’d do this all over again, until at least half the fruit were gone. It was almost like a fetish; a guilty pleasure even he himself struggled to admit to.
It was a very queer sensation, to love a thing yet hate it at the same time. He hated it because it reminded him of his parents, his childhood, his heritage. Kumquats were a staple in his home. His mother always had an endless supply of them cured with salt and packed in glass jars, which she would proudly display on shelves and ledges across the living room. They were like her prized possessions, her best work.
At the end of every Chinese New Year, she would rush to Chinatown with glee, taking with her dozens of plastic bags she had saved from grocery shopping, and she would pluck all the fruits off the discarded kumquat plants strewn across the confetti-littered streets and gather them until she had at least a dozen bags of the fruit, all of them full to the brim.
He used to accompany her on these excursions, each time reluctant yet afraid to refuse, as this activity somehow seemed to bring his mother much joy and satisfaction. It wasn’t until when he was thirteen that he couldn’t stand the stares and the hushed whispers any longer and voiced out his embarrassment in a flurry. He never went on those trips ever since.
He remembers the day his parents announced their plan to emigrate. It was dull and dreary, very typical of early springtime, when the chill would meet the incessant drizzle of rain to produce the most depressing, miserable weather ever. He had just arrived home from school when he was greeted by both his parents at the door.
“Pack your bags,” they had said, grins so wide they seemed to stretch past their cheeks. “Your father has made a fortune from his stocks! We’re going to start a new life — we’re moving to San Francisco!”
And off they went, with their bags in tow. Now, whenever he recalls the scene, he insists that outside the window behind his parents, the thick clouds had parted just a little bit to let in the tiniest crack of sunshine.
San Francisco. San Fran-cis-co. He couldn’t even pronounce the name of his new home when they arrived. He was enrolled at the neighborhood middle school, where strangely for San Francisco, there was only one Asian kid apart from him. The first day of school was horrible. He could vividly recall the sharp jab at his ribs, the gruff “Hey, you chink” followed by a mocking “Ching chong ling long ting tong” and an uproar of harrowing laughter.
He could still feel the way his hot blood rushed to his ears, the clamminess of his palms when his hands balled up into fists, and the dreaded embarrassment and shame that followed. For months, he hung his head low, afraid to look people in the eye, in case they decided to taunt him about his absence of eyes or the odd meals he brought for lunch.
That was until a boy named Brad took him under his wing. Brad was your typical All-American boy, perfectly white and pale and with the stereotypical shock of blond hair and sky-blue eyes. The two ten year olds bonded over a game of Frisbee at gym class, a pastime unknown to him back in Hong Kong. Yet Brad would only be friends with him on one condition. “Stop eating your stinky lunches,” Brad had said. Desperate for friends, he nodded at once, and from then on, he rejected his mother’s packed meals, bringing only PB&J, just like Brad did.
Over the course of a few years, he came to the conclusion that he’d have to rid himself of all things Chinese, if he were to be fully accepted by Americans. Not that it mattered anyway, he told himself. Everything is better American, no? Whenever asked to introduce himself, he would pick a name out of the blue.
“Michael,” he once claimed to be. Sometimes, he’d be Andrew, or Kenneth, or whatever he felt like naming himself at that moment. But he would never introduce himself by his real name, never would he allow people to address him by the two Chinese syllables his parents had given him. Yet for some strange reason, there was something deep down in his heart, a notion etched in the concealed crevices of his mind that hindered him from changing his name officially. He didn’t know what it was, but there was this little voice that would nudge at him and say a firm no whenever he imagined discarding his original name.
People had stopping calling him a chink years ago. The funky smell of his parents’ home stopped bothered him. No longer did he yearn to look like his friends; he’d now much rather keep his hair natural than dye it in shades of brown. He didn’t really know what had caused the change; perhaps it was because people had stopped taunting him for being Chinese, or perhaps it had been an intrinsic sense of belonging hidden beneath the Asian shame all along.
Sometimes, he’d find himself wandering along the streets of Chinatown aimlessly, taking in the faces of people who looked just like him, the same jetblack hair, almond eyes, and yellow skin. There was this peculiar bond he felt with these people, a comforting, heart-warming sensation in his heart. He just couldn’t really put his finger on what it was and how it came to be.
The unmistakable scent of incense caught him by an unexpected familiarity, a strange feeling of recognition that somehow seemed both warm and cold at the same time. It was Chinese New Year, and he had found himself subconsciously making his way to his parents’ house. He hadn’t visited in years. He knocked on the door once, and it came swinging open almost immediately, his mother pleasantly surprised to see him. The winter cold had turned his throat sore, he told his mother, and before he could say anything else, she had turned up with a piping hot mug of tea made with crushed cured kumquats, the product of her favorite project, taken out from the jars she still lined the living room with.
“Drink it. It’s magic for sore throats,” she insisted. As reluctant as he was to admit it, he discovered that he secretly enjoyed the comforting sensation of the steaming kumquat tea settling in his stomach, and the slightly salty, mellow tang of the fruit lingering on the tip of his tongue.
The kumquats were still sitting on the bench, staring up at him half-mockingly. Quickly, he grabbed a couple, chopping a few into delicate little bits and tossing them with spoonfuls of sugar in a pan over the heat, caramelizing the fruit into a sweet, tangy relish. He zested the rest over his dish, little flecks of bright orange cheekily peeking through the pork confit and quinoa and Brussels sprouts.
With great precision, he spooned dainty dollops of the kumquat relish onto the sides of the dish, intending for it to be a complement to the dish’s other components.
Wiping the edges of the plate, he brought his dish out to the judges.
He could see the judges taking a bit of the relish and smearing it onto the pork, bringing the fork to their mouths and taking in the flavors with utmost intensity. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion, the sounds around him deep and distorted, the movements taking much longer than they should. He could feel his head go light and his knees go weak. Suddenly, he felt a hearty thump on his shoulder from one of the judges, and as he looked up to see his smile of affirmation, he heard him say, “You, my son, have achieved the perfect balance.”
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