“Ma ma, I’m here!” Huan yelled as he opened the door to his mother’s home in Queens. There was no response. This was strange, but Aunt Jieli and Uncle Yang were visiting from San Francisco and staying with Huan’s mother. Usually by this time on Saturday Dinner nights, the kitchen was bustling with the sound of his mother and aunties talking and cooking in the kitchen. However, since tonight was only going to be family and not community family as well, his mother had probably finished preparing everything hours ago and was simply waiting for everyone to arrive.
Hanging his jacket up in the closet and switching into the sandals he wears around the house, Huan went in search of his family. It didn’t take him long to find the first member of his family, Rose, the only child of his late father’s younger brother, Jin. Sitting at the dining room table with a sheet of paper on a red felt desk pad in front of her, Rose was the definition of focus as she executed bold strokes with a bamboo brush. Her straight, blue-black hair was pulled up into space buns with two matching, perfectly placed strands of hair framing the sides of her face. When Huan entered the room, she did not acknowledge his presence until she made it to the end of the column she was working on.
Walking up behind her and peering over her shoulder, Huan looked over the characters she had written in calligraphy on the page. There were a few mistakes here and there that he could notice, but he got the gist of the message of the poem she was writing. It involved the moon, the sea, and their constant push-pull relationship.
“What yah doing?” He asked her in a sing-song voice, effectively breaking her concentration.
“Trying to get the angles on these characters right. I end up lifting the brush from the page too quickly and then the sentence makes no sense.”
“Huh. Maybe if you closed your eyes and centered yourself, you’d get it right. From the stack of used paper you’ve accrued, it seems as though you’ve been at this for a while.” He told her, observing the sheets of inked pages that were neatly piled on her right side.
“Perhaps you are right,” she agreed as she put her brush down and massaged her hand. Turning in her chair she put her arms around his neck for a hug which he lovingly returned, “missed you at this year’s Moon Festival. Both you and Bao forced me to suffer through it alone with the family. Both of you owe me big for that. What good are my cousins if they leave me out to dry during family gatherings?”
Patting her on the head, he adopted a look of faux sheepishness, “I’m very sorry that our jobs forgot to factor your feelings into the schedules we are forced to keep. It’s not like I’m in one of the most competitive fellowships in the country and Bao is trying to make connections with international investors in order to grow uncle Yang’s business or anything.” Rose had a special place in Huan’s heart because he spent the majority of his teenage years babysitting her while her parents worked at their restaurant. He had been there for her first words and taught her how to tie her shoes. Although she was probably just messing with him, he would have to think of something special for her to make it up to her. Their family was a lot to handle.
Sticking her tongue out at him in jest, she replied, “you should be sorry. But then again, it was probably better that you both weren’t there. The aunties were discussing both you and Bao’s futures again.” He sat down next to her at the table. “You would have been extremely uncomfortable with the level of plotting they were doing to get you both hitched. You know, Moon festival traditions for finding your life partner and all. I’m talking cherry-picking through the eligible bachelorettes in the community and consulting the zodiac calendar level nonsense. They make the K-dramas I watch online look docile. It was slightly unnerving,” she added with a cringe.
“See, I was right. You did have all the fun without me,” he added with a chuckle. “Oh well, at least I wasn’t here for it. I guess the fact that no one would switch shifts with me was a blessing in disguise. I don’t need them messing with my love life. I have no time these days.”
Returning to her calligraphy practice, Rose informed him, “don’t think you escaped by not just being here. I have more than a hunch that you just might be setup with one or more of the ones who made the shortlist in the next few weeks.”
“Oh. Well, we’ll see about that.” Joy of joys. The last time Huan had been set up on a date by the aunties who made up his mother’s friend group, he wound up with a young woman who was so self-centered she had told her parents he had practically proposed to her after three dates. That had been quite the web to unweave. And he still had to be cautious when running into her family at community events. Luckily for him, the woman in question had snared some other poor fellow and appeared to be happily married with two children last he heard. “Well, I guess I’ll have to come up with a ploy to avoid any unnecessary entanglements. Lynne will probably be up to the task,” he mused out loud.
“So, why didn’t you bring Lynne with you this time? I need to pick her brain about college scholarships and how to graduate early,” she stated as she started a new column on the page.
“Aren’t you only like ten?” He teased the younger girl.
“You know I’m thirteen, right? Next year I’ll be a freshman in high school and all. Lynne told me it was never too early to apply for scholarships and prepare for college. Hence the calligraphy practice before dinner. I found a scholarship online that has no age requirement on it. It’s more like a contest, but I know I can win it. Also, the last time she ate at the restaurant, she gave me some SAT and ACT prep books and the email of a volunteer tutor named Judi she knows in Brooklyn. I connected with her and she’s been helping me with my writing and math skills.”
“Isn’t that nice of her.” Huan mused as he looked down at Rose’s characters. Noticing an error she made on one of the characters she was copying, he corrected the younger girl’s motions as she continued her practice while they waited for dinner to be ready.
“You know you could always ask your cousin Bao about preparing for college. He could probably help you more than that girl could,” A high pitched voice interjected as it entered the room. It was their Aunt Jieli, the sister born smack-dab in the middle of Huan’s father, Ju-Long, and Rose’s father, Jin.
“No offense, Auntie Jieli, but Lynne pretty much accumulated enough scholarship money that they were paying her to go to school. That’s what I’m trying to do. Bao is still paying off his student loans for going to a private university.” She told her aunt, meeting her eyes cautiously.
“But how many of them scholarships of hers were based on merit and not just the ones given to those people because of their skin color,” she sneered at the younger girl.
“Well, she was an Bloustein scholar, Provost scholar at her university, a Mathlete, Robotics champ, a bunch of other things she applied for random scholarships for as well, then for graduate school….” Huan was cut off by a look from his aunt.
“But she wasn’t the valedictorian or salutatorian like Bao or even you. So how good could she really be?”
“Coming in first or second isn’t everything, auntie. She was fine with being third in our graduating class because it meant she wouldn’t have to give a speech at graduation. Working hard has just as much value. Besides, she skipped just as many grades as I did. All on her own merit.”
“Because she was chasing after you. Always following after you, getting too involved.”
“We are best friends, Auntie. She’s the one who pushed me to work harder. When I started to slack-off, she would tease me relentlessly about how one day she would hire me to be her driver when she’s working the 6-figure salary job she earned from dedicated studying, since I wanted to just do enough to pass.”
“And look at where she’s working now. Just a school secretary, while you’re a promising orthopedic surgeon. Who worked harder?” Aunt Jieli countered, arms crossed in front of her.
“I’m a Surgical Trauma fellow, Auntie. And Lynne is a Business Manager, not a school secretary. She utilizes her degrees in education because she wanted to do something to help the future generations, but didn’t feel she could teach.”
“Whatever she is, it is evident which one of you is more successful. And Bao is a Vice President at the company he works for already. So,” she turned in Rose’s direction, “you’d do better to ask Bao, than that girl.”
Wanting to focus on her calligraphy and not join in the fray, Rose gave her aunt a swift, respectful, affirming nod.
Not wanting to get into anything further with his aunt, knowing she wouldn’t be kind, Huan politely excused himself and went in search of his mother. It didn’t take long for him to find her staring into a pot on the stove in the kitchen. Ying Zhang was an elegant fifty-three year-old, five foot seven woman with long, raven-black hair, a sweetheart face, and stunning caramel-colored eyes that her son had inherited. “Hi mama!” he exclaimed as he walked up to his mother and kissed her on the cheek.
“How are you, léi lei?” Léi lei was the nickname that his parents gave him when he was a baby. It meant thunder, since he was always making a racket, lumbering around before he gained control of his body.
“I’m well, mama. What can I help you with?”
“You can sit down in that chair,” she pointed her cooking chopsticks at an unoccupied chair, “and catch me up with yourself. It has been a while since I have seen my son and I would like to know what is going on in his life. You look like you’ve lost weight. Are you eating well?” She shot him a look of concern before returning her attention to the vegetables she was sauteing. Deftly, she dipped a spoon into a bubbling pot and tasted the broth within it. Pursing her lips in displeasure, she grabbed a handful of unidentifiable spices off the counter and sprinkled them into the pot before stirring them in with a clean spoon.
“Yes, mama, I’m eating. My meals aren’t always up to your caliber though. And also, I have to admit that most of the times when I’m working, I’m lucky if I can get two meals in the day.”
“Aah. No wonder you look so skinny. Being so tall you need to eat more to keep your body healthy, Huan.”
“Choo!” Huan sneezed into the crook of his arm. “Hǎoyìsi, excuse me.”
“See what happens when you don’t take care of yourself,” his mother scolded him.
“It’s just a sneeze, mama. My allergies are acting up. I’m not suffering or sick.”
“You don’t know that. The weather has gotten a bit colder now that the seasons are changing. You should put on more layers when you leave the house. I don’t want you getting sick.”
“Alright. I will do that. Anyway, let’s see what happened at work recently.” He launched into a story about a complicated surgery that he had gotten the chance to lead on. As he spoke at length, in-depth about his work, Ying’s eyes lit up with pride. Although she did not understand all of the words that left her son’s mouth, she felt his passion dripping off of each sentence.
Once Huan finished regaling the tales of his hospital life to his mother she regarded him with a look. “I’m so proud of you. You’ve become such an admirable young man,” she told him as she turned off the burners and plated the last part of the meal. “It’s time you settled down and started giving me grandchildren. I’m going to be old soon.”
Huan mentally facepalmed. Well, I’m not exactly settling down, but I have a head-start on the whole grandchildren part. “You’re not going to be old anytime soon, mama. Don’t say things like that.” For the next part he feigned innocence like he didn’t know what was coming, “and why the sudden interest in me getting married? It’s not like you have anyone in mind.”
“Actually, I was visiting with Lian Zhou a few weeks ago and she told me her daughter Meiying is around your age, actually a couple of years younger, and she isn’t seeing anyone. You remember her, she spoke with you at this year’s Lunar New Year’s party at your Auntie Lijuan’s house. The young girl with the golden lion embroidered on her dress.”
Huan racked his brain for a mental image of the lady in question and internally cringed when he remembered Meiying. She was a natural beauty with a graceful carriage, large round amber eyes, dark brown hair that reached the middle of her back, and a lack of boundaries. Huan had attended this year’s Lunar New Year’s party with his ex-girlfriend, Veronica, as his date. This did not dissuade Meiying from cornering Huan as he exited the bathroom, trying to proposition him for a quickie in one of the bedrooms or even her car. “Oh yes, I remember her. She was working in the finance department for an Australian company in midtown."
Ying’s expression lit up, “see, she did leave an impression on you. This is wonderful.” Pulling a piece of paper out of her pocket, she handed it to him, “her mother gave me her number for you. Why don’t you give her a call and take her out somewhere nice?”
Huan didn’t want to lie to his mother any further than he already had to at the moment. “When I get the chance, I will give her a call,” he told his mother, pocketing the number, before grabbing the dishes to bring out to the dining room. It would be a frosty day in Hell before I called up Meiying Zhou for a date.
“Good. Let’s eat.”
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