Nothing fancy tonight. In Shanghai for a month of teaching, surrounded by wonderful and affordable restaurants. Craving street food again. Over there, my favorite stand, right where it is every night. As I ponder what to have for dinner tonight, I talk to the proprietor about my choices.

“Which noodles do you want today? Or maybe the rice again?” she asks. She has four or five different types of noodles and white rice.

I consider the possibilities. I think I’ll have the glass noodles tonight. “I think I’ll have the glass noodles, tonight,” I say, pointing.

“Great choice. So far you have had almost all my choices, but not those.” As she says this, she taps each bowl of pasta with her serving chopsticks, pausing on the bowl of the noodles I haven’t yet had. “You’ll like them,” she says, laughing. She laughs a lot.

You laugh a lot, I know she is also thinking about me. We crack each other up. We’re funny together.

The man I assume to be her husband also laughs. And concurs: “Good choice,” he says. The man, dressed always in green slacks and a green army tunic, gets up from his crate-seat, turns up the gas on the burner and cracks an egg into the wok. He stirs it around, adds some cooking oil, then garlic, finally the pasta. With one hand he agitates the wok vigorously over the open flame and with the other he keeps a spatula moving, flipping and stirring the pasta. From colorful serving bowls arranged in a row, the woman deftly uses her oversize chopsticks to gather my dinner’s ingredients into a mixing bowl. Pieces of sausage cut into slices, some kind of pickle (daikon?), green onions, a spinach-like, leafy green, chili flakes in chili oil. She uses the chopsticks to mix up my chosen combination and dumps all of it into the wok. The man nods in my direction and talks to the three or four men who have stopped to watch our transaction. There are few, if any, tourists in this neighborhood, though there are some foreign English and business teachers around. “Look, he’s come back again for some more food,” he says to the onlookers.

They all laugh together, amazed that I can or will eat their food, especially when there are many sit-down restaurants nearby and a grocery store behind them.

I laugh, too, and tell them not to worry, that I am a street food eater from way back, back in the days of under-age drinking in Tijuana. “Some of the best food around,” I tell all of them. They all laugh and point. This is a good moment for all of us, I sense. We like each other.

“Do you want more or less spice today?” the woman asks, pointing to the different bowls of crushed and chopped chilies, red and green.

“I think more than last time,” I say, holding up thumb and forefinger to indicate the proper amount.

“Would you like to eat at one of our tables,” she asks, “or get it to go again? I’ve got an open table over there.” She points at an open table, chopsticks still in hand.

H’mmm. Actually, I do want to eat here, but if I do I will be stared at intensely the entire time I’m eating. Stared at. Intensely. Stares to end all stares. “I think I’ll get it to go,” I say, reluctantly, cowardly. I wish I was up to eating at her table. I’ll do it next time, I promise myself.

She laughs. “OK, to go it is. Are you enjoying the weather?”

“Man, it’s bloody hot,” I say, “even if that storm did cool things off a bit. I’m always sweating like a dog.” I realize that’s a tough phrase to translate, and say, “Well, I mean that I never stop sweating, even when I’m teaching. For instance, in class even the backs of my knees sweat.”   I jerk my head backwards and over my left shoulder to indicate the university behind me, a place I suspect she is not allowed to enter.

“Yeah, but we’re used to it. And, of course, it’s not even summer yet,” she says. She is laughing because her husband is wearing a light sweater. “My husband is cool after that storm,” she says, pointing at him with her head. Her hands are already preparing the next customer’s dinner.

The man finishes stir-frying and pours my steaming dinner into a Styrofoam container. The Styrofoam is so cheap that my chopsticks effortlessly peel away little pieces when I get to the bottom. I never realized before that there were levels of Styrofoam quality for food containers. Who knows how much petroleum I am getting in my diet with each scrape. She puts a few more green onions on top because she knows I like those, places the container into a plastic bag, ties it, and presents it to me with two hands and no laughing, an offering of the highest seriousness. In turn, I reach for the bag in the way that I have learned: with both hands and while looking directly into the eyes of the person doing the handing over of the gift. And this time, as if on cue, we each hold our side of the bag for a moment longer than necessary. I look her in the eyes and say, “I am grateful.”

“Have a wonderful dinner. Thank you very much and we’ll see you next time.”

“Yes,” I reply, “thanks to both of you for your hard work and a great dinner.” I nod to all the bystanders. We all laugh together for both our own reasons and some common ones.

Hsyeh-Hsyeh” (thank you), I say, smiling. One of the few words I know in Chinese.

Returning the smile, broadly, they both say “Hsyeh-Hsyeh” many times. The men behind them laugh, point, and say “Hsyeh-hyseh.”

***

Of course, my conversation with the stir-frying couple took place without a common verbal language. But I am convinced that it happened. Every word of it. I know my part of the conversation has been transcribed verbatim, even the part that I didn’t actually say, but merely indicated by smiling, laughing and gesticulating wildly. I’m a teacher, after all, so I can be quite the gesticulator. In class, students have learned to watch out for my gesticulating.

I know also that she and he and the bystanders said exactly what I have written here. Or, if not, then something similar.

I head off into the darkness, stares and good-natured laughter guiding my way, the promise of another good meal ahead of me. Next time I will sit at their table. Next time.

 

Jeff Birkenstein

Jeff Birkenstein

Jeff Birkenstein is an Associate Professor of English at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. Birkenstein’s major interests lie in American Literature post-1865, American and world short story, the short story sequence, and cultural and food criticism. An edited collection of essays, Cultural Representation in the International Short Story Sequence (co-edited with Robert M. Luscher, University of Nebraska at Kearney) has just been accepted for publication. He has published several papers in academic journals as well as book reviews, commentaries, essays and a short story. He teaches a range of classes, from Freshman Seminar and Composition to African American Literature, The Short Story, Food & Fiction, and Narratives from the Aftermath of 9/11. Birkenstein received his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in 2003; he has a second MA in Teaching English as a Second/Other Language.

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