with our chopsticks at whatever spun past—
fried dumplings, buns with savory filling—
if we didn't want to spend the stifling nights
hearing our stomachs growl a bass line
to the high, unearthly hum of cicadas
intoning their ceaseless prayers for rain.
Breakfast brought relief: smooth porcelain
spoons for our bowls of thin rice gruel.
By noon we were starving for Lau Fan's
green beans seasoned with pungent garlic,
for the slivers of chicken that clung to bones
split by sharp cleavers. Chunks and cubes
were easiest to pinch—but we had to grab fast.
We learned to swallow our finicky questions,
not looking too closely at lumps of meat
swimming in shallow pools of grease.
Drenched with the day's heat,
flushed from fiery noodles and boiling broths,
we welcomed wedges of juicy watermelon,
spitting the flat black seeds onto the filthy floor.
Once, Lau Fan brought us a platter heaped
with half-cobs of corn, shucked and boiled.
"Hog feed," the translator assigned to us muttered.
But we cheered and hooted our hero,
who flashed us a gummy, broken-toothed grin.
The next day, he produced a new dish to please us:
thick, crisp Chinese potato chips.
Still, as we roved through shops on our afternoons off,
hoping to chance across cans of lukewarm Coke,
certain longings surfaced—for milkshakes and Big Macs;
sweet red apples; fresh, leafy lettuce.
In our classrooms we pinned up pictures
from magazines we'd brought, printing new words
on the blackboard: bacon, orange juice, raisins, sandwich.
Evenings I savored the tomatoes and cucumbers
Lau Fan peeled for the foreigners, our only raw fare.
As the Lazy Susan whirled, I’d picture my mother
making a salad, the bounty of my father's garden
mounded on her kitchen counter. Gripping my chopsticks
I’d chase the translucent slices, trying to latch onto them—
so tempting, so slippery, like memories of home.