A Chinese New Year Banquet

Image of Long Story Short Award - 2022
Image of Creative Nonfiction
The Chinese New Year was approaching. The muffled chimes of the temple bell froze in the air. The eerie orange hue of the sky mingled with the light cyan mist. Few pedestrians ducked their heads like broody jackdaws and melted in the opaque veins of the city.
We had the family tradition to have banquets at my grandparents' apartment on the Chinese New Year's Eve. When I finally arrived at the front door, there was a familiar smell in the narrow hallway: in an old aluminum pot, fresh crucians and soft Tofu were simmered in the bubbling water. I've been eating this classic local delicacy even before my birth. My mother forced herself to eat the bony crucians every other day when she was pregnant, because she heard this diet therapy would make a fetus smarter. Whenever I did something wrong, I couldn't help but reproach myself with guilt for wasting all the crucians and Tofu. No one knew how effective the therapy was, but my mother and grandma still clang to it, forever cooking special cuisines for us with auspicious expectations. It was more of an emotional bond that connected family members.
I closed my eyes. Never before had I felt closer to my mother. As the wet vapor imbued with the delicate flavor of fish slowly engulfed me in the dark, I felt like reentering the wet warm womb where I was connected with my mother as a fetus.
Trembling and blowing on my stiff fingers, I opened the door and greeted everyone. The chilliness sneaked into the room immediately. The large round table was already full of all the delicacies of mountain and sea. The seats had a most traditional Chinese setting. My grandpa always occupied the most distinguished seat, because it was the only position that he could comfortably watch two TVs at the same time. The large TV in the living room was always tuned to news channels while the smaller TV in the passageway played cheesy dramas. Grandpa's ears did not work very well and he always turned up the volume. All at once, the room was filled with the strange mixture of the monotonous news broadcast, brainwashing commercial jingles, and dreadfully syrupy bill and coo. And there was my grandpa, sitting in front of a delicate wooden screen, chewing the yellow croaker that was specially reserved for him, and fixing his gaze on the TVs.
My cousin Ting and I sat on his opposite and reserved a seat for grandma, but it was empty for most of the time as she was in charge of all the cooking. A cloud of vapor billowed out of the kitchen, and a pot of lip-smacking beef soup was served.
My mother held the clay pot with wet rags: "Mother, let me do the cooking! Don't work yourself too hard."
Grandma replied: "Never. I'm the hostess of the house and you are the guest. Just sit down, eat, and have fun!"
Such was grandma's expression of hospitality. She blinked her foggy grey eyes and her wrinkles stretched like petals of a blossoming chrysanthemum.
I smiled and set a plate of sweet and sour pork ribs in front of Ting. He passed me a bowl of yogurt. He was a crew-cut high school boy: dimple-faced, tanned, lean, earnest. We chatted about movies, flora and fauna, the National Geography magazine, and the science fiction that he was reading. He said that he wanted to be a botanist in the future but was perplexed by the ongoing Gaokao reform.
I patted on his shoulder, "Everything will be okay. Just stick to your dream, you'll make it."
Little did he know that I was actually comforting myself. I sipped my yogurt to gloss over the change of my facial expression. There seemed to be a leak in me somewhere, and I kept on drinking to keep myself from draining dry. I also suffered from the self-depression brought by the exam-oriented education system and intense competition in high school. The image of my former headteacher Ms. Liang immediately popped up in my head with her square brow and anxious, accusing eyes.
Yet there were other pains in the grown-up world: livelihood and family burden. I glanced at my mother. She loosened the bows in her hair and crooned an off-key vintage song. Her stubby and shapeless fingers were busy peeling prawn shells, which piled up like small mountains.
My mother noticed me and joked: "You are staring at my ugly fingers again." She raised her sauce-stained hands playfully. "See? The badge of labor."
When she was a child in the 1960s, the Maoist planned economy era, she often plucked weeds to earn work points to support her family. After marriage, she was forever spinning around like a top, and her fingers became swollen and distorted from long-time housework.
She gave me a plate of peeled prawns as usual. This time I hesitated, though I had always taken it for granted. It dawned on me that I was the one who was whipping her to spin around perpetually. She devoted all her life to me, her intense love and high expectation put a heavy load on my mind. Her smile quietly pressed my eyes for a while, I finally bowed my head and ate the prawns slowly and submissively.
Uncle Xian kindly offered me fish pancakes. Ting slouched in the chair and burped politely. My father filled grandpa's glass with wine when grandpa was squinting at the TV; then my father quickly poured some white liquor into his cup for fear of being caught. My father, when drunk, was boisterous, and sometimes emotional. My mother thus strictly restricted his drinking. The family banquets were one of the few occasions in which he could drink more than usual. I looked up and saw his reddened face and gesticulating arms, a prelude to inebriated theatrical mayhem. Sure enough, within several minutes, he got overexcited and slurred his "adventures" in a copper mine in a high pitch, thick tongued and edgy. We all knew he was drunk and giggled. Aunt Sai was the only person who listened to him with interest. The dining room once again became lively and rowdy.
After presenting the Tofu and crucians, grandma finally walked out with the finale of our banquet: steamed sesame buns. Ting and I clustered and twittered around grandma like little birds. After giving us youngsters red envelopes with auspicious blessings, the elders chatted at the round table. The hosts of the Spring Festival Gala were dressed in festive costumes and stood in line for the New Year's greetings.
The warmth of the room became stifling and soporific with the faint halitus of tobacco. I grabbed Ting's arm and we ran outside. At the hillside, the silver ribbon of a firework soared skywards, and crept to meet another ruby-red firework that pierced the darkness with long, wide stripes. We heard a delayed cracking sound from the ethereal heaven far above, the distant sounds of fireworks continued sporadically. They were like the faint echoes in a valley, or the soft and rhythmic heartbeats of the inky sky. Amid the streets, a pleasant smell of powder was dripping.
"Now it feels like the New Year," I said to Ting.
He stood there and stared at the sky. His dark, brooding eyes looked very much like the universe, in which I could clearly see the reflections of the beautiful fireworks exploding like galaxies.
In time, the elders were attracted by the splutters and emerged through the front door. Wrapped in the medley of sound, we appreciated the fireworks together as a family. The atmosphere of celebration in the air reeled with an intoxicating scent, joining the whirling wind to envelop the entire city. The gods of heaven and earth were ready to give people boundless good fortune in the coming New Year.