- Sardine Parties
Everyone in your little city of Lexington, Kentucky, lives in houses that fence off their neighbors with the bushy heads of oak trees and the cold cement of two-car driveways. Neighbors here keep a perpetual distance from one another. But on weekends, your classmates in 10th grade travel three hours to go to the Smoky Mountains and stuff themselves in tiny tents with their cousins. Or they pile in the car with mom and dad to visit Uncle Max in Cincinnati or Aunt Erma in Indiana. You don’t have extended family less than a 15-hour plane ride away. That’s why your people spend Saturday nights bunched together in a stranger’s house like a can of sardines.
Your mother buys a slab of pork, bags of shrimp, and wonton skins from the Chinese supermarket. She spends all afternoon chopping up smells of ginger and scallions and pork so that chunks of the mixture fit in the wrappers. The little shao mai look like mashed brains with bits of mushroom stuck here and there, wrapped up in little flour clothes the color of naked. When they are ready to sit on the metal steamer, she presses the beeping buttons on the oven until they say 0:15. “Can you watch the timer?” she asks. “All right,” you say, peeling yourself off the computer.
She runs upstairs to find something to wear. It’s the only time that she pulls off her loose-fitting pants for something more pretty than functional, a dress and necklace. She hesitates with the high heels, because she’s already taller than your father and most other women you know.
When the shao mai come out, you yell at mother across the room and she, in turn, shouts up the stairs at everyone else to get going. Your brother drops his Nintendo controller in front of the TV, and your father stacks up [End Page 25] his papers and shuts his laptop. You pick up the two plates of food that took your mother four hours to make. The heat of the just-cooked food transfers to your fingertips, a small consolation for the fact that your mother spends longer prepping for these parties than she does for your dinner every night.
She packages the food gingerly, the Saran wrap covering every corner. You don’t mention that the food will be the temperature of lukewarm tap water by the time people get to eat it.
“Mom, it’s more than enough meat to feed our entire family,” you say instead.
“Don’t be silly. Look at us! Two growing boys and the appetite of your father. We have to show that we’re bringing enough food.” Her arms usher you and your brother toward the back door that leads out to the garage.
By the time your family pulls up, you have to watch your father circle the block for a space. He never has to parallel park here in Kentucky, except on the Saturday nights when a bunch of Chinese families crowd a suburban block with their cars. You have to park another five houses away to get to the party, where you all throw your shoes into the pile of boots and sneakers spilling from the front step.
Your brother, five years younger, dashes away to join the children in the basement. They crowd around a TV. Four of them mash buttons in never-ending Super Smash Bros. matches. All of the kids would be out of sight, thanks to the cheap babysitter named Nintendo.
You feel too old to sit down with the kids in the basement. So you wallflower your back to the first room you enter, the wall of the living space next to the kitchen. Other kids who also go to your high school clutch their red Solo cups of apple juice or water. You shrink yourself to avoid the yells of “hello” that Chinese mothers volley across the room and the hyper weaves of little kids circling around your legs. Even though your parents’ friends have cashed in on their promotions to move into five-bedroom houses with impractically...