Christy Koh, Runner Up
We have guests for dinner tonight, ke ren.
Fresh salmon from a Chinese supermarket
salt, pepper, and sugar
Rubbed into the almost translucent flesh
glistening with oil
heavenly smells curling from the small oven
as flesh is slowly turning pink against
the shiny aluminum foil
gray oily skin crackling.
Spotted grey prawns,
drowning in butter and chopped garlic
sizzling in a non-stick wok,
their shells reddening as they are pushed around
with a wooden spatula.
The fume hood whirrs busily over the stove,
working to dispel the cooking fumes.
The timer rings in a short burst.
My mother pulls the dish out with a folded cloth
And briskly carries it to the dining table
where we wait in eager anticipation.
Steaming salmon is dished to every person
-elders always first-
Into bowls overflowing with fluffy white rice
with tender leafy spinach stalks on one side.
Hungry friends compliment my mother’s cooking
but she humbly brushes them off with a small smile.
I bring my piece of fish to my mouth
the bones poke into my cheek but I calmly pull them out,
dropping them into a used bowl.
Thinking about the frozen fish fillets that are sold
at the American supermarket
I shudder with disgust.
The flesh is too salty,
as if there is
a chunk of Play-Dough
in my mouth,
The yellow batter a result of having been
deep fried in muggy pans of oil.
I shake my head and
concentrate on spooning food into my mouth.
We eat quickly, making small talk,
occasionally bursting into guffaws of laughter.
It is comfortable to be spending dinner time with friends,
Serving more food to each other
“Chi duo yi dian,”
Have some more.
and, “duo xie.”
I make sure to keep my elbows off the table
Sitting up straight
and using both my fork and spoon.
I am always expected to be on my best behavior when guests are around.
Perhaps sometimes at school lunch I let myself
slouch a bit
while eating last night’s leftovers and
lounging with my friends,
but my posture matters now.
Our guests praise us children for our good manners
their stomachs round with the full meal they have eaten.
I smile and wave, watching them pull away from the curb,
calling out, “zai jian!”
Our home feels empty,
laughter and smiles suddenly disappeared.
They are not just ke ren, guests, anymore,
for the meal we shared has made them
A part of our family.