Sarah, a graduating senior at Los Altos High School and resident of Los Altos, grew to love writing after hearing her first slam poem in freshman year. She writes a lot of poetry, but enjoys writing the occasional short story. She also spends a lot of time exploring higher level math and physics with her classmates. Outside of school, Sarah enjoys playing softball and piano, as well as singing with her school's choir and spending time with her friends and family.
In my last year of high school, I've been thinking a lot about college - moving out and living away from my family for the first time. Personally, I'm still grappling with this change, learning to be okay with it. Rather than focus on fear, I tried to infuse my story with hope for the future. Once I had the theme, quarantine inspired the setting. With all the time at home, I started cooking with my mom again. Cooking and family recipes are meaningful in many cultures - to me, they're a connection to my mom and my family that I'll have even when I'm on the other side of the country.
IIt's been four months since I've been home.
Today, my plane landed on California tarmac and I caught my first glimpse of West Coast sun. I hugged my parents like I hadn't seen them in four years. I was surprised when my breath didn't hang in the air like it does back East. For the first time in months, I took my jacket off before going outside, instead of putting one on. Winters are so much more forgiving in California than in New York.
I squint through dim parking lot light to search for the car. Baba helps me load my luggage into the trunk while Mama stands with me on the curb, her shoulder brushing mine from time to time. On the drive home, I chatter about school, new friends, and the best restaurants. They look back from time to time, at a stop sign or a red light, as if to check it was really me in the back seat.
Soon enough, we're home. The garage door opens with a familiar groan, like an old man rising from a mid-afternoon nap. Baba rolls the car in between cardboard boxes stacked haphazardly against the wall. My sister opens the door and greets us with a cheer.
Home is so much noisier than I remember it. Baba's music floats through the background while the coffee machine runs, or the TV plays a basketball game, or my sister sings some pop song in the shower. I can't believe that she still sings in the shower. I don't think she's gotten any better since I left.
Being in the kitchen is just like I remember it. Mama rearranged all the spices so now it takes a few seconds to find what I'm looking for, and somebody finally changed the old lightbulb above the stove so things are a little brighter. But the kitchen is still full of life. Baba starts the dishwasher before settling on the couch to watch a basketball game. Mama hums some song I can't name while washing her hands. Her hair is too short to tie back, so she wears this old headband with a colorful design faded beyond recognition.
We're making dumplings today. Mama has all of her sauces arrayed in front of her like paints on an artist's palette. She mixes the dumpling filling in a large bowl tucked underneath her arm - ground pork, ginger, green onions, and whatever else she saw fit to add that day. Mama clicks her tongue when I reach to relieve her of the mixing bowl.
"Wash your hands, Baobao."
I can hear the smile in her voice even as she chides me. I pout before slinking over to the sink. Cold water splashes over my hands. Mama watches me to make sure I use soap and everything. I dry my hands on the fruit towel hanging by the stove. The edges are fraying. It's less soft than I remember it to be.
I dart back to the counter and successfully snatch the mixing bowl. Mama gives me the spatula while shaking her head at me. She turns away to hide her smile, grabbing a head of napa cabbage and placing it on the cutting board.
"Mama, look at this!"
I crack an egg into the bowl with one hand. Mama laughs when I accidentally drop the shell into the bowl as well, and helps me fish out the stray eggshells. She adds handfuls of finely chopped cabbage to the bowl while I stir everything together.
Once I'm done mixing, she hands me bottles of sauces one by one. Two splashes of soy sauce. One splash of sesame oil. Two splashes of oyster sauce - no, wait, three splashes. I can never get this part right when I'm making dumplings on my own. It looks alright, sure, but it never tastes the same. Never tastes quite right. Mama leans in and appraises the filling with a careful eye. A few loose strands of hair have escaped her headband and hang precariously over the bowl. She leans back.
"The color isn't right. Add some more soy sauce."
I tip the bottle over for a beat, letting soy sauce spill into the bowl. A tablespoon - maybe a little more. She waves her hand once. I pause, then quickly stream another dark circle of soy sauce around the bowl. I stir once, then twice, darkening the mixture. Mama nods approvingly.
Mama sends me to search for the dumpling wrappers, somewhere in the fridge. The fridge, as always, is crowded with more food than it has space for. The dumpling wrappers are balanced on a package of deli meat in the back of the fridge. I have to move a jug of orange juice, a tub of butter, and several Tupperwares with unidentifiable contents to reach the dumpling wrappers. While I'm repacking the fridge, it lets out a series of soft beeps, letting me know it has been open for too long. The fridge has never been patient with me. I shut the door before the fridge can chastise me again.
I remember when I was young I would sneak into the kitchen to watch what Mama was doing. My eyes barely came up to the countertop so I would stand on the tips of my toes and tuck my head into the crook of her elbow. She deftly crimped dumpling wrappers into perfect pleats, placing the dumplings in perfect rows. I loved watching her make dumplings.
The first dumpling I made fell apart as soon as I set it down, the wrapper unfurling with a heavy sigh. Mama helped me refold it, guiding my chubby fingers to recreate her perfect pleats. The finished product looked nothing like her perfect dumplings - the pleats were uneven and one of the sides stuck up higher than the other.
"Mama, it's so ugly."
"Baobao, don't cry! I will eat it." She leaned down to meet my eyes - as parents do when their kids are still little - and winked. "I bet it tastes even better than mine."
I laughed, tears forgotten. The next dumpling leaned heavily on one side, only surviving for a moment before falling face-down unceremoniously. After fiddling with it for a few seconds, I got it to stand up on its own. Mama looked closely at the dumpling and adjusted her glasses.
"It looks great!"
She held up her hand for a high-five, sticky with soy sauce and sesame oil. I high-fived her, beaming with pride at my misshapen creation.
Mama and I are side-by-side at the countertop, dumpling fillings and dumpling wrappers between us. We fold dumplings together, although she moves much faster than I do. We finish quickly, two of us working together. The stack of dumpling wrappers quickly dwindles to nothing but a dusting of flour on the countertop. Our rows of dumplings stand at attention like little soldiers.
"Can you get the pan for me?"
I'm the tallest daughter, which doesn't mean much in a short family, but it does mean that I'm the only one who can reach the cabinet above the fridge without assistance. I catch the lip of the pan with my fingers and slowly slide it off the shelf until I can grab it. I put the pan down with a clatter and set the flame to high. The burner clicks once before the flame ignites and settles into a mesmerizing mix of blues and oranges.
Mama transfers fifteen dumplings to the pan before pouring in about half a cup of water and quickly covering the pan. I'm too tall now to comfortably rest my head on her, but I slouch and lean on her shoulder while steam fogs up the lid. She tilts her head to rest on mine. Mama squeezes my hand, once, before moving to check on the dumplings.
She pours in enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. While the dumplings cook, we begin cleaning the kitchen. She watches me from the sink while I put away half-empty bottles of sauce and pass her the dirty dishes. She turns the faucet on after a while - once she was used to me in the kitchen alongside her, I think.
My baby sister skids out of her room. Dumplings are her favorite. Baba helps her set the table - four places now, not three. They had to clear my seat of junk mail when I first got home. Papers and magazines now accumulate on the coffee table, next to the puzzle my sister is working on. A dragon flying past looming mountains, or a horse clopping through a city. Something like that.
Mama shoos me to the table while she loads the last of the dumplings onto a big dish. I attempt to dust the flour off of my shirt before taking a seat. She carries the dumplings over to us with great fanfare. My sister immediately lunges for the dumplings. The rest of us take a few dumplings afterward. My sister regales us with tales of soccer and school, her mouth half-full with dumpling, while the rest of us listen and laugh.
I take my time, savoring the first bite of my dumpling.
It tastes just right.