I’m sitting in my living room talking to my friend “Soo” over coffee. We’re talking about everyday subjects like the kids, the shortfalls of our educational system and the ridiculously rising price of coffee of which she says I drink way too much. She’s still single and a few years younger than I. “Wait till you have kids,” I insist, “you’ll become a coffee addict as well just to keep up.”
“You should take better care of yourself,” she scolds, “you’re not any good to anyone wearing yourself out like that. Coffee is bad for you!” Her English is still heavily accented. She’s only been in the US for a few years having come from Korea to pursue a PhD in Art…something.
We’d met through mutual friends not long after the birth of my fourth child and had become fast friends. I loved her independance and strong will, the fact that she knew exactly what she wanted in life and went for it without fear. She was everything I’d wanted to be. I guess I was the family she lacked being so far from her birth country. We had little in common but for some reason were drawn together and have been like sisters ever since.
“So I should drink tea like a real Asian?” I smirk, “Isn’t it enough that I know how to eat with chopsticks?”
“Ohhh, you’re so bad!” she grins. Soo is use to my sarcasm and dark humor by now. She’s familiar with my story and how I feel about events in my life. She’s not adopted but grew up in Korea with a Korean family. What she lacks in understanding regarding my adoption experiences, she makes up for in compassion and acceptance.
“Oh my god, Soo. You’re Asian!” I holler with a wide-eyed expression, “I can’t believe I have another adult Asian in the house!” Deep understanding of my sarcastic statement is lost to her. How do I explain that my friendship with her still feels like a kind of forbidden fruit unwelcome in the great, white world of my childhood? How do I express what it means to stare across the room, see another Asian face and be able to call her not only “friend” but “sister”? She is the closest I thing I have here so far from my birth country.
She laughs and shakes her head, “You’re so crazy. You need to get out more.” I smile hoping she doesn’t see the sorrow buried behind my humor. It would make her feel bad for me again.
Needing to escape, I get up and head toward the kitchen, “Let me get a pen and paper. You said you’d tell me how to make japchae. I’m holding you to your promise.”
I write as she lists ingredients and instructions. The pen feels heavy. The tip of my thumb turns white from squeezing it too tightly, blood bleeding as black ink onto the surface of the paper. As I write, a not-memory seeps into the foreground of my thoughts.
I’m standing in front of a simmering pot of beef bones. “Má, I think the broth is done. Should I take the bones out now?.”
“You’re too impatient,” she chides, “Phở shouldn’t be rushed. Let it boil a while longer. How are you ever going to learn to be a decent cook if you’re always rushing things?” She stands over a table spread with bowls of fresh bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, limes and green onion. “Come and cut these limes,” she motions me to the table, “and make sure you cut them in fourths. Last time you sliced them making it hard to squeeze out the juice.”
I roll my eyes as I take the knife from her, “You could have just put the slices straight into the bowl.” She walks away with a lecture on her lips but is in too big of a hurry today. It’s an old argument. I want to save time and make things easier. She believes perfection takes time and attention to detail. She says I’m impatient. I argue that she just likes to make things hard for the sake of it.
“You’re going to invite me to dinner when you make it, right?” Soo asks pulling my thoughts from simmering phở broth to boiling sweet potato noodles.
“Of course, if it comes out right,” I answer absently, “you know how I like to fiddle with the recipes.”
“You won’t mess it up. It’s very easy to make, ” she says, “you can even use regular spaghetti noodles if that…”
“No,” I interrupt, “I’ll get the right ones. It won’t be the same otherwise.”
“Yeah…” she agrees seeming to drift off to some other place. The brief moment of silence that follows is welcomed as we retreat into our own thoughts. I wonder if she’s retracing her own memories as again my thoughts turn to my not-memories. Is she cooking japchae with her umma while I cook phở with Má. Perhaps she is impatiently staring at a pot of boiling sweet potato noodles as I stand tapping my foot in front of a bowl of simmering beef bones.
The air is humid and heavy with the rich smells of beef broth, fresh basil and cilantro. “Má, is it done yet?” I ask again. Weary of my nagging, she doesn’t answer right away.
“You don’t have to stand over it like that,” she insists, “No wonder you’re so impatient.” My eyes follow her as she leaves the kitchen but return to the stove where clinging bits of meat and encased marrow are sucked of their essence. Some of the flavor escapes on currents of steam. It’s enough to tempt the appetite but most is water-locked and will be condensed and served to make up for the teasing. Despite having more productive things to do, I remain in place and continue my vigil as the self-appointed guardian of disconnected flesh and fragmented bone.