by grace tran
Westview High School
Dumplings by the Dozen
I used to be scared of the oil that sizzled in pans—sparkling and popping like bubbles in the fancy apple cider we drank at Thanksgiving dinner. I never failed to linger back as my father cooked bacon before school in the morning, nor to hold my hands safely behind my back as my mother prepared batch after batch of jau zaa gwai in the kitchen of her restaurant which was forever teeming with customers who could not get enough of the crispy fried dough. Oil was beautiful; oil was mesmerizing; oil was destructive.
Jessie used to tell me that there were pixies who made their homes in oil, who hissed and bit at the hands that came near, their sharp teeth puncturing the undersides of unsuspecting fingers. It was their golden treasure and, like dragons of mythical lore, they found their own ways to defend their trove. My fear was not irrational; though it was not a roar of fire that greeted my skin, the spark of oil was somewhat like an unwelcome pinch from someone whose nails were far too sharp and whose fingers lingered for far too long. I was old enough to see through the facade of the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. But for more time than I care to admit, I believed Jessie.
The winter before my ninth grade, my grandmother came to visit for the first time in a decade. I had small memories of her, save for the brief image of a stern face illuminated by charming Christmas lights, hands greasy as she and my mother prepared dish after dish of cheong fun and char siu fan and siu jyu gap. When we drove out to the airport to pick her up, I didn’t see her at first. The terminals were flooded with blond hair and brown eyes, belonging to men and women who were all much too tall to be my po po. And then, between a part in the crowd like the path of the Red Sea, I found her. Frail and slow-moving, she stood out from the mob of the loud, bustling passengers that surrounded her.
On the long ride home, I kept my lips pursed and my eyes straight forward. She rested her head on the side of the window, staring out at the trees and the McDonald’s and the stoplights that raced by. I wondered what I could say. What words would alleviate the tension formed by years of separation? My mother spoke sparingly and my grandmother even more so. I turned to smile at her hesitantly, but she, unsure, did not return the warmth. A brief thought flitted through my mind—perhaps, like many of my grandmothers’ friends, she was old and infirm. I quickly waved it away. My mother had warned me that however delicate she seemed, she was anything but. Ages of living alone after my grandfather’s death had thickened her skin and now she spent hours a day making dumplings by the dozen. Seeing me shift around with uncertainty in my seat, my mother once again spoke up and suggested that my grandmother pass her deft expertise down to me. For her sake, and perhaps each others’, we complied.
Even so, we put if off for days until one early afternoon when we had sat for one hour too long on the couch watching comedy show reruns. It was freezing outside, far too cold for the daily walks my grandmother was said to enjoy, and so we instead were huddled up in a swath of blankets, numbing our minds with brainless one-liners. But now the jokes had gone stale and my eyes were beginning to glaze over. Noticing, my grandmother got up and walked over to the refrigerator. Opening and closing the various compartments, she began to take out a plethora of ingredients. Scoffing at the premade wrappers my mother had bought for us, she then brought out a large steel bowl, into which she had early mixed the meat and vegetables. She waved me over.
“We have time,” she said. “Now you can learn.”
I watched as she began to set up each station—the filling, the dough, and the small ceramic bowl of water to furnish the edges of the wrappings.
“Like this,” she said, demonstrating slowly. Her fingertips danced intricately, creasing the dumpling into what seemed like a small purse. She handed a square wrapper to me. It felt soft and malleable in my hand, ready to be shaped into perfection.
Soon enough, I had finished my first dumpling, but it was far from exceptional work. Lopsided and positively stuffed to the brim with filling, I couldn’t bring myself to place it next to the line of the ones my grandmother had made, which were flawless in all manners of speaking. Ashamed, I held mine in the palm of my hand and dropped my arm to my side. How had she made hers look so shapely, so much like a doughly frilled bag while mine now resembled a slightly squashed soccer ball?
Finally satisfied with the number of dumplings she had made so far, my grandmother turned on the heat of the stove, spilling a generous touch of oil into the pan. It began to froth and bubble like a witch’s cauldron, ready to cast a wicked spell upon me. Instinctively, I stepped away. Pinching the dumpling skin between my fingertips as I’d seen her do, I stared at the hot, vicious oil. Shuddering, I handed the finished dumpling to my grandmother.
“Just put it in,” she said, now busy wrapping another.
“That’s ok. You can do it.”
“Annie, is there a problem?”
“No. No, I’m fine,” I insisted. “I just don’t wanna do it.”
Placing the dumpling aside, she turned to me.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Why is this so hard for you?”
“It’s just too hot,” I said awkwardly. “I don’t like the way it feels.”
“The heat of the pan? The oil?”
“That’s nothing,” she scolded gently. “You place your hand by your fear and it will not bite.”
Taking the dumpling from me, she lowered her hand close to the surface of the pan. It slid in with ease, no spray of oil hitting her hand. The only hiss came from the sound of the dumpling cooking.
“Face your demons and they will bow down to you,” she said. “You will be the fiercest of them all.”
As I finished the next dumpling, she held out her hand, expecting me to give it to her. I shook my head.
“I got this one.”
I jerked my hand back reflexively as the dumpling slid into the pan but I felt no touch of pain. The dumpling sat in a shimmer of oil, plump and content, fat and smiling back at me. I looked at my grandmother with great relief. Happy, she handed another dumpling to me, its pouch bursting with filling.
Soon enough, each dumpling had finished cooking. As my grandmother slid the dumplings onto a neat plate, heat radiated all around the kitchen. Sitting down at the kitchen table, I looked at the dumplings, their skins fried golden brown.
“They look so good,” I said. “Like the ones we eat at restaurants.”
“Because you made them,” my grandmother said, patting me on the arm. “The fire respects you. You can do anything now.”
I smiled. Picking up a dumpling, I placed it on her plate. “Thank you for being here.”
“Of course.” She bit into the dumpling, the fragile skin breaking between her teeth. “This tastes delicious, Annie.”
As we sat and ate each piece, I shook my head inwardly at what now seemed like a silly long-lasting fear of the oil. The dumplings had come out so delightfully; it felt ridiculous that I had ever been scared of something that could make something so irresistible. Tasting the burning savory meat on my tongue, I took the hand of my grandmother, exchanging unheard words of thanks. She smiled at me, taking her chopsticks and placing the final dumpling on my plate. The silence was as meaningful as any words I could ever have thought of saying. Now I knew I had always been wrong. Oil was beautiful; oil was mesmerizing; oil was creationary.
Grace Tran is a student from Portland, Oregon and has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and was a 2017/2018 national and 'Best of Issue' winner of the American High School Poets 'Just Poetry' quarterly contest. She has been both a runner-up and fiction grand prize winner of the Scholastic Kids are Authors contest. She has also had works appear or be forthcoming in The Pangolin Review, Polyphony H.S, and VoiceCatcher.