Xie Mama used to babysit Tina when she was a child. Their home is in Yong He - a district made famous by the World Soybean Milk Magnate, a 24-hour breakfast joint that is busy around the clock and imitated around the world.
Xie Mama's grandchildren sat on stools on the balcony around a small grill, cooking sausages, tofu, pork steaks, enoki mushrooms, bamboo shoots, shrimp and fish fillets. The apartment filled with smoke, creating a dream-like feel to the evening as we moved through the white haze.
Xie Mama is a jovial, youthful-looking 72-year-old woman. She wore a loose pink top and khaki capris. Her eyebrows were elegantly arched and her lips rouged with fuchsia. She spoke to me in Taiwanese the entire night despite everyone's gentle chiding and reminders that I did not understand. She has a loud, hearty laugh and when she experiments with English, her intonation rises: "I lubah you?" "Bye bye?"
Tina and I ate sliced guava, honey pear and pomelo which is like green grapefruit. When you cut pomelo, the Chinese use the word "sa" or kill. "With no other fruit do you use this term," Tina said. "You kill the pomelo." We savoured its sweet, floral taste; its flesh breaks apart in your mouth, like how cooked fish meat might flake.
Jack, Xie Mama's eldest son, handed us a bag of black seeds, which I stared at in amazement. It helps with digestion, he said. The black, shiny bits were shaped like the bottom halves of pandas or like bull heads. We broke the hard hulls with our molars and then ate the white, potato-like insides. (A search on The Google later revealed that they are water caltrops.)
Xie Mama's eldest daughter came to visit with her precocious daughter. An aunt gave the girl an orange sucker. "It's shit candy," Jack said.
I looked at it and sure enough, it was shaped like a pile of poo, except orange. "Why?"
Jack shrugged. "For fun!"
We gourmandized and took turns sitting in a massage chair. We watched Taiwanese soap operas and force fed our glutted selves sweet caramel jiffy pop and green tea mochi balls. Xie Mama told us stories about how they used to lock Tina in the bathroom because she wouldn't eat and when she did, she would store the food in her cheeks like a chipmunk.It was nice to do something that felt like home.
At 11 p.m., we passed a crowded World Soybean Milk Magnate on the way to Dingxi station. Tina says I stood transfixed by the food like I had just spent a decade starving in jail:
An hour and a half later, an earthquake rattled the country. Safe in my quivering apartment, I thought of all of the food bouncing around that restaurant. Hope none of it was wasted.