by Ali Berlow
Thick black hair spun on top of his head like a swarm of bees. He needs braces, I thought. The 16-year-old boy’s face was in that roller coast of adolescence and his glasses couldn’t quite hang on for the ride. “Wow,” he said, adjusting them with both hands and looking at what was for dinner. “You really do like to cook.” He delivered it with all the enthusiasm of ‘Next in line’ at the post office. But it was a lot considering those first twenty-four hours since we’d met. Even though English is his second language, while driving him and my son the long ride home from school, he’d been quiet in a remote way that I just figured was a teenage-shy thing and nothing more.
I’m pretty relentless when it comes to cooking homecoming feasts. I live for them almost as much as I live to lay my eyes and my hands on my boy again. Feeding him and the friends he brings home is my joy, a mother’s prerogative. Usually it’s cupcakes, burgers, tripled recipes of spaghetti or carbonara, roasts of chickens or ducks. But not this time. This was different.
The three of us stood looking across from one another in the kitchen—the island counter top was still ajumby with the adventures of this latest cooking siege. My son smiled, he’s used to me. John (his Americanized name) surveyed the DIY Korean dinner I had made in his honor. His home in Seoul lay about 9,000 miles west, but there, between us, was nothing but food. I couldn’t tell from his expression whether I’d embarrassed myself or him somehow, as he nodded—almost like a king overseeing his court— at the platter of bindae duk (mung dhal pancakes), bowls of steaming white rice, kim chi, and the bulgogi sauce with minced green onions floating on top like lily pads.
“And that,” he said, taking in the smells and pointing at the mini pork spareribs still braising hot with sesame in a wok, “my mother makes it for me when I come home and when I leave again.” He said quietly. “This is my favorite so I eat them twice…” His words fell away like snow into the sea.
At their feast, the boys, hungry from all the school cafeteria food, ate till no leftovers were left. Over the next few days of their spring break they slept late, stayed up late, and in between, walked into town for bagels and coffee. I learned that John prefers classical guitar to the soundtrack of Juno or Kanye. He likes cats better than dogs. He’s a good eater. He loves fish but not fishing. He was born in the Chinese year of the Ram. Modulated and moderate, he never gulps down his food, not even that homecoming plate of pork ribs. He balances rice grains between cradled chopsticks and seems to savor their flavor, consider their texture. When out for ice cream one afternoon, he choose a petite scoop of hazelnut yogurt instead of the sweet butterfat sundaes—smoosh-in, hot fudge, nuts and whipped cream with a cherry on top— the rest of us ordered.
He made his bed every morning.
He detected a slight bitterness developing in the kim chi, that Korean staple of fermented cabbage, garlic and hot pepper. “It is fine but it is better to start cooking it in order remove this taste,” he told me. He was right.
Unlike so many of the teenagers who guiltily sulk in and out of our house—as if parents are the prosecutors and adolescence is the crime—in John there was this refinement, a discernment. He seemed resolved but not yet truly at peace with being a stranger in a strange land. What I thought I could offer him were the comforts of flavor: soy, ginger, roasted sesame, garlic, slight sugar, a tang of vinegar, minces of spring onions.
The last meal we all shared was at a Japanese restaurant, in the town not far from where the boys go to school. They ordered miso and noodle soups, seaweed salads, little steamed dumplings of pork, shrimp and ginger, and more bowls of rice. Now that my son has moved away, I’ve learned that the penultimate goodbye around a table of food is the most important. So when the real goodbye comes, melancholy can at the very least, settle beside a full belly.
Finally at ease, rested, and perhaps even relieved that he was about to return to the familiar routine of school, John started talking. Wasn’t it funny, he said, to eat sushi in Vermont where the wait staff is Chinese, the busmen are Mexican, and the American customers think that what they are getting is Japanese food when they order a California Roll? Then somewhere in all the passing of plates, the irony, the cups of tea, and the back and forth of table talk, he said that both his parents had recently died. I thought I’d misunderstood him because he said it characteristically without much ado about anything. But I hadn’t. He said it again, explaining that they’d wanted him to graduate from this school in America so that’s what he intended to do, even though they were dead now. I filled in the gap—my gap—with what else but “more dumplings?...”
I wished I’d known he was an orphan. I was frustrated with my son for not telling me something that significant, but how could he when he didn’t even know?
I dropped John in front his dorm. He stood there against a backdrop of gray skies, barren black winter trees, and piles of worn-out snow. Both hands he jammed into his parka. A suitcase by his feet. The bag of snacks including the kim chi which I’d foisted on him. He’d let me hug him and pressed his glasses back on his face as he watched me drive away. I waved, faking my worst best smile to hide tears, upset and wishing more than anything I’d known that he was an orphan yet not understanding why it should’ve made a difference. But then again, had I known, I could’ve made his favorite spareribs twice for him. Once for coming home. Once for leaving.