Angelique Imani Rodriguez
Zhou by Sharline Chiang
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
Editor's Note: A version of this piece was an August 2010 Short Story Award for New Writers finalist for GLIMMER TRAIN.
In this beautifully written fiction piece, a young girl goes in search of her mother on a cold winter day and it's the prepared meal her mother leaves behind that is the first sign of her absence. With a theme of a journey in search of something, both physical and emotional, the use of imagery and juxtaposition breathes life into this gorgeous short story.
Sharline Chiang is a writer, editor, book coach, and publicist originally from New Jersey now based in Berkeley, CA. Her writing has appeared in BuzzFeed, Rumpus, OZY, Mutha, Hyphen, and CAAM. She was book editor/coach for the New York Times bestseller Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority by Steve Phillips. She is a proud, long-time member of VONA, a nationwide community of writers of color. Follow her via @SharlineChiang.
RECIPE POSTED AFTER THE PIECE!
Fried Eggs and Rice Writing Prompt: In Sharline Chiang's short story, "Zhou," two characters go on journeys in search of two very different things. Consider a time you went on a journey in search of something. In your preferred genre, write a letter to the thing/person/feeling you are searching for. Where do you end up and what do you end up finding? This does not have to be food related.
By Sharline Chiang
The morning my mother left us I woke up earlier than usual. My curtains were open. It was snowing again.
I could hear my father snoring. A pot of zhou simmered on low in the kitchen, which was strange because my parents never woke up early on Sundays.
The house smelled like a giant bubble of rice bursting, steaming up the windows. The kitchen table was covered with tiny dishes of fermented tofu, fried peanuts, and my favorite: thousand-year-old eggs, their blue centers oozing like pudding.
I checked the bathroom for my mother; she wasn’t there.
I looked in her bedroom. I also looked in my father’s bedroom, just in case, because every now and then I could find them in there in bed together, holding each other like curled cats. But nothing.
Jimmy, our dog, was in his bed in the living room under a “Jersey Is for Lovers” blanket.
“Jimmy,” I said, scratching his back. “Have you seen Mommy?”
He ignored me.
I grabbed my mother’s pjs from her hamper and made him sniff them like I’d seen on Starsky and Hutch. “Go find Mommy!” But he just opened his eyes a little and went back to sleep.
I looked around for a note but didn’t find any.
Then I noticed my mother’s painting missing above the TV. She had created it from memory, from a black and white photo of her and her older sister when they were kids. In it, her sister was pointing at the camera smirking while my mother was doubled over laughing. They had the same round faces and bright, dark eyes. My mother had lost the photo while a customs agent rifled her suitcase on her way over from Taiwan. A week later her sister was killed in a moped accident on her way to work.
My mother once told me, “When I couldn’t find that picture, I knew it was a bad sign.”
At first I thought it was a little weird that the painting wasn’t there in its usual spot. I couldn’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. But then I thought maybe my mother took it down to dust it off, or clean behind the TV, so I didn’t think too much about it.
I walked around the house wondering where she could’ve gone: the diner (on her day off?), Queens (without telling us?), shopping (this early?).
Most of the house was freezing, as usual. My father never let us turn up the heat. “Wear more layers,” he’d say whenever I complained. Then in English: “Heating do not grow on trees.”
I thought of my best friend Rosemary and wondered what she was doing. On weekend mornings we loved playing Harriet the Spy. I wanted to go over to her house and say “Hey, you want to go super sleuthing?” But then I remembered she had moved to Oregon over Thanksgiving and I still didn’t know how to reach her.
Later that day, my father and I would find the following things missing as well: all of my mother’s jewelry, the mink coat that she’d bought herself for a hundred dollars at Englishtown, my father’s largest case of pinned butterflies, her special tin box, and my old Winnie the Pooh doll, my first toy, which my mother had always kept in a glass cabinet.
When I was five, we left Flushing for Middletown, New Jersey. The way my mother talked about the move you would have thought that my father had won the lottery instead of a part-time job at Brookdale College teaching math.
“We’ll have a big house and a car. We’ll plant roses,” she said to me while we packed our tiny apartment. “You’ll have your own room. We can go to the beach every day. You’ll make lots of friends. We’ll put purple carpeting in every room—wall-to-wall.”
That week, whenever the Jeffersons came on TV, she’d clap and sing along to the opening song. “We’re moving on up! To the Eastside! We finally got a piece of the piiiie!” When she sang, her English was perfect.
That first day we moved in, the rooms echoed, full of possibility. My father was out shopping for a used car. My mother and I played while we unpacked. Crouched inside the refrigerator box we ate fried chicken, pretending it was our café. We danced to Abba and body slammed each other on the new mattresses. I laughed until I peed myself and then cried because I had messed up my new mattress. Instead of getting mad at me, my mother cleaned it and made me Betty Crocker chocolate cupcakes. The mix had come in a box in a red wagon filled with groceries labeled “For Mrs. Dahlia Wang.” A lady from the neighborhood committee had left it on our doorstep before we arrived.
It was one of the best days of my life.
But it didn’t take long before my mother hated it, hated Middletown, hated Jersey, wanted to go back to Flushing. She hated the spring, how the pollen made her eyes itchy, gave her migraines. She hated the summers, how Sandy Hook stank, grossed her out with its washed up syringes and tampon applicators, its guidos in Speedos calling out to her “Me so horny! Love me long time!” She hated the winters, how you had to shovel every day and defrost the car with a hair dryer. Most of all, she hated how we had to drive to New York whenever we needed any kind of Chinese ingredient.
“An hour just to get soy sauce!” she cried to my father. “Before, I could shout out my window and someone would throw me a bottle.”
She spent long days home alone.
Every chance she got, she would drive up to Flushing, play mahjong, and drink Johnny Walker with her friends. Most of them worked in restaurants or did things like massage and clean houses. She would show off her new jewelry, gold and tourmaline in pinks and blues. She’d brag about how she haggled for them at Englishtown.
“Those foreigners are no match for me,” she’d say.
Whenever she won, she’d spend it all in a week: new clothes and jewelry for her, new toys and stickers for me.
My father hated it when she went to New York, hated how she would go and stay the night without calling, come back the next day hungover and pissy. Sometimes she would stay the whole weekend.
“They’re not cultured, those women!” he once shouted. He hardly ever talked to her like that.
“What? Because they’re not scholars, like you?”
“You could have been a scholar, somebody reputable,” he said.
“Go fuck your mother!” she shouted before slamming her door.
My father rubbed his head. His comb-over dangled over his ear like a gray bandage.
That night I heard my mother cry, saying to him, “I could tell you, but you wouldn’t understand.”
When my parents met, my mother was eighteen and trying to pass college entrance exams in Taiwan for the second time. She wanted to study art. He was her math tutor. He was also one of her father’s—my gong gong’s—closest friends.
“She was my favorite worst student,” my father used to tease.
For money, while she was trying to get into college, my mother sang in a band that played class reunions and weddings, mainly old Deng Li Jun songs. Everyone always said how much she sounded and looked like her—same baby face, full cheeks, wide eyes, pouty lips and glossy, thick black hair, that she wore long and parted down the middle. “I’m taller,” my mother would say, and she was, taller than my father even, and wore high heels every chance she could get even if she was only shopping at Pathmark.
It was snowing harder by the time I put on all my layers and stepped outside.
I stood in our walkway with a magnifying glass and studied my mother’s footprints in the snow. I tried to get Jimmy to come with me but as soon as he jumped in the snow and realized it was taller than him, he ran back inside.
“Coward,” I mumbled.
Next, I pulled out my Harriet the Spy notebook and wrote: Footprints faint but visible. Definitely mom’s. Partner abandoned mission. Will proceed alone.
The sky hung low and gray. Our street was quiet, blanketed under thick drifts. The snow made a soft sound like tiny wings fluttering. I sank into the banks leading to our driveway, lunging forward, resisting the urge to fall back. I loved making snow angels, one of the things Rosemary had taught me that first winter we met.
I followed the tire marks down our driveway along Lone Oak Road, which hadn’t been plowed yet. Cherry Tree Farm Road, the main road leading to Route 35 was already busy. I wasn’t allowed to walk along Cherry Tree, let alone 35 where the diner was, by myself. My father said I had to wait until I was twelve. I was nine.
I wrote in my notebook: Mission: walk to diner alone.
I decided to take a short cut across the woods so I wouldn’t have to walk along the main road. I stopped by Rosemary’s old house, lifted the mail slot on the door and sniffed inside. It still smelled like pickles, although less than it had the day before.
Months ago, when Rosemary and I said goodbye they had to pry us apart. Our faces were pressed so close we could hardly breathe. “Who loves you more?”, we chanted. “Jesus, Mary or me? I do. I love you more. Blood sisters forever.”
Mrs. Maguire, Rosemary’s mom, who had just changed her name to Ms. Thornton after she finalized the divorce, promised she would call my parents with their new address once she and Rosemary got settled. She never did and I never heard from Rosemary again.
“I told you. White people,” my mother said. “They all lie.”
My plan was to head to the woods and stop by the pond, one of my mother’s favorite places. She liked to sit at a bench near the water and sketch in her journal. She never went in the winter, but still, I thought, maybe she’s there, smoking a cigarette.
I blinked against snowflakes and ducked behind a bush at the Christiansens. The boys were up. They were pegging each other with snowballs. Then Andrew buried Paulie in the snow and sat on him. Their house had two painted signs on the front door. One said, “This House is Ruled by Jesus,” the other, “Washington Slept Here.”
“Hurry up you two!” I heard Mrs. Christiansen holler. She was head of bible school at Saint Mary’s. “We’re going to be late!”
I thought about saying something since it looked like Paulie was suffocating, but I kept my mouth shut. I could hear him struggling.
“Shut your face, dickhead!” Andrew shouted. “Or I’ll piss on you, you little piece of shit!” He pummeled his brother’s head until he started to cry.
Andrew Christiansen had a mean nickname for everyone. He called me Chunk because I was chubby and it sounded like chink. He called Rosemary Rowie the Retard, Sped Ed, and Fugly Face.
The first time I met him he pointed at me and asked Rosemary, “Is she sped ed too?”
“No! She’s normal!” she cried.
We both suspected Andrew was probably the one who set the pine trees around my house on fire one Mischief Night, but there was no way to prove it.
Next, I walked past Jeff O’Donnell’s house. He was in his living room watching TV above the honeysuckle bushes where Rosemary and I used to hide and spy on him. There was a time when we had both been in love with him forever. We’d sit there for hours hoping to hear him say our name.
Eventually I got to the woods and stopped by the pond. My mother wasn't there. On a tree, someone had nailed a handmade sign with the word “Danger” on it. I dug into the snow, found a rock and tossed it. It made a twanging sound across the surface. I threw another rock and then another, each time harder. Why won’t it crack? I thought. And then: Would she really go without saying goodbye?
I placed one foot on the ice, then the other, skating away from the edges toward the center. I hopped lightly and waited. Nothing. I jumped. Still nothing. Then again harder until the ice began to crack.
“Hey! That’s dangerous! Don’t do that!” a voice called out.
It was Mrs. Anderson with her dog, Bowser. Bowser sniffed the air. She frowned at me.
“You get off there right now before you hurt yourself, young lady,” she said.
She was a big woman, even bigger in the winter with her heavy coat on, looking like a cross between Jabba the Hut and Chewbacca. My toes felt numb. I stared down at them, and didn't budge.
She called out again and made wild gestures with her arms like the world’s shittiest mime. “You. Get. Off. Ice. Now. Do. You. Under-stand?”
“Home. You go. Now,” she said.
I just stood there. When she turned her back to me and started to walk away, I gave her the finger.
Rosemary and I met in first grade. She was my first friend and only real friend. She was one of the only kids who never asked me “What are you? Black, Spanish or what?” or “Say something in your language” or “Where are you from?” or “Do you know karate?” or “What does ching-chong-ching-chong mean?” while pulling back their eyelids. Rosemary always said we were twins, even though she was skinny, tall, had soft hazel eyes (one lazy eye that I thought was so cool, good for spying), a big nose and long red hair. I was short, fat, with a flat nose, black hair (always in a bowl cut, thanks to my mother), and thick glasses.
During recess in second grade, while the other kids played on monkey bars, we hid behind the dumpster and trained to be spies. We bit as hard as we could on each other’s fingers to strengthen our ability to handle pain. One day she said, “Bite harder! Pretend you’re really torturing me!” I bit down on her finger so hard she started to bleed. Then we laughed so loud the principal caught us. He called our mothers and we both got spanked.
Rosemary and I also trained to be Jedi knights. We took turns punching her giant inflatable Bozo the Clown every day after school. We practiced knocking out our enemies.
Pow! Take that Andy Christiansen!
Pow! Take that Mary McManus! (She would never let us play Charlie’s Angels with her because she said “you guy are too ugly.”)
One day Jeff O’Donnell and his friends cornered us at recess behind the dumpster. He said to Rosemary, “I hear you like me,” and before we could say anything, he and his friends pinned Rosemary against the side of the bin and felt her up. Then he whispered in my ear, “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you,” before walking away. We never told any grown ups. We didn't think they would believe us, and even if they did, we didn’t think they would care. We figured they probably would never bother to question someone as popular as Jeff O’Donnell, and we were probably right.
Pow! Take that Jeff O’Donnell!
A week after Rosemary moved away, I found a note she had written in one of my notebooks before she left. Best memory: Hazlet drive-in watching Star Wars eating Dots and Twizzlers, and of course, Pop Rocks. I’m glad we tried them with Coke and we didn’t explode! That was wicked. But it would have been cool to see you explode. Psyche! Just kidding. Best friends forever, Rosemary. P.S.: May the force be with you!
It took me over half an hour to walk through the woods and then along the highway to get to the diner. The whole time I was on the road, my heart was racing thinking about how hard my mother would spank me if she caught me walking to the diner alone. The fear kept me focused on getting there quickly and my mind off the cars and tractor trailers roaring by me.
Meanwhile, I was trying to think like Harriet the Spy, wondering if my mother had left us any clues. Had I noticed any signs before that my mother was acting differently? Then I remembered something I had apparently blocked out. A few months before, I was home from school one day with a cold. I was alone in the house and I was bored and decided to rummage in her closet when I found her special tin box. It was an old chocolate tin she had kept since she was a little girl. Sometimes she would show me what was in it: a peacock pin my grandmother gave her, old corsages from school dances, and shiny red seeds that were all the rage when she was young, tokens of love from suitors who put them in envelopes with letters to her. I knew I wasn't allowed to open the box without her permission, but I figured she would never know. That day I discovered something else inside—beneath the piece of velvet lining the bottom of the box were photos of my mother, recent ones. In them she was wearing a black pencil skirt and a fluffy white sweater, leaning against a willow tree. A light pink scarf was tied at her throat. In most of the photos she was smiling and gazing into the distance. But in one she was staring right into the lens, bursting with laughter. It bothered me seeing my mother like that, so happy. I knew that at the time, we didn’t own a camera. My father used to have a camera when we first moved to Jersey but when he refused to move us back to Flushing even after my mother begged, she smashed it with a bat.
That night, when my mother came home from work, I was going to ask her about where the pictures had come from, and who took them. She was standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror, glowing from the shower. She pulled the skin on her face outward, temporarily smoothing out the light wrinkles. “Sophie,” she said without looking at me. “Go bring mama the sesame oil.” I paused. “Did you hear me?" she said in English. "Be guai, good girl. Go get it. Hurry.”
I brought her the oil and watched her spread it along her neck, elbows, and corners of her mouth, as she sang her favorite Deng Li Jun song.
Ni wen wo ai ni you duo shen, wo ai ni you ji fen; wo de qing ye zhen, wo de ai ye zhen; yue liang dai biao wo de xin.
My father was working late again that night tutoring.
“Can you get my back?” she asked. I spilled a bit on my fingers and kneaded the small dimpled area at the base of her spine. She smelled delicious, like something cooking. “Guai guai,” she said. Then she kissed me on the cheek and started singing again.
You ask me how deep my love is for you, how much I love you; my feelings are true, my love is true; the moon represents my heart…
Before I saw those photos, I had always thought she was singing that song for me, to me, but at that moment I wasn’t so sure.
When I got to the diner, I felt like collapsing. I could barely feel my ears or fingertips. Still, I thought to myself, I did it! I made it to the diner all by myself! I searched the parking lot for our car, a faded blue Duster with all the hubcaps missing (they kept getting stolen every time we went to Chinatown, so my father stopped replacing them). I found the car parked behind the large Red Oak Diner sign.
Inside the place smelled like eggs, bacon, coffee, and marinara sauce. It was still early, only a few old people were eating. I didn’t see my mother. I sat down at the counter. Maybe she’s in the bathroom, I thought. Mandy was there behind the counter. She was one of my mom’s only friends in town. She had a chest the size of Mount Rushmore and bleached blonde hair piled high. Around that time, she started having everyone call her Raquel, after Raquel Welch. “Because I’m a perfect ten,” she’d say.
The last time I was there was over the summer. My mother hardly let us visit her because she said it made her nervous to see us at work. She never wanted us to go there on her days off either. “Why would I want to be at work if I’m not paid for work?” she asked me once when I tried to convince her to take me to dinner there. They had the best spaghetti and meatballs.
“Sophie!” Mandy looked surprised. Her face went a little pale. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for my mom.”
She paused. “She ain’t here. How’d you get here?”
“You fucking walked?”
The cook peeked his head through the pick-up window. His name was Franco and he looked like Vinnie Barbarino.
“Hey, Sophie!” He was sweating, face red from the heat. “You got so big, kid! You just missed your mom. She left with a friend.”
“Friends,” Mandy said, cutting him a look, but by now I could tell she was lying.
After feeding me pancakes and bacon, Mandy drove me home. She let me sit in the front seat, smoking the whole way and occasionally looking over at me with sad eyes. We had to stop at the entrance of our street because the snow had piled too high to get through. She was quiet for a few minutes and then handed me some car keys. “They’re for your father,” she said, and then, “don’t ever walk to the diner alone again, okay?” she said. I nodded. Then she hugged me real tight and drove away.
Heading up the block, I heard the Chrisiansten boys. I guess their mom didn’t end up getting them to bible school after all, I thought. They were whipping all the other neighborhood kids with snowballs. Even Paulie was getting throws in. Then Andrew noticed me and started throwing snowballs my way. “Get the Chunk!” Andrew shouted. I locked eyes with him and thought about my mom, and Rosemary. I started running, as fast as I could. In my layers of winter clothes, with my stubby legs, heavy boots, and fogged up glasses, somehow I managed to dodge every snowball they threw at me.
I never understood why Rosemary was in the “slow” class and took the little bus. To me she was super smart. And unlike most kids, she was almost always happy. In fact she smiled a lot, even when she was just spacing out and thinking. Some people said it made her look dumb. I thought it made her look cute.
We were the only kids on the block whose mothers worked. I kept my key under the doormat. She kept hers under a brick. Her mother used to be an Avon lady but got fired for stealing. Later she worked in the pickle department at Old Wagon Farm but got fired again for coming to work drunk.
My mother was fired once too, from Two Guys. Her boss said he needed to move her off the floor “because people can’t understand you with your accent.”
“Go fuck yourself and this stupid job!” she said, spitting in his face. “You understand me now?”
The day after I got my new record player for my birthday, Rosemary and I played my Queen record over and over. Side A was “We are the Champions.” Side B: “We Will Rock You.” We jumped on my bed for hours until my father came home.
“You’ll break the bed!” my father yelled. But we didn’t hear him, we were singing so loudly.
Dodging the snowballs, I kept running up the street thinking: I'm going to find Rosemary and I'm going to find my mom. They’re out there somewhere. And also: Rosemary, look at me running like a super spy! They can’t get me! I wish you could see me!
When I got back to the house my father was sitting on the couch. He was holding a piece of paper in his hands. I wondered if it was a note from my mother but I didn't say anything. His eyes were red.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
“Outside,” I said.
“What were you doing?”
I worried that he would question what I was doing outside alone for so long. But instead he helped me get out of all my clothes, his hands shaking.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. I nodded.
The snow began falling harder. The light outside turned soft and white. I didn't tell him about how I’d walked to the diner by myself, or that our car was in the parking lot, or that Franco said mom had left with a friend. I didn’t even mention the car keys that were still in my jacket pocket. Or the photos in the tin box.
From the way the church bells outside our house were going off at once, you’d have thought Jesus himself was about to parachute down at any moment.
“Your mother,” my father said. His voice trailed then cracked. “She went…out.”
We sat at the table in our usual seats, each facing a window where the snow was now almost as high as the window sills.
We sat with our bowls in front of us, stirring the zhou in silence before we began to eat.
After we finished, my father started clearing the table.
“We should save her some,” I said. So we did.
But she didn’t come home that day, or the next day or the next, or the day after that. The few times I asked my father about my mother, like where she was or when she would be coming home, he would sigh and make up some version of the same lie that we both knew was a lie. I don’t remember his exact words but it was something like, “She’s spending time with some friends who need her help right now.”
My father had told her before they left Taiwan, “When you get to America, you can have whatever you want. Complete freedom.” He told her she didn’t have to have children. She could go to art school. He would pay for her to go to art school. Maybe in America she could become a famous artist.
Soon after we moved to Middletown, my mother started to smash things. She smashed lamps, dishes, the phone, the screen door, you name it. “Why should I even bother living?” she would shout.
Rosemary would notice that we often had new things in our house. “You’re so lucky,” she’d say.
My father and I would wait until my mother cried herself to sleep and then clean up the shattered pieces. In the morning he would replace what had been broken.
“It’s her way of showing love,” he would explain to me. “She’s very passionate. She’s Hunanese. It’s not her fault.”
My mother came back three months later when the snow had melted. The crocuses were up. She looked thinner. Half of her permed hair was straight at the crown. I could see the first hints of gray. Her skin seemed brittle. She looked more tired than I’d ever seen her before.
A woman I didn’t recognize had dropped her off in our driveway along with one suitcase. As my mother walked into our house, my father’s eyes widened and then his face crumpled like he was about to cry. He blinked and nodded at her, before helping to carry her suitcase.
“Sophie,” she said softly, and gave me a little smile. “You got taller.”
“Where have you been?” I asked.
"Sophie!” my father snapped. “If she wants to tell us, she’ll let us know.”
My mother looked around our place as if seeing it for the first time. “I have a friend,” she murmured. “A friend who needed me. I had to go help.”
I had so many questions for her. I also wanted to shout and scream at her but I knew that that moment wasn’t the time, that there was never going to be a chance for that time.
In that one suitcase was her painting. And a few pieces of clothing and toiletries. Everything else was gone: her jewelry, the mink coat, the butterflies, even my doll.
My father hung the painting up that night, and we never talked about what had happened again.
Zhou (also known as Congee)
Recipe taken from "What to Cook Today"
200 gr Jasmine rice
Water or stock see rice to liquid ratio below
Salt to taste
Rice to Liquid ratio
For very thick porridge: Rice to liquid ratio is 1:7
For thick porridge: Rice to liquid ratio is 1:8
For medium-thick porridge: Rice to liquid ratio is 1:9 (I like to use this ratio)
For medium-thin congee: Rice to liquid ratio is 1:10
Prepare the rice: Just briefly rinse the rice for any impurities. You may not even need to do so because some brands have prewashed the rice Place the rice and water in a medium-large pot.
Cooking zhou on the stove:
Bring the water/stock to a boil and then lower the heat and add the rice. Bring it back to a boil and then lower the heat to medium to let it gently simmer for about 25-30 minutes, stirring every now and then to prevent the rice catching at the bottom of the pot. The rice grains will slowly release more starch and get smoother and creamier starting at about 20 minutes or so.
If you are adding meat like chicken, beef, pork, fish, add only after the porridge has thickened. Add them in at this point and stir until they are cooked through. Season with salt to your taste and serve immediately while the porridge is hot.
The longer the porridge sits, the thicker it will get. You can always thin it out by adding more water or stock.