"Sit down and eat!" she instructed with a smile, when the final plate was set down. Waipo is still a gifted cook, with a light touch. The tofu was rich and faintly fishy and full of ginger; the vegetables were crisp and vinegary; a dish of stewed lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice was sugar-sweet. The final flourish was a plate of hairy crabs--boiled with yellow plugs of ginger to remove their freshwater taste--served with a side of dark vinegar for dipping.
Everything we ate was brought by Yipo, and Waipo seemed mostly pleased with her shopping. "In Qingpu, we never cared about what kind of clothes we'd wear," she explained, "but we always had to have the best food. Our crabs are always excellent. But this fish is too old."
Then we cracked open the crabs, separating feathery legs and mossy claws from their bodies. We shimmied meat from their appendages and broke their carapaces in half to reveal glistening orange eggs. Eating hairy crabs, like lifting the world's largest country out of poverty, is a study in determination.
As we ate, Waipo talked about the family she left behind. "My father was good to the peasants whom he leased the land to, and so when the Communists took over they helped him hide. Still, in the 1960s they had a very difficult time. People found out their identity, and it was very bad to have family that had fled to Taiwan. Suddenly, they were forced to hide their past from everyone. To be someone else."
The shells piled up on the table, mostly in tiny fragments that you let drop discreetly from mouth to plate. These hairy crabs--a crustacean that I'm not usually fond of--were delicious when dunked in the sharp vinegar. The meat was sweet and didn't taste of murk, and the roe was luxuriously fatty.
The great military parade continued to float past on the television, and firecrackers rudely interrupted Waipo as she talked. "Life might have gotten better for some, but not for us. My parents became peasants, my sister was raised in a difficult time. Everything changed." Then she looked up and smiled with surprise, as if she'd just found something special that was hidden away.
"The last time I saw my father was in a photograph. The photograph was smuggled to Hong Kong, and then someone brought it to us in Taiwan. He was dressed in the blue worker's uniform. And he held a piece of cardboard in front of him, with three characters written on it. All it said was Wo Xiang Ni--I miss you."
Though we'd all finished eating long before, Waipo was still picking through the shells, searching for a few forgotten pieces of meat. Tomorrow, her sister would come with more.
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