My earliest memory of Shanghai is eating stinky tofu with my cousin. Smothered with scalding chili paste – my cousin and I grimace as the oily paste dribbles down our mouths. It felt incredibly warm.
My father and I make our way to my cousin’s home in Shanghai – one of the most prosperous district in the city.
My last act with Jing Jing was that time we fought over our grandmother’s abacus; both of us ended in tears with a little me yelling “I want to go home! I never want to come to China again!” and now I am standing right outside the very apartment those words were repeated in. I ring the door bell once and almost immediately the large oaken door opens slowly. A mop of black hair peeks out from behind the door; revealing thick glasses hiding the dark brown eyes of a skinny, lanky, mini version of myself. Mini-me waddled at me with her incredibly large feet.
Adults bustle around balancing tea, pulling suitcases apart, making sleeping arrangements and schedules for the next few weeks, I inspect my smaller carbon copy; Jing Jing’s hair was cut into a bob that peeled back where her ears ended. Dark eye-bags hang from eyes that speaks of hours of studying. The only curvature on her feminine body is her hunched back as she slouches over her books.
“How western you look cousin,” she smiles feebly, eyeing me up and down.
I look western? Her words were strange to me. Growing up as an Asian in Australia I had always being treated by my white friends as a token Asian. I felt that I behaved in an Asian way, and that was a stereotyped I was comfortable with. In a second I realized the irony that what I consider to be ʻbeing Asian (frilly dresses, Japanese brands) is considered by Jing Jing to be being western.
Her comment catches me off guard and for a moment I am lost in thought. In an almost atypically Australian gesture I hug her. Jing Jing is as stiff as a board, her own physical response as impassive as my lack of a verbal one.
Dad’s voice trails behind us. “Why don’t you two go and hang out instead of standing in the way like two useless pieces of blocks.”
Nan-Jing Road, the heart of Shanghai. There is a strange reverence of all things American here in the home of communism. Through the sea of flashing Louis Vuitton and Gucci shop logos I spy the familiar comfort of Starbucks. The green logo was an oasis amongst a desert of hostile glowing neon. I took Jing Jingʼs small clammy hand and tugged her towards the smell of molten Arabica. Unexpectedly there was a willful resistance, like I was tugging a goat towards a slaughter shed.
I gave her a “whatʼs wrong?” rise of my eye brows.
“… …”, she protested. As eloquent as always.
“Its Starbucks!” I exclaimed loudly.
I could see her rolling her eyes – the intent was sarcastic, but to me it look like she was about to faint on the sidewalk. “Come on!” I tugged her forcibly this time, and dragged her into the shop like a rag doll. We make our order and the barista leaves. Jing Jing turned to look at me with an expression of such misery that I was taken aback by the intensity of someone so usually meek. We sat in silence and waiting for the frappe.
“I hate it here,” she mutters, “Why did you come to China just to visit a western coffee shop?”
We leave the shop. Cousin stands there without a word, and I have no words to comfort her. Despite our similar cocoons, we are as different as butterfly and moth . I consider walking home, or even walking off and leaving her when a familiar smell permeates the air.
“Do you smell that?” I ask. She nods.
We track the smell down to a stall in between two blossoming department stores. An old man is frying copper coloured tofu in a wok of sizzling oil. Delicious smells spell through the air. On one side, a pot of thick congruous paste sit quietly with flavoured anticipation.
Despite every Australian cell in my body protesting against this affront to modern hygiene standards I order a box of the stinky tofu. We find a bench and sit down with the steaming box in our hands. One tooth pick each we pick out the chili chunks and take a bite.
The flavour hits like a truck. More so than my nostrils closing in protest and my tongue exploding into flame I am reminded of a younger me sitting with cousin on a bench gobbling stinky tofu. Details emerge – it was a cold day, we were freezing our hands off when we came across a cart vendor. We used our pocket money to buy a box and sneak behind the park to eat it. The tofu was warm and savoury, the stink made my eyes water as much as the chili. Despite the freezing cold, it was incredibly heartwarming.
I look at my cousin guiltily. Jing Jing looks up from her tofu. Her eyes were a little guilty as well. For a moment I feel the connection we once shared, and make a note not to forget it.