My eyes bulged at the two empty sockets of the head that poked through the buk-choi. It was a “traditional” dish of rabbit stew braised with large red chili peppers. I’ve had rabbit before but seldom had it looked at me so pleadingly.
My chopsticks trembled between my fingers.
“Darling, have some of the breast meat, it’s the best part.”
The sludgy stew gurgled into my bowl, and the strong scent of the chilli made my stomach churn. I glimpsed father’s face; he had his “eat-it-or-else” expression on. I poked the rabbit gingerly, pretending it was chicken. I tried to swallow without tasting it, but unfortunately it was too spicy. My eyes watered as I glanced from father’s satisfied face to my auntie’s joyous smile.
I am traveling with my parents in Fu-jian. It’s our ancestral home, father says, even if it is an estranged one.
Around me, chickens scratched in the dirt-caked floor for scraps. The air was polluted with a stink that pervaded my senses. Patches of black and unidentifiable brown spots embellished the grey walls like a tapestry. A battered bucket was placed near the stove to catch the drips that fell from the leaking roof. The dingy old stove accompanied by a rusting sink were the only furnishings in the room, except for a tiny oak table much too small for the twelve of us. My eyes traced the designs on the oak carved by the many generations of children past.
My cousin, snot-nosed Lin Hong, was gazing at me with large liquid eyes. His hand slowly but inevitably moved towards me, clutching some alien creature in his grubby hand. Opening it, I saw some form of local fauna squirming in his palm.
I placed a beckoning hand on my father’s arm. My uncle barked a command and Lin Hong retreated.
I felt shocked and appalled.
My eyes met fathers’, silently pleading for him to take me away from this grotty ghetto of horrors. He laughed loudly and narrated some inane rhetoric.
“When I was a kid…”
I rolled my eyes.
I dreamt of life in the modern world back in Sydney, my iPod, my soft cushions, my McDonald’s. The bed here was a poor excuse for a mattress, and every night I could feel the chill from the ground penetrating my bones.
Even my dog at home slept more comfortably than that.
“Con-nee,” said my aunt giddily, “We made something I think you will enjoy.” I closed my eyes , fervently hoping she hadn’t cooked me rat or a dog. She placed a white porcelain bowl in front of me. I smelt the familiar waft of spaghetti bolognaise and opened my eyes.
“Wow.” I replied with genuine surprise. “Thanks Gu-gu.”
I eagerly dug my chopsticks into the heavenly ball of saucy noodles and mince. While it was not exactly Italian, it certainly had the homely taste of the spaghetti I was accustomed to. I twirled my chopsticks and gathered a large ball of dripping, delicious noodles. Placing it in my mouth, I felt the flavour hit my taste buds like a rolling wave of pleasure.
“This is delicious, Gu-gu,” I mumbled, my mouth full. “Thank you.”
My father nodded approvingly, and my aunt beamed with delight. On my right, my mother picked up her chopsticks and sampled a dash of my spaghetti.
“This is really nice,” she said. “It’s just how one of our local restaurants make it. What did you make it with?”
“I had half of the rabbit left over, so I made some mince out of it.” My aunty replied
At once I felt a shuddering sensation in the pit of my stomach. My chest tightened and my mouth clamped shut as I tried not to expel the half-chewed noodles. A drop of sauce dribbled from the corner of my lips. Rigidly I made my jaws masticate what was left, and gulped the mouthful down.
The rest of the contents of my bowl was still there, however. My glance at my father spoke volumes.
He had that “eat-it-or-else” face on again.
I force-fed myself my auntie’s rabbit spaghetti, my eyes watering in sorrow for the fluffy animal that now dwelled in my bowel. I imagined myself as a tragic heroine forced to endure endless hours of torture to please her unsympathetic family.
“I asked the chef at the local hotel restaurant for the recipe.” My aunty informed us with an accomplished smile.
“Isn’t the Hyatt in the city?” My father asked.
The hotel was at least a three hour drive away at least. My Gu Gu did not own a car. I pondered this for a moment, and knotted some more of the spaghetti onto my chopsticks.
“I really appreciate this,” I said to my aunty. I imagined my aunt making her way across the hills and valleys of Fu-Jian, the roads dusty and hot. I wolfed the rest down eagerly, putting on a show for my aunty to show my appreciation. The rabbit be damned, this is family, I told myself.
“You spent a day getting a recipe.” My mother commented incredulously.
My aunty looked at my mother in confusion.
“Not really,” she said, “I just called the kitchen.” she replied quizzically.
I swallowed the last bite. The pleading face of the bunny surfaced before my empty bowl.