Our recipes and stories, delivered.

November 2, 2017
A Kind of Hunger

A fictional story about craving the flavors of Taiwan in America during the 1950s.

After we left New York City, David wanted to show me America. With heaps of cash he bought a Buick, and we filled it up: spare change, aluminum foil gum wrappers smelling of wintergreen, empty bags of potato chips, our clothing thrown on the backseat, our sweat seeping into the fabric. I didn’t know a place could be so big, or that one piece of land could be so different from one place to the next. It was mountains and jagged red holes in one place and flat as a steel plate in another. In Kaohsiung, things were sea-foam green, and if they weren’t sea-foam green, they were gray-black sand, and if they weren’t gray-black sand, they were the color of banana leaves drying in the sun, or the wet crimson of a bar girl’s mouth. In America people were the color of milk and the inside of a split piece of wood, dark as char, smooth as caramel. From state to state there were more souvenirs than I could fit in the tote bag that we’d purchased for that very reason, each souvenir representing a state or monument we visited while I said, “Beautiful,” and I said this about everything with honesty.

My mouth hurt from speaking English. The muscles around my lips and my cheeks ached. In my dreams voices stretched into long, silly words that meant nothing, and I woke up saying “milk” or “glass” before tumbling back into the sleep of nonsense dreamers. Soon I vomited over and over at the side of the road while David reached over and rubbed my damp neck, and then I craved all kinds of things: hot buns filled with pork, cold and briny seaweed, red bean popsicles. The sudden craving was monstrous, like a thing already in my mouth that could not be tasted or swallowed and just between my frozen teeth with a jaw stuck open, and my longing for these foods was not a longing in my stomach but something jammed deep in my throat. I awoke in fancy motels with mouthfuls of blood, the insides of my cheeks chewed ragged and raw, and I spat and spat into porcelain basins while clutching my belly. David said, over and over, “Oh, sweetheart.” He understood the vomiting as morning sickness and something that all women experienced in pregnancy.

He understood the mood swings as common, and understandable for a biological process that would result in the production of a human being who was our baby and our joint accomplishment. He washed the blood out of my pillowcases. He stroked my hair, and I loved him. And yet I continued to vomit everything that I put into my mouth, my throat hot as my eyes watered and burst bloodshot, until finally I pushed away a basket of french fries that sat before me in a blue-and-white-checkered diner, where the flies landed and rose, and I was resolute: I would not, and could not, eat those french fries, hamburgers, or bowls of chili any longer. If I continued, I would vomit until the baby, whom I suspected was a boy because of his sense of entitlement, dried up in my womb. But how could I explain this? Instead I said, “I am not hungry.” In fact, I was hungrier than I had ever been in Kaohsiung.

I drank milk. I could have cold milk from bottles through a straw like a child, and our baby would not force it back up. David bought a dairy crate and put it in the backseat. Every hour he reached behind his seat and handed me a sweaty bottle, from which I drank while watching the scenery. Still, I craved the taste of things I couldn’t have, including their delicate saltiness, the unique pillow of a 包子 crushed flat between the tongue and the roof of the mouth, and in my hunger and bloody craving the milk took a pink tinge to it, reminding me of the strawberry milkshakes I no longer wanted.

“You need to eat,” David said. He dragged me from diner to diner. All the names ran into one another. “You need meat. Vegetables.” I shook my head, starving, teeth itching.

We were at a truck stop near Eugene, Oregon, with lights that flickered like sleeping eyelids. I sat in front of a closed menu and a glass. I didn’t want milk. I was, in fact, tired of that clotted feeling on my tongue and the mucus it formed in the back of my throat. I was exhausted from not eating, and David seemed exhausted, too, as he blinked and blinked.

“Why don’t you take a look at the menu?” he said. He hadn’t asked me to look at a menu in days.

I opened it. I looked at the words. They were all the same words that I’d seen in every other diner in America. I closed it. David asked me what I wanted. The restaurant shimmered, felt dangerous. I said, “A hamburger.”

The hamburger came. It was the size of my hand, and the top had a crease like the inside bend of an elbow. Even thinking about it made my stomach lift. I looked at the limp pink tomato inside, the pale lettuce. I moved my hand from my lap as if to touch it, or to pick it up, and then, under no will of my own, the hand lifted and pushed the plate away. Whip-fast, David reached out and grabbed my wrist. This is it, I thought. I went limp with his hand wrapped around my wrist, which grabbed so tight and held me for so long that I thought my fingers would go numb. David let go. Finally he said, wearily, “I don’t understand.”

Of course he didn’t understand. We didn’t understand each other except when we were touching, and neither one of us could crawl into the guts of the other. But the pain in my arm woke me.

I said, “Our baby does not want America food.”

“Our baby doesn’t. What does our baby want? Does our baby want Taiwan’s food?”

I nodded.

He tugged at his hair. I was sure that he would leave me. The lights continued to flicker. The air filled with late-night smoke. “All right,” he said. “Well, we’re not going to get it here.” He raised his hand for the check.

Our journey, once slow and meandering, became hurried as he drove to San Francisco, the Old Golden Mountain. I drank milk in the passenger seat to survive and filled the backseat with empty bottles that tumbled and clanked at sharp turns, but I did not vomit, and he only stopped at truck stops to buy himself burgers, which he ate one-handed with ketchup dripping down his palm while driving south. We went through the never-ending grasses, which were fields, and I dreamed hazy dreams of the boy growing and snarling inside of my belly.

David persuaded the owner of the Hotel Grande Royal to let us live in the penthouse for as long as we could pay. I never saw money change hands, but we stayed in room 333 until William slipped out of me, howling, on March 8, 1955, in the four-post bed.

Our room was as extravagant as the Nowaks’ brown stone house had been. A velvety parlor beside the bedroom, crammed with knickknacks—coral-colored crystal vases, tins filled with spiced potpourri. The same delicate, reflective surfaces all over, forming mirrors upon infinite mirrors. A pink chandelier. A grandfather clock that did not chime, but loomed in a corner with a grave face. The bed was its own marvel: four-poster, king-sized, with pillows piled atop layers of custard bedding. In that bed I could lie and look up at the tin ceiling, which yielded an unfurled and floral universe. We spent more time in that bed than we did anywhere else in that suite, including the claw-footed tub, the chaise longue, or the white sofa in the parlor. I would not be surprised if, when the maids finally entered almost a year later and stripped the bed of its comforter and sheets, the women saw the shapes of our bodies burned into the mattress. Why leave? Why would we want to?

The Hotel Grande Royal was six blocks, David told me, from Chinatown. Despite our proximity, I refused to see that Oriental facsimile for fear of my heart and liver being seduced by the old dream. No, best to write down the names of the dishes on a scrap of paper and have my white husband go and bring things back for me. Best to have David bring me the dishes the baby craved: oily bags of sweet 菠蘿包 for breakfast and 叉燒包 for lunch. The first thing that he brought back was a bamboo basket of soup dumplings, and, like a mutt, I took my basket of treats to the corner. With no concern about appearances, I sat on the chaise longue and lifted a saggy dumpling to my lips, barely getting the lukewarm 小籠包 to my lips before it burst and spilled hot juice down my chin and into the space between my swelling breasts. My eyes dampened, then wept. My shoulders shook with joy. I devoured 三杯雞 for three weeks, and then I craved 鹹魚雞粒炒飯, which took David three days to find; but the salt in those crumbs of fish on top of fried rice satisfied me more than that of any greasy paper boat of fries. David watched with fascination as I ate. He had eaten only street meats in Kaohsiung.

“Not salty crab?” I asked. “Not an oyster pancake?”

“No, no,” he said, “but you look so happy.”

We ate at the desk side by side. He ate his hamburgers and I ate my food from Chinatown. The food, though familiar, had a different flavor from what I was accustomed to; still, it was better than a hamburger, and I pitied David for his limited diet.

I ate and ate. My arms and legs remained slender while my belly swelled. No longer able to wear my dresses, I lounged in underwear with my hand splayed over my navel, and said that I was going to give birth to a boy the size of Formosa. In San Fran-cisco David laughed, and I delighted in being able to create that sound with my words. He laughed like a little girl, like a tickled child; it bubbled out of him in waves. He bought a radio and we slow-danced around the parlor as I waddled; he came home with different things every day: a dictionary, magazines with bright covers, red lipstick in a fancy tube. He pulled wrapped caramels out from behind his ear. He sang to me a Polish folk song, and I mimicked, “Matka, matka,” while pinching his thin nose.

I redoubled my efforts to learn English, paging through the dictionary and Life magazine. I kept a notebook of new words, as I had in Kaohsiung, and studied it daily as I circled entries in the dictionary. In September David’s words, and the strings of them, came to me more clearly, and then more often. Fall passed with little fuss, accompanied by a light breeze that we allowed through the window until the end of November. By December I was large enough that my back hurt with too much standing, so we lay in bed in a valley of pillows. He’d put his hand on my belly as he spoke in low, conversational tones: “I know that one day, Daisy, you’re going to be able to speak a lot of English, and we’re going to be able to have real conversations. I’m going to be able to ask you about your family, and you’ll tell me all about what it was like for you, growing up where you did. We’re going to have a real nice life together. You, me, and the baby.”

“I now can speak English well,” I said. “I now know what you say.”

“Good.” He ran his hand up and over the hill of my stomach. “That’s very good, lamb.”

Sometimes he would bend me over the bathroom sink and make love to me from behind, tilting my face upward so that I could watch myself in the small, speckled mirror, and I was always bewildered by what I saw. The solid white shape of the man behind me, with his ghostly golden hair, as well as my own careful expression, which then, predictably, erupted into a sexualized grimace, and then I would avert my eyes for the ugliness of it. With my pleasure came ugliness. I had to remember this, and yet it did me no good.

Esmé Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was called a Best Book of 2016 by NPR and one of the 25 Best Novels of 2016 by Electric Literature. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017, and is the recipient of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for her forthcoming essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, she lives in San Francisco, and can be found at esmewang.com and on Twitter @esmewang.