by Lauren Underberg
"It’s as ordinary a place as you remembered—set in a sunburnt shopping center above an Asian market—although you hadn’t anticipated sitting up on the stage."
It’s as ordinary a place as you remembered—set in a sunburnt shopping center above an Asian market—although you hadn’t anticipated sitting up on the stage. Usually, it was reserved for a big birthday or family reunion, and you suppose it was technically both, but you follow the waiter as he weaves his way to the very back of the room. From there, you can see the entire restaurant—circular tables curving outwards, waiters pushing carts piled high with meat buns and dumpling steamers, Mandarin and Cantonese and English and a little Spanish running together, until falling in a steady wave at the foot of the stage, then drawing back out.
They arrived soon after you did, your Gung Gung helping your Poh Poh up the stairs as she waved off your mom, spotting you with a big smile.
“Luh-len!” she said, like over the phone. “Hao-ah-you?”
Next arrived Uncle Raymond, your mom’s favorite—when they’d lived in Hong Kong, he’d take her and her siblings to the park and tell them scary stories before they went to sleep.
Aunt Becky (whose daughter is your mom’s cousin, or better known as the one with ten mil’, a spray tan, and enough plastic surgery to be an Asian Jennifer Lopez) was third. She brings you perfume and a brand-new watch.
Last but not least was Crazy Uncle Alex—retired Wendy’s chain tycoon, now part-time Uber driver—striding in with a box of gourmet cookies, each one bigger than your hand. You set it across the empty chairs on the side, completing the circle.
It’s not the usual round-up from your childhood—technically speaking, they’re either your great-uncle or aunt, but you’d only met Uncle Alex three years ago, and you hadn’t seen the other two since a baby or ever at all. Technically, you were supposed to see them with the rest of your family here in a week, on your Gung Gung’s seventy-fifth birthday. Technically, your mom and her sister are still Facebook friends, but only in the sense that she can’t see your mom’s posts drowning in her feed of the latest Coach bag or vacation selfie with Wannabe Jennifer Lopez.
Technically, you’re officially unofficially estranged.
In rapid succession, your mom reads off the order, confirming with your relatives before dictating to the waiter, who plucks your menus in a fanlike revolution and steps off the stage. They resume their conversation in Cantonese, bickering back and forth. Mainly, you just stare into space until your mom breaks the conversation for you to share or agree with something. She smiles, and you nod. Nod and nod.
The first round of food arrives, and your Gung Gung places a rice noodle roll—ha cheung—on your plate, and then another one.
“Oh—uhm-goi,” you thank him, smile. Fiddle with chopsticks.
“—and my dog,” Uncle Alex is saying, swiping through pictures of a fluffy bichon frisé on a chaise lounge.
“Oh, your new apartment?” your mom says, and he hands over his colossal iPhone.
“Private pool, all to myself.” He nods, sitting back. The ha cheung falls off your chopsticks.
“Pool and puppy,” Uncle Raymond tuts, sipping from his tea. “Ooh.”
Uncle Alex mutters something, launching on a tirade. Your mom glances between them, smiling, shaking her head. She whispers translations to you, including the curse words.
“—like a fat buddha. He’s just sorry he doesn’t have a life!” Uncle Alex says, grinning.
“I have a son and wife,” Uncle Raymond says, and Uncle Alex’s mouth folds back into a line as he stares at the pictures on his phone.
“He’s still in Brooklyn?” your mom asks. You give up on the chopsticks.
He nods. “Visited him last month—starting to travel again.” He taps on his phone to show two flights.
“Oh, Seoul! She—”
“And Auckland,” he says.
“—loves BTS, don’t you?” She smiles, nudging you.
You laugh a little loudly. He blinks.
“You should speak to Uncle Raymond—I’ve been trying to teach her Cantonese this summer because she wanted to learn—you remember, tell him what your name is.”
You stare at her, betrayed, but she nudges you again, so you piece together a smile that comes out more like a grimace. Uncle Raymond watches expectantly.
“Lei goh…mei—no. Uh.” You stare at the table. “Mei goh…hai…”
You flail for something hollow. His expression returns blank.
You sigh. “I don’t know.”
Your mom laughs. “Ai-yah, it’s because I put her on the spot. My Cantonese is so bad anyway, kindergarten level, right, Ma? Ma.”
“Hah?” Your Poh Poh looks up from the teapot.
“Remember? You named her ‘Lok-yee.’”
“Oh, yeh.” She chuckles. “‘Hahp-py-girl.’”
Both of which you’re pretty convinced you’ve failed at. You smile.
“Lok-yee, Man-yee,” Uncle Alex chants. Your mom’s name.
“She said it sounds like ‘lucky money,’” she says, laughing, mostly to silence.
Your Gung Gung grins, patting your shoulder. “You and yoh mohm ah very lucky, hah?”
Chuckling, he picks a meat bun with his hands to take a bite. You throw down your chopsticks and do the same.
“When did you get in?” Aunt Becky asks.
“Oh, just yesterday afternoon. We met up with them” —your mom gestures to your Poh
Poh and Gung Gung, as rehearsed— “and my brother and his kids yesterday.”
“Oh, but no Belinda?” Aunt Becky’s magnified eyes dart between the two of you carefully.
Your mom sighs into her response. “It’s…complicated. I just wanted to come up here once everything settled down, you know? I haven’t since—”
“2019,” you say, and everyone glances at you momentarily.
“Before we moved back,” your mom concludes. “Besides, we’re here for them.”
Aunt Becky nods solemnly. Uncle Alex picks between his teeth.
A server comes around once more, leaving yellow tarts on the Lazy Susan. Your mom’s face lights up.
“You should try this—it’s like an egg tart that I used to eat as a kid. Oh, ma’am—could we get some spoons? Uhm-goi.”
Daan tat. It melts in your mouth.
About the Writer...
Lauren Underberg is a junior in the Creative Writing department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Their work appears in the department’s student-run literary magazine, Cadence. They have been referred to as a long-distance runner on multiple occasions, which basically means they'll never write a short short story in their life.