“Corona & A Side of Chow Mein”

Yakima Cuffy
  • Culture, family expectations and a passion for Chinese cuisine lead two unlikely lovers to develop a covert affair during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
18 min read

SOUP:

It is barely dawn, and the village of Layou is swallowed up in sleep and sea breeze. Tessa lays on her living room couch swiping indolently through the gallery on her phone. She lingers for a while on one photo in particular, from her nineteenth birthday exactly one year ago today. This is certainly not how she had envisioned herself spending her twentieth birthday, indoors, and alone as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. It has been twenty-seven days since the State of Emergency was declared in Dominica – twenty-seven days since she has last seen him. She glides her fingers over the screen of her cell phone to make the picture larger.

In this shot, she was a joyous shrine of pink taffeta, glitter nail polish, and box-braids. Her father was busy lighting candles on her double-layered red velvet cake, covered in buttercream icing and sugared roses. Her two best friends, Vern and Chelsea, blew her ditsy air kisses. In the backdrop, red and gold Chinese dragon figurines formed part of the décor. And there, beside a jade Buddha statue in the background stood a candid Xing, the young, quirky Chinese chef who caught her eye that night. His hair was the color of the midnight sky, his shoulders toned enough to perfectly fill out the crisp white button-down shirt he was wearing.

A girl with a penchant for adventure, the only thing that frightened Tessa Jones is the thought of having an ordinary or mundane life. She had been craving Chinese food and begged her father to try out “The Orient,” a new restaurant that had just opened in St. Joseph, for her birthday. Her friends had helped her scour the internet reading reviews of local Chinese restaurants. There was a branch of “The Orient” in Roseau that came highly recommended on Yelp. The family-operated restaurant recently expanded to cater to patrons from the new hotel chains along the island’s West Coast.

Tessa remembers their locked eyes as Xing walked over to their table holding a porcelain tray on each arm.

“Your orders are all ready. For the table, hot pot or huǒguō,” his sultry voice hummed.

Chelsea clapped gleefully as he placed the hot pot platter, an assortment of thinly sliced meats, wontons, and vegetables served raw, in front of them. Mr. Jones immediately began cooking a few slices of beef in the ying-yang skewer on the table by dipping them in the various broths, then flavoring them with his choice of condiments. The hot pot bubbled and hissed as he swirled a spinach wonton about in the spicy chili soup on one side of the skewer, followed by some carrot ribbons in the tangy soy broth on the other side. It was the quintessential interactive Chinese dining experience.

“And for the birthday girl, Peking duck or Běijīng kǎoyā with a dasheen and black bean stuffing and served with sticky white rice. It’s my personal spin on a classic Chinese dish.” Xing’s parlance was a strange bouillon of Cantonese and Dominican patois.

The aroma of her meal was intoxicating. The food was served on a dasheen leaf, adding to the allure. “It’s breathtaking,” said Tessa.

“Yes, you are,” he responded with a smirk, much to her father’s disapproval.

Mr. Jones cleared his throat, and the twenty-one-year-old chef uncomfortably rubbed his palms against his apron.

“Go ahead birthday girl, take a bite,” he invited her.

She nodded, then fiddled with her chopsticks until she managed to dip a slice of roast duck in the dasheen and black bean paste.

Xing hovered over her as she swallowed a mouthful. As if the seconds feel like light-years, “Well?” he asked.

Her mouth was a celebration of cultures, an explosion of flavor. She dabbed the corner of her lips with her kerchief. “Exquisite!”

Xing heaved a sigh of relief, then smiled the most charming smile. It was endearing, the way he seemed so badly to want to please her. Almost as if he was flirting with her. But Tessa knew this kind of thing was not acceptable. He was too different – her, too exotic. And so, she did not return his gaze.

Her heart sank somewhat as he walked away from them. Even from a distance, his strong back seemed to fill the room. She followed him with her eyes; behind the counter, then vanishing behind the saloon doors leading to the kitchen. From time to time throughout the night, she found herself searching the room for him. But he was nowhere to be found.

After their dinner, Tessa and her friends walked to the parking lot while Mr. Jones paid the bill. The amateur stomp of their heels against the pavement paid homage to their fragile teenaged confidence. Their playful chatter was interrupted when they found Xing leaning against her father’s car, his left arm bent behind his head and a white paper bag in his other hand.

She remembers the way her heart fluttered then when she saw his tall silhouette standing there. She wonders whether he is already awake.

 

APPETIZER:

There are not many things in life that excite Xing Yeung. At only twenty-two, he has already lived in four different countries and can speak two and a half languages. He has had his fair share of imposter syndrome, having moved to Dominica at the tender age of seven. It is a culture shock for anyone moving from one homogenous society to another, where you look nothing like the people around you. The fact that he has been home-schooled all of his life does not help either. As a result, his only friends are his sixteen-year-old sister, Jia, and his pet fish, Wen. But the night island girl Tessa walks into his father’s restaurant, Xing’s heart leaps with excitement.

It has been twenty-seven days since the State of Emergency was declared in Dominica – twenty-seven days since the last time he cooked for her. Today, he should be preparing her favorite meal for her on her birthday: tofu pineapple fried rice. Instead, as the sun rises, Xing is helping his mother in the restaurant’s kitchen, preparing for a brunch with his fiancé’s parents to discuss the wedding. He had warned his father that perhaps during a Corona pandemic was not a suitable time to plan a wedding. But naturally, Mr. Yeung insisted.

His father is grooming him to take over the family business – The Orient – a successful chain of restaurants in China and Dominica. Mr. Yeung’s plan is to send his son off to business school next year, after the wedding. But Xing has no desire to study economics or run the business. His passion is cooking. The kitchen is where his soul comes alive. So when his parents opened a new branch of “The Orient” in St. Joseph, he saw it as the perfect opportunity to challenge himself as a chef away from his father’s watchful eye.

Of course, Chinese boys ought not to have their own dreams, as this would be considered insolence. They must live the lives their parents have designed for them. And so, Xing cannot tell his parents that he wants to go to culinary school. He also cannot tell them that he does not wish to marry his betrothed, Gengi Chen, the daughter of a fellow Chinese business owner in Roseau. He absolutely cannot tell them about the woman he is in love with – a Westerner, a Black Westerner for that matter. That would be outrageous. But with Tessa, he feels like he can have the life he always dreamed of, despite the odds.

He recalls the way she smiled uncontrollably when she found him waiting for her at her father’s car last year on her birthday after serving her the best Peking duck he could conjure up. She wore her long braided hair down to her buttocks, and a fuchsia mini-dress that revealed her statuesque legs. Her skin was the most decadent shade of chocolate he had ever seen. The way her plump lips curled upwards when she smiled mesmerized him.

“Hey birthday girl, I’ve got something for you,” he remembers saying.

Her friends, Chelsea and Vern giggled girlishly as Tessa dipped her hand into the paper bag he was holding and pulled out a fortune cookie.

“Go on, crack it open,” he urged her.

She crushed the cookie with her palm. The note inside read: “Tonight, the love of a lifetime will find you.” Tessa beamed coyly, her round face soaking in the moonlight. “What’s your name?” she questioned him.

“Xing. Xing Yeung”

She pulls a pen out of her purse and begins writing something on the back of the fortune slip. “The roast duck was to die for Xing,” she complimented as she wrote.

“What’s going on out here?” Mr. Jones asked as he approached, surprised to find Xing outside with the girls.

“Nothing, Daddy. Let’s just go home,” Tessa pleaded.

“Sir, I was just opening the door for your daughter.”

“Better behave yourself China man,” Mr. Jones scoffed.

“Daddy!”

Xing shook his head at the insult. “It’s all right, Tessa.” He made his hand into a tight fist, but did nothing.

She squeezed Xing’s shoulder as a silent sign of gratitude.

But Mr. Jones was not amused. “Tessa, get in the car right now!”

She did as her father commanded, trying her utmost not to cause a scene.

As they drove off, Xing relaxed his fist and slipped his hand into his pocket. He felt something crumpled folded there and pulled it out. It was the fortune he had given her. The note behind it read, “Tessa Jones, Layou. 275-0026.”

He grins helplessly as he slices the pok choi for today’s brunch. He misses the melody of her voice – the way it breaks into a crescendo when she is angry, or happy, or anxious. He picks up his phone and dials her number.

 

ENTRÉE:

The radio talk show host denounces the behavior of African students from the All Saints University School of Medicine who have been attacking Chinese nationals in Dominica for allegedly bringing COVID-19 to Dominican shores. Tessa sucks her teeth at the ignorance. Xing’s name lights up on her phone screen and her heart goes into a frenzy. She lowers the volume on her stereo before taking the call. “Hey babe,” she answers, trying her best to sound calm.

“Hey birthday girl,” says the sultry voice on the other end.

“It doesn’t feel very much like a birthday without you here.”

Xing sighs. “I know. I hate this stupid curfew. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than beside you right now.”

There is a long, awkward pause. “So, have you told them yet?” Tessa inquires.

“Ummm, not yet.”

She can hear the cowardice in his voice. “Babe, you promised me you would. You promised me!”

“I know, and I will today. You have my word,” he tries to reassure her.

She is not sure she believes him. She is not even sure he believes himself. “I understand you don’t want to defy your family. I don’t like lying to my Dad and my friends either. That’s why we need to do this. We’ve already been together for a year. They deserve to know, and if they can’t accept it, then so be it. If there’s anything this Coronavirus has taught us, it’s that life is uncertain, and we need to make the best of the time we have with the people we love while we have it.”

“I know, and I’ll do it today. I’ll tell them. I promise. What did I do to deserve you?” he whispers.

She was almost certain he could hear her blushing over the phone. “Must be some good karma,” she muses as she hangs up. She wishes she could reach out her hands and embrace him.

Her mind goes back to just three months ago, on New Year’s Day, when they snuck away from their parents to spend the afternoon together in celebration of her admission to All Saints. Much to her surprise, she learned that even after having lived in Dominica for the past fourteen years, Xing had never had a river bath before. It was one of the many things his father had forbidden, like dating a Westerner. He revealed to her that it was one of his New Year resolutions.

So Tessa took him to her secret spot, Glo-Sho, a natural hot water baseh nestled beneath the tapestry of the Layou Valley, not too far from the Layou River Hotel ruins. They had the river all to themselves that afternoon. While he undressed, Tessa wrapped her braids into a giant bun.

She reminisces on the way he carried her into the water by piggy-back, her arms and legs wrapped tightly around his torso. When they got to the center of the pool, he swung her around to the front of him and she laughed heartily. She ran her fingers through his wet jet black hair. He began to draw Chinese calligraphy characters lightly against her back with his fingertips. The sensation sent shockwaves throughout her body and her breathing tensed. She cupped his cheeks with her palms and kissed him slowly. His body was a yellow mountain beneath her. It was the first time she had been this close to him – to anyone.

Sitting on the shore, she shared with him about how she wished she had had more time with her Mom, who had died when she was only three. Her dad, wonderful as he was, became an overprotective father. Mr. Jones was an orderly at the Princess Margaret Hospital, and worked day and night to ensure he could give his daughter a bright future. This, she told Xing, helped her to grow up grounded, and inspired her to enter the health field. When she got accepted to study medicine, her doting father was ecstatic. But she wished he could see she was no longer the three-year-old little girl she was when her mother passed away.

He told her he had been affianced to the daughter of a family friend, Genji Chen, since he was eleven. His parents were hoping to have the wedding this summer, before sending him back to China for business school. He confided in her about how he had always known he wanted to be a chef. His face lit up as he spoke about fusing authentic Chinese cuisine with contemporary Creole-Caribbean influences.

Xing promised her that he would tell his parents about them and put a stop to the wedding. She promised him that everything would be okay, that one day he would become an incredible chef like he has always dreamed. They made a feast of their lies. He fed her Chinese dumplings or jiǎozǐ as he caressed her left thigh, which was now glazed with a cocktail of river water and perspiration. They melted their hopes, fears, and bodies into each other.

By dusk, they were awakened in each other’s arms by the nuzzling of a cow in search of a good grazing spot. She found her body sore from the thatched palm leaves they had made a bed out of on the ground, and from having her fill of him. Xing helped Tessa to her feet, tittering lightly at her discomfort.

But in this moment, her body aches for another reason – that she cannot be close to him. “Bloody social distancing,” she mutters under her breath. Her father had worked the night shift and would not be home for a few more hours. She grabs her face mask and begins to tread the lonely back road between Layou and St. Joseph to “The Orient”.

 

DESSERT:

Jia helps Xing set the table for their impending guests. The distinct scent of kung pao chicken, his mother’s specialty, pervades the room.

“They’re here!” Mrs. Yeung announces merrily as she looks out the window.

“I’ll go get the chow mein in the kitchen,” responds a despondent Xing.

“I’ll help,” says Jia. “So, when are you planning on telling them?” she asks her brother before they even swing the saloon doors open.

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t play foolish with me Xing. I’m not as naïve as I look. I can tell that you are in love with someone else. I see you sneaking away and whispering on your phone all the time. And I definitely know you want to be a chef.”

Mr. Yeung intrudes, “Xing, Jia, hurry up! Our guests are seated.” He turns his back and then turns back to them again. “And make sure wash hands. Don’t want future wife catch Corona on our account.”

Xing feels his heart shatter into a thousand pieces. He knows nothing about the young woman in the other room, and yet his parents expect him to make her his wife. When his father leaves the room, he turns to Jia and says, “I’ll do it tonight, before the Chens leave.”

Jia grabs his wrist, “You’re not just doing this for you, ya know. Mom and dad came to my room last week and told me they found me a boy from a reputable Chinese family who is willing to marry me. Can you imagine? Like I’m some commodity they can just batter away.”

He nods at her, and she scurries out of the kitchen. Her maturity, and perfect English, impresses him.

As the warm water from the faucet drenches his hands, he recalls his first river bath with Tessa on New Year’s Day. She taught him that day, that steam and river water were potent enough to drown the noise of opinions, that West Indian river stones were sacred daises for young lovers, that yellow and brown skin seemed to fade into obscurity when immersed in a body of water, so that there was only oneness.

At the table, he sits opposite Genji. She wears her hair in a chopped bob with bangs. He notices the unhappiness in her eyes. He wonders whether he has disappointed her somehow. The two fathers speak as if discussing a business deal. Guangdong music plays in the background.

“I’ve made my signature dish, gōngbǎo jīdīng,” Mrs. Yeung informs Genji confidently.

“Actually, I’m allergic to peanuts,” she replies.

Jia snickers.

“I did the chow mein,” says Xing in an attempt to stifle the tension.

There is a knock on the door. “I’ll get it!” Jia exclaims, desperate for an excuse to leave the room.

The parents erupt into Chinese, leaving Genji and Xing to stare at each other silently.

Xing clears his throat to get their attention. “Mom, Dad, I have something I need to say.”

But they only continue speaking and laughing.

“Mom. Dad.”

Still, they pay him no mind.

“I’m pregnant!” Genji suddenly blurts out.

They all turn toward her.

“What did you just say?” asks her father.

“Dad, I’m eight weeks pregnant. I’m in love with Xiao Wong and he’s the father of my baby. I’m so sorry, but I can’t marry Xing.

“You insolent child, I see it is your intention to bring shame and dishonor to this family. Xiao Wong? His family are paupers!” Mr. Chen chides.

Genji begins to sob.

“Stop this madness!” Xing stands to his feet. “We have a rich heritage, and I do not wish to discredit tradition. But look around you. We live on this beautiful island, with wonderful people from all walks of life. We live in a world where people are dying from a virus that doesn’t care what we look like, what country we come from or how much money we make. This is not the time to be divided. More than ever, we need to love each other despite our differences. I’m in love with someone else too. Her name is Tessa and she’s Dominican. She’s an incredible woman. She’s going to be a doctor. Oh, and I’ve been accepted for a culinary apprenticeship at a hotel this summer.”

“Enough.” Mr. Yeung states firmly. He sighs and shakes his head.

Xing feels the weight of their secret simmer into nothingness.

“Hello everyone. This is Tessa!” Jia declares as she tugs at the young lady’s wrist, dragging her into the dining hall.

Mrs. Yeung dashes toward the kitchen. “Dessert anyone? I made lo mai chi. I hope no one is allergic to coconut.”

“Genji, get your things. We’re leaving before this family corrupts you any further,” says Mr. Chen angrily.

A stunned Xing gawks at Tessa helplessly, the way he did one year ago when he laid eyes upon her ethereal beauty for the first time. He could not believe she was standing in front of him in the flesh. “Hey birthday girl, I’ve got something for you,” he jests.

“Great! I like surprises,” Tessa chimes as he hands her a fortune cookie. She quickly cracks it open and unravels the note inside. “Wǒ ài nǐ,” it reads, which means ‘I love you.’ Tessa smiles.

He interlocks his fingers with hers. This pandemic had completely dismantled the concept of normal they once knew. But whatever the world looks like after this Corona outbreak is over, they are ready to face it, together.

 

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