Lulu wants to scream, “How could you do that?” But she checks herself and produces a smile instead. Cindy, in the meantime, digs into her fried rice with a spoon. Cindy asked for a spoon when they ordered their entries, and Lulu, observing the raised eyebrows of the waiter above his face mask, felt faintly embarrassed.
Lulu and Cindy both work in the local “Ivy Learning Center”, next to the Asian Mart. Lulu is full time, but Cindy only works during the weekend. Lulu is an Asian immigrant, an unemployed anthropologist who can’t find a suitable job. Cindy was born here in Edison, New Jersey, and just graduated from Rutgers University last year.
“I use chopsticks, but not for fried rice. I always use spoon for fried rice. You know I usually like my fried rice with ketchup, and I’d love to have a cup of orange juice now since I didn’t have time for it this morning. But I don’t think any Asian restaurant would have either ketchup or orange juice.” Cindy says in her usual calm and communicative way. Lulu just stares at her in disbelief.
How could an Asian eat rice with a spoon? How could an Asian order General Tsao’s Chicekn? How could ketchup be mixed with rice? Also an orange juice for lunch?
If anything, Cindy is good at communication and enjoys talking. In order to solve one problem that takes ten minutes to do, Cindy can reveal to Lulu more than thirty minutes of thoughts on related issues and possible ramifications, often with some of her family anecdotes thrown in.
“Ketchup? Orange juice for lunch?” Lulu says, but realizing that Cindy has already moved on to other topics–Cindy’s father, after losing his job due to pandemic downsizing, has gone back to Kuching and now becomes a Buddhist monk. Her mother has resumed her job in Macy’s in the Menlo Park Mall here in Edison.
“My mother said she can’t even fly to Kuching to visit my father because the monks live in the monks’ quarter. No woman can go there.”
“How can one become a monk when still married?” Lulu asks as soon as she finds a pause in Cindy’s monologue. It’s not difficult to find the pause during the lunch since Cindy is very fond of the fried rice and the General Tsao’s Chicken she ordered.
“Oh, good question. I didn’t know this before. Actually I didn’t know Buddhist monks cannot get married. My father never told me that before. Anyway it is said there are many different levels of monks. My father is at the level of half non-monk and half monk stage. They can do a lot of things that a real monk cannot do, just so that you can get accustomed to the monk’s life gradually and shed their ‘vulgar’ unenlightened past in the long process. Marriage is actually allowed among these people. My mother said she hopes my father would get bored by a monk’s life soon and come back when the economy gets better.”
The waiter Dong comes back with a small dish of sweet and sour sauce and an orange soda for Cindy, who shakes her head and rejects both.
“Boss Dong, never mind Cindy. She just looks Asian, but she’s has an American stomach.” Lulu talks with Dong for a few minutes about the business in general. Dong complains about the 25% capacity rule in New Jersey, which has made their operation impossible.
Dong turns around and moves towards another table, but before he leaves them, he says to Cindy in a familiar tone, “Don’t order fried rice, General Tsao’s Chicken next time. I’ll show you how to order next time.”
Cindy doesn’t pick up the familiar tone as a sign of trying to be friendly, but instead she feels that Dong is not approving her. She’s born and raised in Edison, New Jersey, but all her life Americans think she’s from Asia while Asians thinks she’s too American.
Cindy says thanks a little unwillingly, and Lulu says with a big smile, “Boss Dong, how nice of you. Any new dishes you have, let us know next time.”
“He’s the owner? Why do you call him Boss Dong?” Cindy asks.
“He’s just a waiter. The ownership of this restaurant is a long story. I’ll tell you another day. Everybody is a potential boss. I just call him that to make him happy. That’s the rule here. I know you think this is ridiculous, but all rules have ridiculous elements. By the way, you want to accept the sweet sour sauce and the soda, just to be nice to him.” Lulu says.
“But I don’t want them.” Cindy says.
Lulu looks at Cindy in despair.
“Where were we? Oh, I was saying that I wonder if I should go for a master degree in Iowa. I can get a loan and complete the writers’ workshop within two years. That’s a great platform, don’t you think? I only don’t know what I am going to do with my mother. She wants to come to Iowa with me, but I think it is better for her to stay here with an Asian community around, grocery stores and everything. She doesn’t listen to me. She wants to move to Iowa with me and she doesn’t mind to be one of the only two Asians in town. Some people say the workshop is a bad idea since it trains people to write in a certain way, while without the workshop I will maintain my unique style. However the workshop is an opportunity to find better jobs.”