By the time I finished typing up what I’d written in my notebook into the word processor, darkness had fully descended outside the cafe.
As I gazed at the black coffee residue at the bottom of my cup, doubt festered at theback of my mind. I realised that in the context I produced my writing— which was for social media users in China who read English— the barriers to entry for the job were not that high to begin with. My readers were either foreigners who wanted a peek into daily life and happenings around China, who could not be picky with my articles as there weren’t that many English writers in the scene; or Chinese students who wanted to practice and increase their proficiency in reading English.
Was anything I had ever written any good at all? All that I’d rambled on regarding
identity and nationalism, what was that all about? My goal was to draft up something that could be used in the xungen article the editor had assigned to me. But was it too personal, and not empirical or factual enough? Did every piece of postcolonial writing have to be as comprehensive as a Benedict Anderson text?
It was already past 9PM when mother finally returned to the hotel room. Not wanting to wait until tomorrow to go swimming, she had left me to write at the cafe to go check out the palm leaf-shaped pool before it closed for the night. After spending the day travelling and the evening swimming and writing, it was clear were were both famished but far too tired to head downtown for food.
“You go ahead,” my mother said after her shower, “I don’t really want to eat anything at this hour. Might lose sleep if my tummy can’t digest it in time.”
“Well you could’ve told me earlier, then I wouldn’t have waited for you.”
“I’m sorry dear, the sauna here overlooks the horizon! So I stayed a little longer till sunset…”
“A text would’ve been nice, but you never bring your phone.”
“Ah boy, you’re old enough to make your own decisions aren’t you?”
“Yeap, you’re right. I won’t wait up next time,” I said, reaching for my phone.
None of us spoke for a while. It was really quiet outside.
“Alright. I’ve made my choice,” I said, after choosing a restaurant on the app.
“Oh, did you find a restaurant nearby?”
“Nope. But I’m having food sent via waimai.”
“Waimai huh… What are you getting?”
“Want me to order something for you?”
“You sure, Ma?”
Mother had never tried any kind of waimai in China before, let alone the elaborate brand of hotpot waimai that I had just ordered and was now on its way. The times were quite different back when she used to travel here in the early 2000s. Her tour group was always put at the mercy of the local guide come meal times, and they usually ended up eating at some mediocre restaurant in some way affiliated with the tour company, where typically the food served was oily, unsanitary, and too heavily seasoned for a Malaysian’s liking. There was also the off-putting notion of sharing common dishes with strangers from the same tour group, who had no reservations sticking their chopsticks into their mouths and back into the dishes over and over again.
“Did you order duck blood?”
“No Ma, you didn’t tell me you wanted duck blood.”
“But you know that’s my favourite, son. How about some cow tongue? Did you get the extra mala soup?”
“First you say you don’t want anything. Then you say you’ll just have a little bit of whatever I order. I can’t read your mind, Ma.”
“Aren’t those the must-order ingredients for a proper hotpot? I expected you to do it right son.”
I sighed. Already this felt like way too long a trip with Ma.
“Do you want me to call them and order the duck blood and cow tongue?”
“No that’s fine, dear. You got the half-and-half pot right? What do they call that again…”
“The yuanyang pot?”
“Yes exactly! As long as there’s mala soup!”
“Of course there’s mala soup. There would be little point to mala hotpot if we didn’t have the mala soup. I only got the mild-spicy level though.”
“Oh well…That’ll have to do.”
For someone who hadn’t really wanted to eat, mother was quite ecstatic when the food arrived. She gasped in awe as I pulled out from the cardboard box, packages of clear and spicy hotpot paste, black fungi, an assortment of pork and pork belly, seaweed, fragrant mushrooms, coriander, egg dumplings, potatoes, fishballs, dried tofu, regular tofu, peanut
and spicy sauce, and finally a small yuanyang pot made of steel.
“Wow, is that an ACTUAL yuanyang pot?” she remarked as I tore open the two packages of paste, which I mixed with water and set over the mini candle stove. “How fascinating! Oh and they come with candles as a stove too? Are the flames strong enough
to actually cook the food? Do we have to return the pot after our meal?”
“Yup. Yes Ma… Let’s go ahead and eat shall we? Come help me put the ingredients in.”
“Wait wait, the soup isn’t even hot yet. Let me take a picture with all the ingredients laid out beside the pot first, you know, for Instagram.”
“You need a VPN proxy connection for that, just take a picture with your camera first and I’ll help you with the VPN app download later. I’m starving!”
“I already have VPN installed, son. Just hold on to your chopsticks, it’ll only take me 10 seconds.”
Mother really surprised me at times like this with her presence of mind to download the app in Malaysia, it was less straightforward to do so through the great Chinese firewall of censorship. I watched her hover her phone over the hotpot and its array of plastic-boxed ingredients, and heard a click of the camera shutter.
I watched the broth bubbling steadily beneath the transparent lid, and couldn’t wait