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from Ignite, Summer 2021

Come quick, come quick! There’s hotpot tonight, gather round, xin nian quai le! Do you know where the electrical plug is, where the soup has got to?


A fanfare: we carry it into the dining room in its special pot, split down the middle for adults and children – careful, don’t use the spicy side. We wait anxiously, as mother hands out the special spoons, like nets, gold-wired for the occasion, as she checks the temperature, as the steam rises past her glasses and into the chandelier of flowers until it glitters faintly with rainbows –


– A memory:

those nights were always dry from too much salt,

thickly seasoned with exhaustion. Too many people,

too much food, too quickly. We celebrated

With family, with friends we’d found since –

Each moment like fireworks calling us to a home

Built long ago in a far-off foreign country,

Now worn lightly like new skin breathing

Those once-strange scents comfortably, suddenly.


We celebrated life on those nights (in reflection),

We celebrated being away and still coming together,

Distance made small all of a sudden like folded paper lanterns

bending outwards –


– and as I watch, mother breaks an egg yolk

into her bowl, I watch the viscous life spill out like fallen sunshine

into the waiting noodles, perfectly positioned for the catching,

I watch my dad nibble on shrimp carefully held between his chopsticks,

orange-pink and slightly rubbery, I watch my own small hand hold the net just so,

fishing for the meat but leaving the vegetables for someone else

to rescue from their drowning. My sister slurps her noodles,

the soup bubbles spilling over.


Turn the heat down, do you know which button it is, jie jie?

They sweat slightly with condensation, shiny black plastic with their indecipherable gold-stamped symbols. I shake my head, panicking, my dad leans over, the soup rages and subsides;

just another poltergeist rattling as it goes.


I am aware of the irony, describing these moments to you, these snapshots

surrounded by the more numerous visits to the Tate or the National Theatre,

to McDonald’s and shopping malls and supermarkets, yet here they are,

burning dim and golden with nostalgia, hung in a dark gallery

that no-one visits anymore, this one strange image:


me, incongruous in my thin faux-silk qipao when I usually wear my yolk-coloured shirt buttoned to the throat.


Instead this 8-year-old me sits and eats and watches; listens to the grown-ups talk in a language she doesn’t understand, gripping her innocent smoothie tight in one hand and her chopsticks uncertainly in the other.

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Written by Penelope

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