MAMBO IN CHINATOWN
My name is Charlie Wong and I’m the daughter of a dancer and a noodle-maker. My mother was once a star ballerina at the famed Beijing Dance Academy before she ran off to marry my father, the handsomest noodle-maker in Beijing—or at least that’s what she always called him before she died. Hand in hand, they escaped to America to start their family. Unfortunately, my mother’s genes seemed to miss me altogether. I took after Pa, minus the good-looking part. And minus the manual dexterity as well: he never managed to pass his considerable noodle-making skills on to me, much as he tried. So at twenty-two years old I was instead working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. Pa was their noodle master. Customers lined up at the back door to purchase packages of his uncooked noodles to take home.
Peering now through the window that connected the tiny dishwashing room to the kitchen, I could see Mrs. Lee standing by the back door. She’d put on extra lipstick for Pa, and she fixed her eyes on his tanned hands wrapped around the bamboo pole.
“Can you make them extra long for me?” she asked in Mandarin. She stood a bit stiffly, careful not to brush against the grease-covered doorframe.
Pa nodded as he hoisted the bamboo pole and lowered it once again onto the dough on the table. The end of the pole fit into a hole punched in the wall, just above the table surface. As he rolled the pole, the dough became thinner on every pass. It was hard work. I knew his hands were ridged with calluses. Then he sliced the dough into perfectly regular strands with his cleaver, and began pulling them by hand. He twirled them into a rope, then stretched them again and again. It was like magic.
He looked up to flash Mrs. Lee a smile. “Must be your birthday.”
She actually giggled, a woman of her age. “You are an intelligent man.”
I would have snorted, only the waiters pushed another plastic bus tub filled with stacks of bowls through the other window at that moment, the one connecting the dish room to the restaurant. Everybody knew it was good luck to have long noodles on your birthday since they symbolized long life, just as most of us in Chinatown remembered Mrs. Lee’s husband had passed on a number of years ago. I dumped the food off the dishes, then piled everything in another tub. I was used to women complimenting Pa—but if you’re trying to catch him for your own, good luck, lady. Pa hadn’t dated since Ma died and probably never would; he was still in love with her. I hefted the heavy tub with ease, then hauled it over to the washing sink. I’d been working this job for years, ever since leaving high school, and I had the biceps to prove it. I ducked my head to look through the window again and see what Mrs. Lee was up to. I caught a whiff of ginger and garlic that one of the cooks had just dropped into a wok.
Pa had given the ends of the dough to his assistant and they’d stretched the noodles across the room while the other cook dodged them. Mrs. Lee beamed as Pa rolled up the finished noodles for her.
“You should join us. I promise the noodles will be tender,” she said.
Pa gave her an old-fashioned bow from the waist as he handed her package to her. “You are very kind but I am so busy taking care of my two daughters. You know how it is.”
“Of course,” she said. Her bright lips drooped at the corners. “Next time, then.”
“Yes, I wish you long life and happiness,” said Pa, turning back to his assistant. “Get me a sack of flour from the basement, will you?”
I should have been the one helping him. Pa had brought me to the restaurant to watch and train ever since I was a child. Hard as I tried, I still dropped everything. “You have to coax the dough,” Pa said, but I pummeled it instead. A noodle master has magic in his fingers. Mine were as clumsy as if I were always wearing gloves. Pa was tall and lean. His defined nose and cheekbones made for a strong face on a man, but those features were too sharp for a woman, according to my Aunt Monica and Uncle Henry. I was tanned like the rest of Pa’s family, and for a Chinese girl, I was homely. I had learned early on not to attract any attention. Most of the time, I succeeded.