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Liang Mian

Wuhan in the Summer

By RosePublished 2 years ago 3 min read

It’s 4:30 AM on the last school day before the commencement of summer vacation. The street across from the Wuhan shipyard fills with old ladies pushing breakfast carts. A bowl of hot dry noodles costs three yuan. Other sellers offer up meat stuffed buns, duo pi, fried gluten dipped in honey, boiled tea eggs, sugared ears of corn, and roasted sweet potatoes.

Different groups of people arrive in waves. The shipyard workers are first, mostly men in blue coveralls, some of whom purchase cans of Snow beer to wash down their morning meal. Cigarette smokes fills the air. There’s laughter and talk about the day ahead, much of it in the local wuhanhua dialect. Words are drowned out by the honking of car horns. As a throng of bicycles overwhelms the narrow road and spills out onto the sidewalk, the few cars on the street have no choice but to move at an impatient crawl.

In this hour or so before the sun rises, the air is sticky with dense humidity. As the horizon turns a hazy pink and gold, the shipyard men disperse, replaced by students heading towards their final exams. In China, even kindergartners have exams to contend with.

Compared to the shipyard workers, the students favor healthy fare, or at least that’s what their parents buy for them. A line stretches out from behind boiled egg lady’s cart. The egg lady has a red face and big hands, and she knows the names of the children who live in the neighborhood. One little boy is puffy eyed and sniffling. When the egg lady asks what’s the matter, his father informs her that the boy is out of sorts because he stayed up past midnight studying. The egg lady prevails up the boy’s father to forgo the boiled egg and treat him to a salted potato donut at one of the neighboring carts.

The kids wear school uniforms. They shoulder backpacks adorned with sparkles and cartoon characters and filled with half their weight in course books. Some of the girls wear pigtails with elaborate bows. They don’t speak wuhanhua.

At eight AM the Chinese national anthem can be heard from the nearby primary school. That’s where the children are supposed to be by this time, though invariably there are one or two stragglers.

This is when I come out. It’s 8:15. I’m a foreign English teacher, at the end of an eleven year stint in Wuhan. My apartment is seven floors above the shipyard and the breakfast carts. Soon I’ll return to the United States. At the age of thirty-five, I’ve built a life in China, but have nothing in my home country. I’m afraid that if I don’t go home quickly, I’ll never be able to.

I’m not sure if I want to.

For now I’m here, trying to bottle up every street and every moment to keep with me forever. I’m hungry for every detail.

The woman who I’ve been buying noodles from for most of the past decade calls me over. Her arm waves frantically and there’s a big smile on her face. Since the start of June, I’ve been asking her every day whether or not she has liang mian. Liang mian literally means “cold noodles”. It’s a summer dish that’s only sold a few months out of the year, when the weather is at its hottest.

“I have them,” the woman announces.

“Seems today is the first day of summer!” I reply.

Her cart is stained with oil and rusty at the wheels. It has many vats full of delicious things. She scoops a pile of cool noodles out of one of the vats. She adds red vinegar, chilly oil, and a liberal helping of sesame paste. Then come the chives and thinly sliced cucumbers. Finally, she adorns it all with a sprinkle of grated ginger. I pay her four yuan. She hands me my chopsticks, and I’m on my way, trying to do commit the tangy spiciness of the noodles to memory with each bite I take.

It’s getting late and I need to get to work. Soon the breakfast carts will begin to disperse. By eight thirty, they’ll be gone as if they were a mirage, and the street will be empty got the afternoon.

Sometimes, like a mirage is how I remember the carts and everything about Wuhan. Was I ever really there? These days it all seems so far away.

I tried making my own liang mian last week, but I wasn’t very good at it. The noodles were mushy and the sesame paste was clumpy and cloyingly sweet. Some foods belong to certain times and certain places. The best tastes are ephemeral.


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    RoseWritten by Rose

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