Somewhere on a motorway in northern Scotland.
Small children queasy from too much driving.
Windscreen wipers on steroids trying to cope with pelting rain.
Visibility pea soup.
Pale parent faces, still living on USA time, squeezing out positivity from their dwindling strength.
Me, heart in mouth, desperately hoping that this trip would be the magical vision of Iona we had wished for Mom and Dad to see, if only we could get there!
At last, through the rain, a knife-and-fork sign denoting food and comfort.
A barely converted warehouse with serving hatch at one end, a long row of tables filled with navy-blue suited men along one side. Foreign. Definitely foreign. Distinctively foreign.
Edging the other flank of the room, as far away from the foreigners as possible, small tables of equally weary travellers in desultory cutlery-clanging myopia, as the rain thundered down on metal roof.
Our children, Mother, and I found table space at the far end of the warehouse. We were just settling in, when
“MyRA! What’s a bap?” The loud voice came down the long hall from the serving hatch, over the pounding rain. I didn’t need to turn around to know it was my father – six feet tall, plaid open-neck shirt, a different plaid for his Bermuda shorts, bare legs, dress socks and dress shoes. If his sartorial elegance didn’t shout “American” his accent certainly did.
Motorist eaters looked up, and turned away quickly, not wanting to gawp.
“I don’t know,” my mother shouted back. “Ask them.”
Just then to save us all, husband John came in dripping, having struggled to find parking space. He serenely sorted out father-in-law, and both joined us at our table.
Mother was sparkling with excitement. “Fred,” she said, indicating the side wall of foreigners, “those men are Chinese. Go and talk to them.”
“How do you know they’re Chinese?” I asked. “They could be Japanese, or….” Mother’s withering stare silenced me. “How?” she replied, “Twenty-one years in China, that’s how. Now Fred, go and talk to them. Your Mandarin is better than mine.”
“Welllll, they probably don’t want to be bothered,” he answered. “Besides, I have a sausage bahp to eat” (failed attempt at a British accent for a word that didn’t need it.)
Mother insisted. Reluctantly, he scooched back his metal chair across the tiled floor, and walked over.
Motorists now thoroughly involved in surreptitious glances to watch this strange, very American man talking to a totally incomprehensible, inaccessible group of suits from somewhere far away from the reality of Scottish rain. The animated conversation between the two vibrantly contrasting cultures warmed up. Not only greeting, but real communication! Laughter. More talk. Tense shoulders relaxing. Glances and nods at our family, smiling and smiling. The suits were actually becoming human!
At last Dad returned. “A nice group,” he said. “The interpreter was relieved to have someone else talking to them. Some were Cantonese, so I had to switch languages.” (Dad had not spoken Chinese over than thirty years and had always found language learning difficult.) “They were on their way to a conference in a Scotch city somewhere.” As usual for Dad, he played down any contribution he had made, but was more keenly interested in learning about them.
Excitement over, the motorists went back to eating. The Chinese, I think, were given a special welcome to Britain that afternoon. It might not have made a lasting impression on them. But, for a moment, just a brief snatch of time, my parents came alive in this strange darkly wet landscape, alive to something wonderfully, warmingly familiar.
Thank you Dad. I love you.
Chao Fan (Fried Rice)
I love rice so much that it must have been my first solid food. Unlikely. I was born in North China, so it was probably noodles. But when we were in Canton, our cook, Ah Yang used to make Fried Rice, and I loved it. Notes from my brother Tom reveal new information:
” 炒饭 chao [falling-rising tone like “really?”] fan [falling tone like “really!”]. My official Chinese dictionary defines it as “stir-fry leftover rice,” and given this definition, it also means “to say or do the same old thing.”
My recipe is fuzzily taken from The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook, by Gloria Bley Miller, over 50 years old, has excellent watercolour paintings, too.
4 cups cold cooked rice
1 cup cooked meat or seafood, diced
1 cup raw vegetables, diced
1/4 cup spring onions, minced
1 or two eggs beaten
2 tablespoons oil
3 – 4 tablespoons oil.
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sherry.
1 tablespoon chopped peanuts.
Heat the 2 tbs oil in a large deep pan or wok. Add spring onions and vegetables. Cook until soft. Add meat/seafood. Stir fry. Remove from pan.
Add remaining oil. Heat until smoking (yes really). Add rice and heat completely by folding the rice around with a spatula. Return meat and veg to rice, reheat completely, same method. Add soy sauce, salt, sugar and sherry quickly. Keep very hot.
Fold in the beaten eggs, to blend well and reheat. Turn off heat just as eggs set. Serve very hot (on heated plates/bowls?) with chopped peanuts.