Changsha is the capital of my ancestral province, Hunan, the site of many major battles during the Sino-Japanese War and where Mao Zedong converted to Communism. It’s also where I reconnected with my roots through a bite of stinky tofu.
I had come to Changsha to feel closer to my Chinese heritage. But after two days of sightseeing and meditating in one hundred percent humidity, I felt even more detached from my Chinese identity. No matter how hard I tried, I could not see myself in the people I met and the places I saw.
By the end of day 2, I had just about given up. After watching tourists take selfies in the Yuelu Academy gardens for an hour, I sat on the curb outside and started checking for an earlier flight out or at least a bunk bed for the 17-hour train home. But then I heard a voice, “CHANGSHA STINKY TOFU! Handsome brother, won’t you try the world-famous Changsha stinky tofu?”
I looked over to see where the voice was coming from and noticed a mass of people under a yellow awning. Walking as if programmed to the end of the line, I saw children fogging up the display glass, panting in anticipation. A man with a yellow hat stood behind a large black wok, tossing squares of stinky tofu into the bubbling oil. Some of the kids were even pleading their parents for the larger portion. I couldn’t believe it.
I remembered as kid, running away at the mere mention of “stinky tofu.” Whenever my grandparents did wrangle me to sit down with them as they ate it, I pinched my nose for the entire meal. But here I was, skewering one of these black tofu squares and popping it into my mouth.
The tofu skin was so crispy I could hear it crinkle as it broke and unlocked the heat of the chili sauce, the saltiness of the brine and the tang of the pickled cabbage. That first bite was so good, I had two skewered on my stick soon after. I was dumbfounded. I never knew I could enjoy something I once hated so much.
With each bite I took, I slowly began to understand why my grandparents once drove two hours to take me to my father’s favorite stinky tofu vendor. Though the appearance and smell seemed unappealing, it was the texture and mixture of flavors they had come for. I could see their faces now, huddled around a small round table as the rain poured outside, mouths full and smiling with satisfaction as they ate in silence.
I could have been a part of that moment. I could have smiled with all of them instead of insisting they take me to McDonalds right after. I could have just said “yes” when they asked me if I wanted to take Chinese lessons. I could have had a real relationship with both of my grandparents.
Standing there with my mouth open, tofu skewer in hand and tears running down my face on Pozi Street in Changsha, I felt as if I was right there with them. We were sitting on plastic stools around a small round table, smiling as the rain poured outside in Taiwan.
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