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There I was, staring at my doom … surely; this was a fate worse than death. “I am in so much trouble. This is a complete and total nightmare!”
Kimmy Tran, childhood friend and fellow Asia Village employee, gawked at me as we stood side by side inside the enclosed plaza, staring at the cause of my nervous breakdown. The sloppy bun on her head wobbled as she lectured me. “Lana Lee, calm down. It’s not that serious. You’re a grown woman, for Pete’s sake.”
“There couldn’t be a more horrible circumstance. Why is this happening to me?” I tugged on the locks of freshly dyed, black-and-magenta-streaked hair that framed my face. “What did I do to deserve this?”
She puffed out her already chubby cheeks. “This is ridiculous, you need to relax.”
Peter Huang, the head chef at my family’s restaurant, walked up behind us. “What’s up, ladies? What are we lookin’ at?”
“This … this monstrosity,” I said with a shiver. “This horrible, horrible monstrosity.”
Peter adjusted his black ball cap, and tilted his head. With a chuckle, he asked, “What? The doughnut shop?”
As he said the word doughnut, I heard my stomach rumble. Standing before us was the newest tenant of Asia Village, Shanghai Donuts. They were due to open in the next few days, and sadly I knew that I would be their very first customer.
On top of my addiction to noodles and book buying, I had a weakness for doughnuts. For the most part, I was able to refrain from indulging on the delicious, round pastries of doughy goodness, but with the new shop opening up right next door, I had to wonder about the current status of my willpower.
At the age of twenty-seven—on the brink of twenty-eight—I was warned by many that my metabolism was on its way off the fast track. Those “many” included members of my family who seemed to be tracking my eating habits.
I squeezed the side of my waist and felt the pounds I had put on since I’d started working at the restaurant. My pants were starting to feel tight. With my credit cards dancing on the edge of maxed out, I found my two favorite food groups to be excellent stress relievers.
Peter laughed, giving my shoulder a nudge. “Don’t worry, Lana, I’m sure you’ll get sick of them after a while. You can’t eat doughnuts every day.”
“Says you,” I grumbled.
He grabbed my arm and pulled me in the direction of my family’s noodle house and current place of employment. “Come on, man, let’s get to work, we have to prep for the noodle contest.”
Kimmy looked between the two of us. “I can’t believe it’s tomorrow. Are you guys prepared?”
They were referring to the Cleveland’s Best Noodles contest, set to be held at Asia Village. Peter had been prepping and perfecting recipes for weeks in anticipation of winning the competition.
“Super stoked,” Peter replied. “This year we’re taking first place. No more of this third-place stuff. No, it says right there on the sign.” He pointed above his head to the restaurant’s gold-lettered sign.
It read: HO-LEE NOODLE HOUSE, #1 NOODLE SHOP.
We served all sorts of Taiwanese and Chinese cuisine, but our specialty, of course, was noodles. And Peter’s noodles were the best in the whole city. I might be a little biased, but if you’ve tasted his cooking, I think you’d agree.
Kimmy gave Peter a flirtatious grin. “If there’s anybody that can beat out the Shen family, it’ll be you.”
He blushed. “Um, thanks.”
Peter and Kimmy were in the midst of a budding romance. They weren’t the likeliest of couples, but so far it seemed to be working out for them.
Kimmy was a touch on the outspoken side and didn’t mind being the center of attention—that was putting it lightly. In recent history, to help her parents with some money problems, she had taken a secret job at a strip club as a cocktail waitress. Needless to say, there were plenty of eyes on her there.
Meanwhile, Peter was on the introverted side. He kept to himself and participated in solitary hobbies usually involving video games or something artistic, like painting or drawing.
We said our good-byes to Kimmy, who shuffled over two storefronts to her own place of business, China Cinema and Song, which she helped run for her parents.
I unlocked the door to the restaurant, and we stepped into the darkened dining room, making our way to the back with little effort. When I say that I’ve lived a lifetime in this restaurant, it is not an overexaggeration. Ho-Lee Noodle House has been around since before my own creation, and there isn’t a time I can remember when it wasn’t a part of my memories.
A few weeks ago, I had officially become the permanent restaurant manager, now taking care of the main responsibilities while my mother tended to my grandmother. A native of Taiwan, my grandmother was on her first trip to the United States, and her English was less than stellar. And that’s being nice about it.
My parents had spent considerable time in Taiwan recently, tending to my grandmother’s medical condition. While there, they had decided the best thing to do was to bring her back with them. I still didn’t have any idea what was supposed to be wrong with my grandmother, but every time I asked my mother what the deal was, she told me to mind my own business. I had stopped asking.
The restaurant life wasn’t what I originally had been searching for, but it was turning out better than I’d thought. My older sister, Anna May, wasn’t thrilled with me taking over the family business, but with her well on the path to becoming a high-powered attorney, she didn’t have much say in the matter. There might be a small part of me that took pleasure in that fact.
Outside the kitchen, I flipped on the lights, and the black and red dining area sprang to life. The touches of gold accent sparkled under the soft yellow lighting and bounced off the black-lacquered tabletops.
We passed through the kitchen and made our way to the back room, which had been turned into an employee lounge. A beat-up couch and small TV from my childhood still occupied the room, and I wondered if my parents would ever replace them.
“So,” Peter said as he grabbed his apron from the hook. “I’m ready for the contest, but I want to test my recipes one more time before tomorrow. Are you cool with taste-testing them for me?”
“Twist my arm,” I joked. “Of course, I’ll taste them. We can’t let the House of Shen win … or Ray for that matter.”
Ray Jin, last year’s contest winner, beat out both us and our rival, the House of Shen, by winning the coveted award.
The grand prize winner’s restaurant would be featured in Cleveland magazine with a special profile on the chef and their award-winning recipes. Not only that, but the winning restaurant also won free advertising in the magazine for a year, a cash prize of five thousand dollars, and an engraved plaque to hang in their restaurant.
In the five years that the contest had been in existence, we had always placed in the top five, but never made first. This was going to be our year. I could feel it.
Peter shook his head. “No, didn’t you hear? They asked Ray to be one of the judges this year.”
“I swear on my own life, dude.”
“But what about all the rumors that spread around last year after the contest was over? So many people thought he cheated.”
“Yeah, but no one could actually prove it. Especially when the whole scenario came from Joel Liu … totally made him look even crazier than he already did. Losing that contest really threw him over the edge.”
“True. I just assumed they would want to avoid the controversy.”
“They probably did that so he couldn’t enter again. If the rumors are true, what would stop him from doing it again this year?”
I contemplated that while we headed back into the kitchen and got into our morning zones. Peter revved up the appliances while I prepped the dining room to perfection before our first customers of the day arrived.
After all the chaos at Asia Village in the past handful of months, we needed something good to happen at the plaza. And winning this contest would definitely be good.
Asia Village, nestled away in the city of Fairview Park, was my home away from home, and not just because the restaurant was conveniently tucked inside. No, these days, I spent a lot of time in the enclosed shopping center taking advantage of everything it had to offer. When I wasn’t browsing the shelves of my favorite bookstore, the Modern Scroll, I was getting drinks with my newest friend, Rina Su, at the karaoke bar, the Bamboo Lounge. And you can’t forget the salon, Asian Accents, where I always went to get my hair cut and dyed by Jasmine Ming, who I say is the “best in the Midwest.” Aside from that, we had an Asian grocery, an herbal shop, a gift shop, and just about anything else you could think of. It was your one-stop Asian shopping experience.
It was lunchtime at the plaza and my mother and grandmother had stopped by for some noodles before heading off to do whatever it was they did during the day. We were huddled in a circle in Esther’s store, Chin’s Gifts, talking about the upcoming contest. Esther is my mother’s best friend and an aunt of sorts. She does things like lecture me on my behavior and comment on my posture.
“If the Shen family wins this year, Ho-Lee Noodle House will lose face again,” my mother told the group. “We must beat them.”
My mother, Betty Lee, is best described as a spitfire. She’s small, sassy, and will tell you how it is whether you want to hear it or not. Her apple cheeks and quiet smile draw you in, but don’t underestimate her. Especially if she doesn’t like what you’re wearing.
“We will, Mom,” I replied. “Don’t worry about it so much. Peter and I have everything under control.”
Esther nodded in agreement. “Yes, this year you will win. I can sense these things.” She tapped her temple with her index finger, and her jade bangle bracelets slid up her arm almost to her elbow. She shook them back into place. “This year, you will have good luck.”
My grandmother, who was standing next to me, barely came up to my shoulders. And I am not by any means a tall person—I come in at a solid five feet four on a good day. She observed my mother and me, watching our lips move and trying to follow along. She blurted something rapidly in Hokkien—the Taiwanese dialect that my family spoke more often than not—and stared expectantly at my mother.
My mother replied, and they both nodded.
“What did she say?” I asked. My knowledge of the language was slipping and continued to dissipate for lack of use as I got older. I caught the word eat and that was it.
Copyright © 2019 by Vivien Chien
Excerpt from Wonton Terror copyright © 2019 by Vivien Chien