It was early 1980s and the Reform and Open-Up policy just got into gear.
Barely 70kms south of the capital city, my hometown was brought up to
speed. New grounds were being broken, buildings erected, dirt paths leveled
and paved with tar and gravel. More cars and trucks appeared on the roads.
A king-sized four-lane underpass, something only seen in big cities, was to
replace a major railroad crossing. Private businesses were sprouting, as they
said, like bamboo shoots after a spring shower.
That summer, the most exciting events for me were the openings of a
popsicle spot and a fancy restaurant in front of the town theater, both
short walks away from home. I started to look forward to our evening
strolls. Passing the store, mom would occasionally treat me to a
red-bean popsicle. It was unforgettable.
The restaurant was one of a kind. It was pricy, sure, but worth it in my
mind. For one thing, the whole place was underground and one had to
descend a flight of carpeted stairs to get to the table. That was cool.
I had never before walked on carpets or seen anything underground
except for the big hole grandpa dugged in his front yard for storing veggies in winter.
Plus. They had roast ducks, the first in town. We never had had ducks,
roasted or otherwise. The plump, golden, juicy bird on the poster
had a way of getting to me. It must taste heavenly. In believing that, I
was definitely not alone as the place was an instant hit and, among
my classmates, dining there was the new chic.
For weeks, I was obsessed. It was not just the eating which, I understood,
once done however exquisite was not to be repeated anytime soon. But one
meal there would lift me above my inferiority complex, you see. Talking
about how good the bird tasted would send the message that we were not
poor, after all, and put me right in the league of cool kids. Who knows?
Maybe it would even fix my cowardice so I could stop faking blase and
start talking to girls. It would be magic.
It was out of the question with mom, of course. She was not making much
and dad was not helping much. The oldest of four siblings from a local
peasant family and having gone through some big famine, mom was stingy,
to say the least. But mom lost her first born and I was the only one she
had got. Dad was away and it was only the two of us in town. 相依為命，
so to speak. To quote a bloke I met later in life, I must have been her
"North, South, East and West" and her "working week and Sunday rest"
and there lied my leverage and strength.
How I tried to make her feel guilty and to make sure she receive an
equal share of pain as I believed life had dealt me with so unfairly!
Conscience, my righteous ally, must have been gnawing at her non-stop.
That was sweet if a tad cruel, I thought at the time.
Within days, mom did apear to relent. We started bargaining and it made
progress. After vetoing eating subterraneously, she discovered the
option of a half-duck takeout. I was not entirely happy but acquiesed to
the deal. Settled at last, I began to picture the big night in my mind.
After buying a couple of weeks, however, mom abruptly ditched the pact
and advanced. She offerred buying a duck at the market and cooking it
for me. I was furious and fought back with everything I got, to no avail.
This time, mom held the line and decisively and strategically dashed my
roast duck dream. My balloon was utterly deflated. Little bragging right
would come out of a duck braise no matter how good it tasted. I had to
retreat, hoping nobody would notice, to my good old bitter-sweet self-pity.
But I bounced back eventually. Ducks were rare and expensive, I reasoned,
and therefore as a small consolation it would still count as delicacy. Another
week passed under the new covenant. Then one day, she came home,
cheerfully dispensed a small can of duck meat and a few eggs from fowls
of the same family, announced that she didn't want to hear anything about
the damned bird from me anymore!
I learnt two lessons. First, my old lady came as tough as she could be
tricky and I was no match. Second, salty, oily, and made to last (and
maybe not of top quality to begin with), canned duck was awful. I
probably still do not hold a candle to her were she alive today and I
have never had a bite of canned duck ever since.