Tuesday 1 August 2023

Food glorious food – a feast of stories from Read Paper Republic

Nicky Harman writes: Paper Republic is a registered charity/non-profit website dedicated to promoting enjoyment and understanding of Chinese literature in translation. I am one of its volunteer workers and trustees. As part of our mission, we publish Read Paper Republic, occasional series of complete, free-to-read short stories (or poems or essays) translated from Chinese to English. 

This year, after our foray into Covid stories, entitled Epidemic, which explored how some of China’s best writers have been personally affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, we decided on a more upbeat theme. The current series, entitled Food Glorious Food, is made up of six contemporary pieces all based on or around one of China’s favourite pastimes: eating. 
In Food Glorious Good, we have featured well-known authors from the Chinese-speaking world, including Xu Xiaobin, Hong Ying, Wu Ang, Sabrina Huang, Yang Shuangzi, and Zheng Zhi, all translated by up-and-coming literary translators. The stories range from historical fiction exploring complex relationships and social inequality to a clever, unnerving tale of kidnap at the hands of a food delivery driver. And it is this last story which we have chosen as a splendid climax to our series. The story is called ‘Winter is Coming’ and the author is Wu Ang. 

This is Wu Ang’s third appearance in Read Paper Republic. Alice Xiang translated four of her poems for A Month of Women Poets and three translators tackled her ‘Su Volunteers Diary' in the Epidemic series. 
‘Winter is Coming’, however, is something entirely different. A recently-divorced young professional is struggling to settle into her new home in a deserted tower block in a city where she knows no one. One evening, she orders a meal off a local food delivery app. The deliveryman is charming; he even helps her carry some of her bags up the stairs. But before she knows it, events take a sinister turn and she finds herself trapped in her own home, and then abandoned to an uncertain fate....

An excerpt from ‘Winter is Coming’ by Wu Ang, translated by Kelly Zhang
Winter is coming. Inside the one-bedroom apartment where she lives alone, she feels chilled to the bone. The newly renovated unit is still in a state of disarray: boxes of unassembled furniture, including parts of a desk and a bookshelf, are strewn all over the living room floor. She recently purchased a simple washing machine, only to realize afterwards that she also needs a dryer. The air near the ocean is perennially damp. Qingdao takes on a special wintry dampness throughout the month of December. She stands on the open balcony and braces herself against the piercingly cold ocean winds. Living on a tight budget, she rushed the renovations and decided not to enclose the balcony. When she first visited the place in early summer, the serene blue stretch of sea captured her heart immediately. Now, that luminous blue is gradually turning into a greyish blue, and with the changing of the seasons, the greyness will only intensify. She stops her thoughts from continuing down an ominous path, turns back inside, and opens the fridge. It is completely empty. It was only delivered yesterday and needs to sit unplugged for at least twenty-four hours for the compressor oil to settle. She plans to clean it thoroughly over the coming weekend before putting any food inside.
It takes her until nearly seven o’clock in the evening to return to her new place from work every day. She drives a tiny hatchback. She is always careful to stay in the slowest lane of any road and to turn up the volume on the GPS to the highest level. Before she bought the apartment, she had purchased the car with a measly budget of 50,000 yuan, which allowed her to afford a cheaper, roomier place away from the city centre. She had chosen a snow-white colored car, imagining how beautiful it would look, floating like a cloud against the brilliant blue backdrop of sea and sky. Though in reality, only someone outside the car would be able to appreciate such a sight. Most of the time, she feels like a tired seabird, darting back and forth between her home and work. No, actually, the seabird analogy isn’t accurate. She identifies more with the kind of weary domestic fowl that struggles to fly.
What to eat for dinner? She hasn’t had chance to explore any nearby farmers’ markets, nor look up restaurants on Meituan, the popular food delivery app. She vaguely remembers that someone on one of her local WeChat groups shared an app a couple of days ago called “Meals for One in Qingdao,” which specializes in single-portioned, reasonably-priced meals. Delivery fees are waived since it’s delivery only. She downloaded the app almost immediately. Although it’s chilly on the balcony, she decides to bring out her old wicker lounge chair, which fits the space surprisingly well. She drapes a thick jacket over her shoulders, then lies quietly down on her side to peruse the menu.
The menu selection seems limited at the moment. There are pictures alongside the descriptions of each dish. In the chef’s recommendation area on the homepage, her eyes are instantly drawn to the steamy Japanese sukiyaki hotpots. The simmering pots of savory broth come with a variety of fresh, ready-to-cook ingredients, including thinly-sliced beef, mushrooms, and tofu. There are also clams and shrimps. She usually orders sukiyaki when she dines at a Japanese restaurant. The meal typically comes with a bowl of white rice and a tasty side dish—either sunomono (a sliced cucumber salad) or takowasa (octopus with wasabi). She rarely goes out to eat alone. Ever since her best friend moved from Qingdao to Yantai six months ago, she’s had no one else to dine with. On the app, the sukiyaki looks to be served inside a small disposable aluminum foil pot with a lid. The vendor guarantees to keep the food warm and to deliver it within thirty to sixty minutes anywhere within the parameters of Qingdao city.
She lives at the southeast end of the city, on a narrow strip of coastal land that can only accommodate a small residential development. After confirming her order, she pays for it with WeChat Pay. As she types in her address, she debates whether to use her real name but in the end decides to use her social media handle “Drowning Fish.” That’s the name she gave herself when she was struggling through the darkest period of her life, when her late marriage was disintegrating and she was tormented by an exhausting emotional seesaw. Imagine how suffocating it would be for a fish to live in the depths of the ocean if it were given a pair of human-like lungs instead of gills. Even now, she is frequently startled awake in the middle of the night with the weight of an elephant on her chest. If she tries to scream, no sound comes out. If she tries to hold it in, she is possessed by an intense, inexplicable fear. Her mouth puckers like a fish’s mouth, then a wet greasy secretion, thick and sticky like re-used frying oil, drips down the back of her throat and mixes with her gastric juices and other bodily fluids.
Read more ……………………….

You can see author Wu Ang and translator Kelly Zhang read an excerpt from ‘Winter is Coming’ here

Check out ‘Winter is Coming’ and all the other stories here.