Xiong and his wife had been cooking dinner for me every night. “Your parents made Yao feel at home in America,” Xiong’s wife had said to me, referring to her son. “I want you to feel as though you’ve come home too.”
On my last night, dinner was a variety of dishes, including home-pickled longbeans, a Jiangxi specialty. I ate a lot of it.
Xiong’s wife had smiled at my enthusiasm for the longbeans. “They’re Yao’s favorite, too,” she said.
But now the wooden dining board was tucked neatly in the corner again, and I was curled up on the sofa, reading The Brothers Karamazov and trying to tune out the awful program that was playing on CCTV. I think it was the children singing.
His wife was playing Spider Solitaire on the computer. Xiong was shuffling back and forth in the room, sometimes watching TV, sometimes peeling a mandarin orange, sometimes ogling his fish.
“Tomorrow is the winter solstice,” Xiong announced suddenly.
“Tomorrow is also the end of the world,” I said.
“You know what you have to do on the winter solstice,” Xiong said.
“No, what do you have to do on the winter solstice?” I asked, looking up from my book.
“You have to eat dumplings, or your ears will fall off,” he replied. “It’s a Chinese tradition. You’re leaving tomorrow morning, so we must have dumplings for breakfast tomorrow!”
“I’m too lazy to make dumplings,” his wife said. “Let’s just go out and buy some frozen ones.” She got up from her computer game, and they started to put on their heavy winter gear. She laced up her boots, and he put on his winter coat.
I stood up. “Don’t go out into the cold for my sake,” I said. “I don’t need dumplings.”
They laughed and continued dressing anyway. “Who says the dumplings are for you?” Xiong said, smiling at me as they left. “We want our ears.”
It was warm in my room. That night, I contemplated sleeping naked—a luxury that I allowed myself all too frequently in China, especially when I’d allowed myself that that other luxury, drinking.
I was sober tonight, but that didn’t stop me from flinging my clothes off like a tipsy college student. My socks were stained with coal dust from the plant tour. I stood in my slippers against the cold tile floor. The city was quiet. I peered outside before closing my curtains—in the city lights, I could still see the fog swirling beneath me in a grey-amber glow. But if I closed my eyes and slipped into bed, I could imagine myself back in pastoral Ohio.