龙眼

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MY MOM used to force me to go grocery shopping with her every Sunday morning, mostly so I could hold onto her heavy bags full of produce and meats while she wandered freely, looking for the best deals. She insisted we only shopped in Chinatown, where she could find herbal medicines and sweet oyster sauces that reminded her of Taishan. As an awkward, lanky middle schooler who wore bright printed leggings and tattoo chokers, I dreaded the occasion with a passion. Rarely did I ever wake up earlier than 8 AM, nor did I enjoy standing on the sidewalk while waiting for her to finish. Although I'd never admitted it out loud, at 19, I do miss it.

She had told me to stay put in front of a shop with booths of fruit on display outside. Begrudgingly, I moved the bags underneath the shade provided by a tent on the storefront. On the crates were slabs of irregularly ripped pieces of cardboard, with the price written on with a black marker. Below were boxes, flaps folded down that contained the bigger crops, like durian wrapped in yellow netting or watermelon cushioned by pink styrofoam.

Usually, while I stood there, I'd lean against the wall, busying myself by watching YouTube gaming videos or playing Subway Surfers on my mom's phone to disconnect from reality. Nothing about the elderly Chinese people wheeling their roller backpacks or bustling streetlife was enough to steal my attention.

That day, I had forgotten to snatch her phone from her tiny, handbag before she had departed, so I look elsewhere for entertainment. Across the street in front of me, seated on the sidewalk curb was a little boy who I decided must've been in elementary school. He was cute like most boys are before they grow up and become literal demons. Decked out in a green speckled windbreaker 3 sizes too large from head to knees, he put his stubby hands on his lap. An older woman I assumed was his mom crouched in front of him, pulling out a sphere from a crinkled plastic bag.

"宝贝 [my dear]," she said peeling off the tough yellow-brown skin of the small fruit to reveal translucent flesh. "吃啊 [eat up]."

Her shaky hands dropped the gem into his palm, and for a second, he studied it with starry eyes.

"Mom, what is this?" He wrinkled his nose.

"它是龙眼 [it is longan]," she answers, taking an already peeled one from her stash, chewing it and spitting out an almond-shaped black seed to demonstrate how to eat it. "很甜 [very sweet]."

The little kid continued to inspect it. "What is this again?"

"龙眼 [longan]," she repeated, bringing the fruit next to his eye as if to compare the two.

"Oh," he breathed once he realized, "dragon's eye."

"对啊 [right]," she nodded eagerly, glad he was catching on. After all, dragon's eye was the literal translation of the fruit's name because of the resemblance. "你能说吗?龙眼 [can you say it? Longan]."

Momentarily, the little boy hesitated. "...Dragon's eye?"

As an outsider watching the exchange intently, I wanted to scream. I wanted to run through all the cars waiting at a red light and shake some sense into him. I wanted to tell him to just say those two Chinese syllables. It couldn't be that difficult!

Most of all, I didn't want him to end up like me. Unable to hold a proper conversation in Mandarin. Could hardly communicate with my grandparents. Afraid to go back to China because of the disconnect. 

He was still young. He needed to learn before it was too late like it was for me.

"我完成了购物 [I finished shopping]," my mom, who returned with takeout boxes full of fried rice, said, pulling me from my thoughts. She gave me a watery smile. "It's time to go."

After that day, I never complained about helping my mom shop ever again. 

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