A year or so before I met the wife, I briefly dated a girl called Anna Wei Yi. Though things were still in the early stages, all the signs were looking promising, that this time it was going to work out.
After a few weeks it seemed only natural to invite her to my place for dinner one Saturday. Things went really well. I cooked spag-bol’, prepared strawberries with chocolate ice cream for dessert and sorted two bottles of wine; red and chilled dry white. The table was quite long so in an effort to bring us together I set the cutlery either side of one corner separated by a red candle in a green bottle with drips of wax running down the sides. Nice! With the relaxing sounds of Morcheeba in the background to chill the mood, we had great fun. Anna laughed as I showed her how to use a spoon and fork with the spaghetti and we chatted for hours.
The evening felt like an effervescent sparkling glass of champagne filled with the near tactile elusive magic that lingers with us like an aura for days afterwards.
Well, time to go and as I walked her to the taxi we exchanged pleasantries. “Thanks I had a really great night” smiled Anna turning back from the taxi.
Suddenly face to face; an enchanted moment catching us both by surprise; the space between us our only barrier.
“Well how about we do it again next weekend?” I suggested riding along on a wave of enthusiasm. We could do the same only how about you do the cooking?”
Anna’s tone immediately dropped as did her body language like mashed potatoes sliding off the plate and hitting the floor.
And so endeth the moment!
“OK! Sure! Fine! See you then!” and at that she turned her back to me virtually diving in the taxi.
The following weekend arrived and Anna suggested that we meet outside Carrefour so she could buy some ingredients. I have to admit it was nice doing the shopping with someone else; a togetherness I hadn’t felt in years. Shopping for one? Blaaagh!
Strange though after ten minutes or so Anna asked me to get something way across the other side of the store. Upon finally returning I found that she seemed to be permanently on the phone. Speaking to someone in Chinese, she cradled her mobile’ between her chin and shoulder while pulling items off the shelf into the shopping trolly/cart. All I could do was follow her around unable to communicate and by then feeling fairly dislocated, yearning for that initial feeling.
Back at my place, I hoped that things would pick up from where we left off the previous evening.
“Can I help with anything?” I asked as she unpacked the food in the kitchen.
“No. I can do it myself!” she insisted in an uncharacteristically abrasive tone, so I headed for the sofa wondering what I’d done wrong and where this sudden attitude had come from; the anticipation of romantically cooking together now chucked well and truly in the pedal bin; images of laughter as we got flour on our faces long gone.
Normally I’d do some work or watch a movie or something to pass the time but you can’t do that on a date right? After half an hour of sitting on the sofa and feeling like a total spare part my stomach was starting to rumble so I ventured near the kitchen and assess the state of play. Amazingly, she was stirring something in a saucepan with her phone still in that familiar position. It was then that over a period of ten seconds or more, the penny finally dropped that she’d been talking to her Mum the whole time. For some reason her Mum was actually now guiding her through the recipe and by the look of it, things were not going well.
A painful hour and a half later the anti-chef emerged from the kitchen of despair and dumped the cutlery on the table.
“You do it!”
“But there’s only enough for one person here!”
“I’m not eating!” she mumbled returning back to the pit.
And there I waited…and waited…and waited.
Finally the moment arrived and a single plate was delivered. Looking down I examined the end product of what was, including the shopping, the sum of four hours’ work. A single three inch piece of meat failed to occupy the centre of the plate with some strange smelling dark brown sauce liberally deposited over the top that looked devoid of all nutritional value.
“Is that it?” I kept my thoughts to myself.
Anna sat far away at the other end of the table fixing her eyes on me with a smouldering glare that could have ignited a pile of wet socks. To cap it all, just as I was preparing myself, the music finished immersing us in an awkward silence.
The tension was unbearable!
The moment of truth. I gingerly tried to cut through the meat; the prominent sound of cutlery on crockery as I forced the knife through. For a split second I held the meat on the fork before my mouth hoping it would be amazing, that Mum’s secret recipe passed down and perfected through generations would transport my taste buds into culinary nirvana.
The over-salted first mouthful was only matched by its dryness. I was forced to reach for the wine immediately. Looking up, I painted a painful smile as I chewed.
“And how is it?”
“Oh wow. This is great,” was all I could muster, focusing on trying to swallow.
Actually it was so salty that it was difficult to get down without showing signs of discomfort. She must have known that the food was terrible. That I set my knife and fork down after three mouthfuls must have merely affirmed this grim reality.
“Have you finished already?”
“Yes I’m full,” was the only possible reply I could think of “But really it’s great. I’ll save the rest for later.”
Anna left shortly after. As she opened the door and I moved to grab my coat she insisted that it was unnecessary that I walked her to the taxi.
Years on from this most memorable of dinner dates and it turns out that actually many of the younger generation in China are losing the ability to cook. As a teacher, one of my favourite topics is cooking. I teach college students and professionals and normally only two students in every ten can cook anything. Some will have never cooked anything in their lives. Last week I had a student that hadn’t even boiled an egg, made rice or instant noodles before. I had one student recently go to a home-stay in Australia complaining bitterly that they were making him cook his own food. What a strange notion it is that in one’s life you will only ever consume what someone else has prepared for you, either in a restaurant, shop or a family member. In an age where the highest achievements at college are viewed as the most important thing for any family, parents view cooking as a complete waste of time.
I never did see Anna again. After a few distant text messages later things quickly died out. I’ll always remember her though, well the sight of her glaring at me from the other side of the table.
Oh and the amount of washing up she left me with!