I was four-years-old when I killed a turtle. Paw Paw wanted to make soup.
“It will make Hing Hing strong,” my maternal grandmother said in Cantonese. “Learn from me.”
Everything she said had an assertive tone, as if she had lived and knew it. She would remind Mom that yams and dried orange skin soothed a sore throat, that watercress soup did not only cure tuberculosis, but also made the liver and kidney strong, and that ha foo cho, the Chinese equivalent of an iced tea or a cold beer on the Fourth of July, made you forget the summer heat.
Whenever anything live was involved, I gladly stayed out of the kitchen with my palms pressed tightly against my ears, so I wouldn’t hear the rapid scraping of Paw Paw scaling a fish or the heavy Chinese cleaver cutting through the exoskeleton of a lobster.
When the crisp, cool air turned heavy, signaling the end of spring, Paw Paw planted melons and various types of squash in my parents’ backyard. Each morning she tended to them, cutting the yellowing leaves and stalks, pulling out weeds, and checking and fertilizing the soil. As she gardened, I found ways to amuse myself.
Only a short metal fence separated our garden from the elderly Italian couple’s adjacent to us, however, I felt as if no one could interrupt me while I was there. It was my private space to create whatever world I wanted to inhabit. I could sing, “Jesus Loves Me,” a song that pervaded the house from our cassette player, as loudly as I pleased. I could write my own songs about God; maybe one day another child my age would be singing it too, in her own private yard. Years later, to my great embarrassment, my neighbors told my parents that they had heard every word.
“Your little girl has a beautiful voice.”
“I was off from school one day and heard her from across the street. She sure can sing!”
The backyard was a magical place for me. Apart from the garden, the ground was made of concrete that was cracked from weathering and Dad’s gold Acura took up a quarter of our side of the yard. We also shared a driveway with our neighbors next door, so there was no partition between our yard and theirs, but during the day, when they weren’t home, I had our yard and their yard all to myself. There, I could be anyone I wanted. I imagined myself a race car driver as I drove around the yard at six miles per hour, the fastest speed the Fisher-Price white and red-striped Corvette convertible Dad bought me could manage, careful not to crash into Dad’s car. Other times, I was a warrior princess who travelled with Lucy, her loyal German Shepherd to seek out and befriend the dragon everyone else feared.
“Wu gui live a very long time, longer than many humans,” Paw Paw said, in Cantonese, taking the turtle out of a red plastic bag and setting it down on the concrete. “You eat this for a long and fruitful life.”
Freed from its plastic prison, the turtle extended its wrinkly neck and head in the air, adjusting to its new environment. It was the first time I had seen a turtle. It wasn’t furry or soft, like the animals I was used to playing with. It had a head, hands, and feet, but only if it felt safe enough to reveal them. Its dark olive carapace glistened under the sunlight like the hood of Dad’s Acura. He’s beautiful, I thought. Perhaps I could sneak him some lettuce when Paw Paw isn’t looking.
“I’ll be right back,” Paw Paw said. “Watch the turtle. Don’t make friends.”
The turtle plodded around slowly, like a newly retired man considering the multitude of options he has to fill his day. It was the only turtle around. Did it know what Paw Paw had planned for it? Did it think it was free?
I wanted to bring it upstairs and set it between Lamb Chop and chubby Danielle Bear, my two favorite toys. I wanted to feel the dips and curves of its armor. I wanted to talk to it and see if its eyes glistened the way Lucy’s did whenever she heard me speak. It would be too slow to run after me, but I wouldn’t have minded having to carry it around.
“Hing Hing,” said Paw Paw, as she handed me a hammer. It was heavy, slightly rusted, and definitely not something anyone should ever give a child. Paw Paw trusted me with it. She trusted me to do what she would have done with it. I looked into her large brown eyes and could almost hear her say, “One day, you will make turtle soup for your family.”
I swung down hard. The weight of the hammer seemed to pull my wrists down involuntarily.
“Guy Hing,” Paw Paw said, encouraging me.
I didn’t think the shell would crack so easily. I didn’t think it would bleed. I didn’t think about the drops of blood on my worn white sandals.
Just one more time, I thought. And it will be over. And I can give Paw Paw back the hammer.
It didn’t cower like a lost puppy behind a dumpster or a child who had just been reprimanded by a parent. Perhaps it was too shocked. It didn’t cry out. He just kept bleeding.
“I was cleaning my apartment and found a box of your mom’s recipes,” Gung Gung asked Mom a few years ago. “Do you want them?”
“I don’t have room for them,” Mom said. “Keep them at the apartment.”
Over the years, after many spring cleanings and new home health aides, the recipes disappeared or were accidentally discarded. Forgotten like a brief childhood friendship or an awkward kiss, until the first early morning wind of spring or someone’s sweaty palm reminds you.
One night, Mom called Gung Gung to ask him if he could bring the recipes to our weekly weekend brunch. She wanted to make lin gou, a traditional Chinese New Year cake made of sweet glutinous rice and brown sugar. In Mandarin, it is called nian gao. Nian, which means “sticky” sounds like the word for “year” and gao, the word for “cake” sounds similar to the word for “tall.” Every dish served on Chinese New Year is symbolic. Lin gou or nian gao suggested that whoever ate the dessert would grow or prosper with the coming year. Though she never made the cake from scratch, she never forgot how Paw Paw used the back of a Chinese cleaver to break rectangular blocks of brown sugar or the hint of citrus in her lin gou.
When it comes to preparing for Chinese New Year, I do the minimal. I vacuum and sweep the floor clean of the dust particles and fur from Coco, our brindle Bulldog. I clean the crystal glasses, set the table, and light Mom’s favorite hydrangea candles. I rarely ever help Mom cook for the celebration dinner. Something else always requires my attention: homework; a group project; a novel and a response paper I must finish for class.
Every year, Mom and I fill red envelopes with crisp dollar bills or silver dollars and put them in every room of the apartment and between the oranges and in the fruit bowls. During the holiday, Mom adorns the apartment with gladioli, Fu gui jook, a plant with pointed leaves protruding from a long, green, crunchy stem, tiger lilies, red roses, and red carnations.
“Learn from me, Danielle,” Mom says. “Flowers add elegance to a room.”
When Mom was a child in Hong Kong, a magnificent flower market opened in preparation for the New Year. Hundreds of flowers and plants, azaleas, red peonies, violet hyacinths, pussy willows were on display to be admired and sold. Mom savored her walks through the market, inhaling the bundles of clustered hyacinth flowers that smelled slightly powdery and so sweet like a dessert too indulgent to eat alone.
As a child, I was always excited to receive red envelopes from relatives and family friends filled with money. As I grew older, the holiday became tedious. I remember Dad making multiple trips by car to bring all the groceries and flowers from the supermarket back to the house. Somehow, there was always one more thing we needed from the store: a couple cans of abalone; a bag of jasmine rice, particularly the one with the elephant on it; oyster sauce, without the monosodium glutamate.
“You must carry on these traditions,” Mom says every year. “You must be proud of your heritage.”
Bowls of gut, tangerines with long stems and leaves still intact sat on surfaces on the dining room table, computer desk, and windowsill.
“Remember, always have a lot of leafy gut,” Mom reminds me. “The fruit signifies happiness and the leaves represent long life.”
We never ate them and we threw them away once they started to rot.
During dinner, I gladly consumed the meals Mom prepared: Cantonese-style lobsters, chopped and fried with its own tomalley, minced pork, garlic, and scallions; a whole poached flounder; “longevity” noodles; a greasy roast duck; and a whole steamed gāi or chicken with a red date in its mouth.
“Paw Paw always said, ‘Put a sweet red date in the chicken’s mouth,” Mom reminded me, “’for when the soul reaches heaven, it will talk about you sweetly.’”
I enjoy cooking when I am making stuffed mushrooms, Fusilli alla Caprese, or a baked dessert. But I am not brave the way Mom became after Paw Paw’s death. Mom learned to scrape the scales from a fish, remove the innards from a fish or poultry, and cook a crab or lobster live.
Perhaps the turtle trusted me the way Paw Paw trusted me to carry on the traditions of my Chinese heritage, the way Mom trusts me to do in the future.
Some people cut off the head of a turtle while it’s still alive, but I’ve heard it’s a slow death. The mouth might still snap and its body might still attempt to get away. Some boil the shell with the soup, if it’s a soft-shell turtle. After removing the turtle from the shell, pulling out its nails and bones, some barbeque it on a grill or cover the meat in batter and fry it like a chicken cutlet. I’ve heard it’s delicious braised, fried to a light golden brown with wine, soy sauce, lard, and pork. But Paw Paw would say, “The most nutritious way to eat a turtle is in soup.”
Paw Paw washed the turtle in hot water. It seemed to bleed all over again as she removed pieces of the now broken shell. Using a knife, she separated the limbs from its shell, cut out the rest of the meat, and gutted the turtle. Rolling back the rough, scaly skin, Paw Paw swiftly scraped out the fat. I imagined this is what would have happened to the dragon if Lucy and I hadn’t befriended it.
Paw Paw let me have the first bowl, before my parents came home for dinner.
“Drink it to the last drop,” Paw Paw said, her loose paisley blouse smelling slightly of mothballs. “The weather is warm; this will cool your body. It is good for your kidneys and will make Hing Hing’s nails and bones strong.”
I looked into my bowl. Dried longan, red dates, ginger, sweet gogi berries, and small roots of a plant I did not know the name of floated alongside the meat. I spooned a piece of sea cucumber into my mouth. They looked and felt slimy but had a gelatinous texture that I always enjoyed.
“Ai-yaa!” cried Paw Paw. “Hing Hing must try the turtle. We must always be grateful for the animals we eat. They gave their lives for us. Never waste your food.”
I could hear the sound the hammer made as it collided with the turtle’s armor. I could smell its blood, as it seeped through the cracks in its shell. I gathered all the turtle meat in my bowl onto the spoon. I only wanted to try it once. It was unexpectedly tender and easy to swallow.
Although I’ve only had turtle soup once, guīlínggāo or turtle jelly is a dessert I’ve savored consistently throughout my life. Alone, guīlínggāo, which is made from the powdered plastron of turtles, herbs, and flowers, is bitter. But pour some simple syrup or honey on its shiny surface and each spoonful becomes perfectly sweetened. I loved the slight licorice taste and feeling the coolness of the black jelly sliding down my esophagus, especially on a hot August afternoon.
In ancient China, only the emperors, empresses, and nobility were allowed to consume guīlínggāo. Originally invented in Wuzhou, legend says it kept thousands of soldiers healthy during battle and cured diseases, such as smallpox. The nutrients from the turtle plastrons and herbal medicine made it popular in revitalizing the body of its energy, regulating the digestive system, treating heat-stroke, and improving the complexion of the skin. Centuries later, it has become commercially available in Chinese supermarkets around the world as well as added to Asian desserts, though it is no longer made with powdered plastron.
As a child, I would have been embarrassed to eat guīlínggāo outside of my house, with my non-Asian friends. Once, to drink a box of soymilk I brought from home, I bent my head down into my backpack instead of taking it out so my classmates wouldn’t be able to see the Chinese writing on the package.
I wanted my classmates to think of me as the girl whose dad baked layers of cheesy meat lasagnas, fried squab, and macaroni and cheese. As the girl whose aunt taught her how to make the tallest stuffed mushrooms. As the girl whose mother made macaroni salad with raisins and cooked salmon with a side of asparagus marinated in butter for dinner. Kids younger than I was called me “chink” as they rode beside me in yellow school buses. Classmates called me “boat girl,” as if I had travelled to their beloved Brooklyn all the way from China wearing a pointed straw hat. I didn’t want to be asked, “What kind of Asian are you? How do you not have an accent? Why do you speak English so well?” Or told, “You’re pretty; you must be Japanese or Korean.” Or take quiet pleasure whenever someone called me “the cool Asian.” I didn’t want my classmates to think I was cool only when my parents gave me shrimp chips, pork buns, and red envelopes to hand out to the class during Chinese New Year.
After Paw Paw died when I was eight years old, I rarely spoke Cantonese and eventually forgot how to. Though I can recognize simple phrases and words, I can no longer carry on a conversation. In my last year of undergraduate studies, I took two Mandarin classes and became one of the top students in the class. I could recognize the simplified versions of the Chinese characters as well as speak and respond to basic conversation topics. However, by not practicing, I have lost these abilities too. I believe language is the bloodline of a person’s heritage and ancestry. It is not the eyes or jawline you inherit from your mother, grandmother, and great-grandfather that connects you to your heritage, but something intimate, such as a common language or a shared recipe.
Now, it is Mom who tells me that chicken and pig feet help your skin produce collagen, to make your skin firm so even when you’ve aged, your cheeks will feel like the calves of a baby. That eating a week’s worth of fuzzy gourd or jeet gua boiled with flavorful chunks of salted pork and a whole chicken will give you weeks of clear, blemish-free skin. It is Mom who peels the skin and dices the jeet gua and boils the soup before changing into her pajamas after a long day of work so there would be a hot bowl of soup ready for me by the time I get home from school. It is Mom who will boil sweet potatoes with pieces of chén pí or dried, aromatic tangerine skin for your pharyngitis, when gargling with salted water still hasn’t made swallowing any easier.
Paw Paw grew up without parents to teach her how to be brave enough to continue her Chinese traditions in a foreign land. It is not enough to remember that the red date goes between the beak of a whole chicken or that it is imperative to have leftovers during Chinese New Year to suggest that you and your family will always have more than enough to eat. It is not enough to make sure the gut still have their leaves as you arrange them around the house or to remember to take a bite into lin gou or steaming glutinous tāngyuán filled with black sesame after the New Year dinner so your future will always be sweet. Maintaining the traditions of your heritage means being willing to wield that hammer. Sometimes, I can’t help but think killing that turtle for Paw Paw’s soup is the closest to my heritage I’ll ever get.
Danielle Elizabeth Chin has published articles on The Best American Poetry Blog and an original song on Side B Magazine. She received an Honorable Mention from the American Literary Merit Award in 2013 and The John Costello Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2012. At Marymount Manhattan College, she served as Chapter President of Sigma Tau Delta and is also a member of Omicron Delta Kappa and Alpha Chi Honor Societies. She has an MFA in creative writing from The New School, where she has worked as a T.A. for Sigrid Nunez and a R.A. for David Lehman.