I'm sitting in the restaurant with Yammie and Raj, two people who are on my team in Asia, and Yammie is ordering in Cantonese. She's originally from Hong Kong, is thrilled to be back here (we've just gotten her family relocated), and is showing us around.
Hong Kong is nothing like I imagined it would be. It's a beautiful city, with water and boats everywhere. Unlike Singapore, where our bigger office is, it's not all clean, pristine, controlled—it's packed and crazy, a city that's full up with a chaos of people, old trams running down the middle of packed streets, a street full of hundreds of birds in cages, endless subway tunnels packed with people staring at their mobile phones, fruit vendors selling drinks made from dragon fruit under flashing billboards. Those billboards right now are turning the night into a vivid noon that messes even more with my temporal dislocation. It's been a long trip, and I'm drunk with jet-lag, living on some crazy meridian that's all my own.
The food starts to arrive, and true to Yammie's approach to life there's a lot of it. There's a soup that's something like what I'd consider corn porridge, though it's thicker and a little more gelatinous. There's some duck that has thin, crisp skin, a glistening layer of fat, and rich dark meat that's thick and dense. It, too, is shiny with bright gravy.
And there are the eggs. The thousand-year eggs.
We have hens at home. I know what eggs generally look like. Red ones, brown ones, blue ones—I've seen them all, and the shells may be different, but when you crack them into the pan they can all make a plain, yellow omelet.
Not these. These have been wrapped in clay and ash, quicklime and salt, and put in cloth-covered jars for several months. The yolks are blackish green, wet and creamy like a cow's eye. The whites are dark and yet translucent, brown like a cube of frozen coffee. I can see through to the pale pink of pickled ginger on the plate underneath it. The outsides of the egg are laced with patterns that look like pine needles, or frost on a window.
I can tell from Yammie's expression that she's enjoying the expression on my face. Raj also seems particularly amused. "Try one," Yammie says. "You tried a durian, right? Now you need to eat an egg."
There are moments in my life when everything seems to pivot, and things after look entirely different. Sometimes it's luck. Sometimes my sense of adventure has pushed myself or my small, patient family unit beyond where someone more comfortable in their own skin would have gone. Other times, circumstances have just snuck up on us, have come together to take us in over our heads, into deep water.
When my first story was accepted by Glimmer Train some sixteen years ago, it was definitely a pivotal time. I was recently out of grad school, where I'd started an online literary magazine, and the Internet start-up I'd jumped right into had crashed and burned pretty badly. Friends were getting lawyers. I was called to testify. My wife and I were living out in the country in Virginia and we, artist and writer, were pretty broke.
I think I used that incredibly-welcome check from Susan and Linda to pay the rest of the rent that month. It got us through to the next job, and that job led to the next one.
I won't forget those feelings, though—first, that feeling of being lost, of having no way to move, of sitting in some dark room.
And then, suddenly, a door opens.
It happens to you, too, I'm sure. It's happened to me a lot in the years since then, and there are many things that stand out as I look back. Sometimes they're good. Sometimes less so.
I can remember sitting up in the delivery room with my wife, listening to the rapid heartbeat of my yet-to-be-born daughter on the monitor before the emergency delivery, and then later holding that tiny kid in the palm of my hand and tracing the IV lines that sprouted from her thickly-wrapped wrist.
I remember watching my kid watch the towers come down on TV. The birth of my son. There was the day I finished building a canoe in our garage and we took it down and snuck it onto the local (restricted-access) lake.
Another time, when I welcomed my growing family to California, to a house with chickens, way out on a ridge overlooking the Pacific, where a well-known Internet movie company had relocated us. And then later, after the economy collapsed and we had no jobs, a Silicon Valley mortgage, car payments, kids in school, no West Coast friends yet to speak of. And a big storm had just knocked out all of our power for a week.
When I write (and I'm a slow writer, easily distracted), these are the moments I try to capture. What was it like before things happened? How does it all go down? Do they lean into it? Or do they put their heads down and try and wait it out? How are things different after? I'm looking for the scary times, the ones that can be paralyzing and transcendent, beautiful and terrifying. Afterwards someone is different.
Afterwards, they're on a meridian that's becoming all the more their own.
"You should eat it," Raj says. "You wouldn't like Yammie when she's angry." Raj, of course, has an excuse. He's a vegetarian.
Yammie does have that glint in her eye, though she's working hard to hold back a grin. She hands me a spoon. The server, too, is watching me from over near the door, her hand over her mouth.
Can an egg change your life? Can Hong Kong? It's pretty amazing that all of us are here, if we think about it. A year before, none of us would have guessed it.
Outside, an old tram goes by, bell ringing, brakes squealing. I put the egg on a spoon with a slice of the ginger.
"Do jeh," I tell Yammie. It's 'thank you' in Cantonese.
And then I take a bite.
Yammi and Raj