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A map of loneliness

English Translation from German

A map of loneliness

When I moved to Berlin, Ma was on her way back to Shanghai. She was returning to her birthplace, answering a call that sounded foreign to her, as she sought out the place she once thought she had turned her back on for good. Whenever I missed her, the only thing that comforted me was food. Our food.

I only took a few things with me when I left home for the first time. I wanted to leave everything behind in the city where I was born and where I had often felt like a stranger. Since Ma was going to Shanghai, she cancelled the lease on our apartment and moved out. I was allowed to take whatever I wanted. The first and most important thing I packed was our rice cooker.

There was an Asian supermarket[1] on the street where I lived. I would go there when I missed her since I couldn’t call her due to the time difference. I would walk past the shelves and tear up when I saw the snacks she or my grandfather had bought me as a child.

Ma bought me a big bag of rice before she left. That was her way of taking care of me. That way she felt she could take care of me from afar. She never told me how much water I needed for the rice. At home, my job was to study. Her job was to help me do that. At home, she would only let me wash the rice and rinse it until the cloudy water ran clear.

Initially, I tried to reach her on Wechat to find out how much water I needed. The connection was often weak and unreliable, the conversations chaotic. Take your finger, she said, stick it in, up to the first knuckle, that’ll do. Such were the cryptic instructions she dictated from the distance.

There was nothing in Berlin that reminded me of Ma. There were no material, tangible links relating to my origins or my identity. There was no longer any connection to what had been a natural part of me until now. My mother was everything that made me Chinese—and she was suddenly gone.

When my Ma came to visit once a year, we would go to restaurants that I thought served our cuisine. I myself could only guess whether it was authentic food based on the dishes and the dialect spoken there. So I always needed Ma’s verdict to really feel like this was a piece of home. She had to approve the food and ask the waiters which part of China their families came from. Only then would I feel comfortable.

I made a Google note of every Chinese restaurant I visited in Berlin, charting my own path through the city. I found 饺子[2] that tasted just like the ones Ma used to make. She had taught me how to fold them myself so they wouldn’t open in boiling water. I found bad and dry 小笼包,[3], whose dough was more like 包子[4] and were the wrong size. I looked around: none of the other diners seemed to mind. They happily and unsuspectingly paid a small fortune for the incorrectly prepared yeast dumplings. I found 炒面[5] that had been seasoned with curry powder for no apparent reason. I was often disappointed when I walked into a restaurant and no one spoke to me in my native language. The restaurant was just a backdrop, Asian to the foreign eye at best, and a fraud in mine. But there were also places where they served 土豆丝[6] and 地三鲜[7] and that tasted like my home; 烤麸[8] that tasted like the memory of my Ayí. The places Ma approved were the places I went to after she left, to feel less alone. There, the memory of my Ma lived on.

As a child with different heritages, the problem I have in mapping memories is the blank pages I was given on the journey. The only things recorded on them are fading references to language, history, tradition, and sadly, often suffering. We often don’t notice these clues for a long time. To remember is also always to return—to places and circumstances and people who may no longer exist. To remember means to create something of your own out of the past, for which an uncompromising space must first be made. Very often this has little to do with what our parents gave us to remember. Many of my memories that feature Ma are, to some extent, a tribute to my roots. I have carefully and sensitively curated them over the years.

Once Ma came back and we visited a restaurant on my street that no longer exists. [9] In front of the door was a sign with peeling paint advertising an “All You Can Eat Buffet.” The waitress came to our table and Ma spoke to her in our language. Then the waitress apologetically took the laminated cards from the table with a laugh, saying that this menu was for foreigners and she’d go get the right one. The waitress eyed me while Ma read the Chinese card. I asked for 鱼香茄子[10]. The waitress called for the cook. Were there any eggplants left? He came out of the kitchen cursing. He said no and looked heartbroken when he saw me. The waitress looked at me closely and asked my Ma if I was her daughter. Ma said yes. The waitress asked, 混血[11]? I nodded. Wait, she said, and disappeared. When she came back, she explained that the cook had gone to the Turkish supermarket under the restaurant. He was going to get eggplants, and he would be back soon to prepare the food. She thought the food would be on the table in twenty minutes.

I remember that the food was excellent and that the chef personally inquired about it. But even more clearly, I remember realizing that there are unspoken pacts between people born in the same place who meet somewhere else in the world. How they toil together on the social margins to provide a more advantageous position for the generations to come, so that those generations might have a future more promising than their own. To this day, I’m still looking for a restaurant where the 鱼香茄子 tastes like it did that day.


[1] VINH-LOI Asia Supermarket, Müllerstraße 141, 13353 Berlin
[2] Jiǎozi, Wok Show, Greifenhagener Str. 31, 10437 Berlin; Shaniu’s House of Noodles, Pariser Str. 58, 10719 Berlin
[3] Xiǎo Lóng Bāo
[4] Bāo zi
[5] Chǎo Miàn
[6] Tǔ Dòu Sī, Asia Deli Berlin, Seestraße 41, 13353 Berlin
[7] Dì Sān Xiān, Tianfuzius, Regensburger Str. 1, 10777 Berlin
[8] KǎoFū, Wok Show, Greifenhagener Str. 31, 10437 Berlin
[9] It was on Müllerstraße, 13353 Berlin.
[10] Yú Xiāng Qié Zi
[11] Hùn Xuè