by Wenjia Zhu
What Yiyi finds most striking about America is its abundance of popcorn. At home in the tiny one room apartment she shares with her husband, she sees the soft bulbous shapes winking at her from the small television set during commercials that interrupt the evening news. At the grocery store, she sees the neat red and yellow boxes containing small packets of microwavable kernels piled high on every shelf, mocking her as she passes them by. At movie theaters, she smells its sticky sweet, buttery aroma waft from the busy snack lines. Never before has Yiyi seen so much popcorn, and with so much variety! Butter-coated. Non-salted. Caramel. Kettle-cooked. Cheddar cheese. Some days, Yiyi feels suffocated by the ubiquitous images of America’s favorite snack food. The aisles of popcorn-filled shelves seem to close in on her as she walks by, and the smell of the swollen corn from the movie theaters nauseates her. But if Yiyi were still a kid, she would have been in popcorn heaven.
In minutes, a small handful of sorry little rice grains transforms into a bowl teeming with hot, round crisp balls. Magic.
It is 1965 and Yiyi is 9. She lives in a small rural town in Sichuan, a large province located in the west of China. Her village is a collection of small gray houses huddled at the crest of a small hill. Some of the houses are so old that they don’t even have glass in their windows, but only thin pieces of rice paper covering decorative window frames. For people in Yiyi’s village, popcorn is a luxury. But the word “popcorn” is misleading because people simply throw their leftover rice into a popping kettle and watch the slim kernels puff to five times their original sizes. In minutes, a small handful of sorry little rice grains transforms into a bowl teeming with hot, round crisp balls.
A special man, in charge of creating this popcorn, balances a heavy machine on a long wooden staff and carries the staff over his shoulders. Every day, he travels from town to town, offering to make popcorn. Everyone else, including Yiyi, knows him as “the popcorn man”.
“Mai bao mi hua le! Hao xiang de bao mi hua!” The popcorn man chants as he walks from house to house, encouraging the residents inside to get some fragrant popcorn. Whenever he finds a willing customer, the popcorn man lowers the staff and assembles the mysterious machine. A pleated wind pump feeds into a coal stove supporting a torpedo-shaped kettle. The popcorn man carries no rice to pop himself. It is the customer who, once the machine is set up, drops the rice he or she wants to pop inside the kettle. The popcorn man then turns on the stove, and simultaneously uses his right hand to pump the wind pipe that feeds the heat of the stove, and his left hand to turn the metal handle rapidly to keep the rice kernels from burning. Within minutes, the kettle emits soft popping noises that quickly crescendo into a loud popping symphony. Attracted by the noise, grown-ups and kids scavenge in rationed rice sacks and cold woks for leftover rice to turn into popcorn. Soon a long line forms next to the popcorn machine. Sometimes there are over a hundred feet clad in black cloth slippers standing on the dusty, pebbled road, all waiting their turn for a taste of something new.
* * *
The popcorn man comes to Yiyi’s village once a year. Each time he arrives, Yiyi timidly approaches her tight-lipped mother and asks if she can spare some extra rice for the popcorn man.
“PUHLEASE? I’m the only person at school who has never had popcorn,” Yiyi would say to her mom in her most convincing voice, opening her eyes extra wide to try to look pitiable. Yiyi’s eyes are already big. While most of her friends have eyes shaped like almonds that seem to have been cut into their faces, Yiyi’s eyes look like giant half moons. Many girls at school made fun of Yiyi’s unusual eyes, telling her that she had the eyes of a cow, big and bulging. Others thought that Yiyi’s eyes didn’t look Chinese at all, whispering that Yiyi’s mother must have had an affair with a high-nosed white man. They said that Yiyi was one half of a foreign devil. Unaware of the jealousy driving these accusations, Yiyi felt ashamed at first and tried to conceal the size of her eyes with her hair. Sometimes she even resorted to squinting, which only made her look sillier.
On that day, Yiyi discovered the wondrous, but forbidden, appeal of the Western world.
One day, when Yiyi was six, she visited the marketplace with her mother and saw a kindly old man selling pomegranates. Yiyi had only eaten a pomegranate once, when she and her brother had found the fruit lying on the side of the road, dusty but otherwise unblemished. She still remembered the tiny red jewels inside, and the sharp sweetness of the ruby grains. Seeing the red pomegranates piled high on the stand, Yiyi could almost taste the pomegranate juice on her tongue again. The man was selling the red fruit for fifty cents, a ridiculously high price even for fruit, which was rare at the time. Yiyi only had five cents with her, but she spent so long staring at the fruit that the pomegranate seller noticed her.
“What beautiful eyes you have!” he exclaimed. Yiyi blinked. No one had ever called her “beautiful” before. “You want to see something?” he whispered. Yiyi nodded. The pomegranate man ushered Yiyi to the back of the fruit stand and pulled out a yellowed magazine. On a tattered page was a photograph of a pretty foreign actress coyly glancing over her shoulder at a well-dressed gentleman. The pomegranate man first pointed to the eyes of the actress and then to Yiyi. Though confused at first, Yiyi slowly understood the man’s meaning. He was pointing out the resemblance between the actress’s doe-shaped eyes and Yiyi’s half-moon ones. Yiyi smiled. At that moment, another customer came by and the pomegranate man quickly hid the magazine inside his coat pocket. He put his finger to his lips and told Yiyi not to say anything about the magazine. “These are not allowed anymore,” he said quietly. At seven, Yiyi was too young to grasp fully the seriousness of the man’s warning, and naively nodded her head to swear her silence. “No one,” the pomegranate man repeated firmly. The wrinkles around his eyes crinkled into tangled streaks of worry. Yiyi nodded again, this time more vigorously. The man sighed, realizing that this child was too young to understand how life was in the past, before all the books and magazines representing the Western world were burned and censored, a time when the mere possession of such artifacts would not lead to blacklisting and imprisonment. For Yiyi, these objects were banned before she was even old enough to be aware of their meaning.
As Yiyi turned to leave, the pomegranate man handed her a bright red fruit: “For you, and those eyes.” She stuffed the pomegranate inside her coat, and skipped all the way back to her mother. On that day, Yiyi discovered the wondrous, but forbidden, appeal of the Western world. She also realized that her “cow-eyes” had a powerful effect on people, men and women alike. Whenever she really wanted something, she would open her eyes extra wide, and furrow her eyebrows so that her face looked particularly mournful. This look usually worked on most people, including friends, neighbors, and even teachers. But Yiyi’s mother was never charmed by her daughter’s big, expressive eyes. So despite Yiyi’s irresistible pleas for popcorn, her mother always returned the same brusque answer.
“No. Waste of food.”
Yiyi’s mother, Song, is a reserved woman of thirty who never says more than a few words at a time. Despite her stern exterior, though, Song is secretly sad to disappoint her daughter. Song remembers how, when she was young, she and her best friend would curl their hair with hot iron rods and pretend to be daughters of rich landlords. Then all the landlords were taken away, some by force, while others simply disappeared. The times were changing. Song’s best friend’s father was beaten when he refused to give up a magnificent grandfather’s clock that had been passed down in his family. Song’s mother, fearing that her daughter’s playful habits of foreign dress-up would get the entire family in trouble as well, cut Song’s hair like a boy’s and took away the iron rods. From that day on, fear became Song’s constant companion. Like her mother, Song found that her personality eventually accumulated a thick layer of distrust and rigidity. She believed the safest way to live was to be unaffiliated and unnoticeable. Song thought that the popcorn man had questionable roots, and that his flamboyant gestures were only welcomed because of his rare appearances in an otherwise flat, uneventful little town. She did not want to get her family in trouble. So sometimes, after a pause, Song would say to Yiyi after refusing her popcorn request, “I don’t like that popcorn man. Not honest.”
Disappointed each time, Yiyi trudges back to her room, which is more like a cupboard than a bedroom, and buries her head under her pillow to drown the excited chatter of the crowd gathered around the popcorn man. But most of the time, Yiyi’s fascination with the popcorn man and his machine overwhelms her initial sullenness, and she eventually finds herself propped against the windowsill, staring eagerly at the machine that does not stop popping. No matter how many times she watches the process, Yiyi always feels a thrill of delight each time the thin grains of rice slowly inflate into soft, round shapes. Sometimes she can almost taste the fragrant puffs!
Perhaps it is the almost theatrical performance of the popcorn man as he throws the rice kernels in his kettle and stirs them that mesmerizes Yiyi, or perhaps it is his strange clothing that captures her attention. Unlike most of the villagers, who usually wear drab gray or brown shirts and trousers, with collars at the neck and a neat row of buttons down the center, the popcorn man dresses in outfits that look more colorful and less stiff. His clothes seem to reflect all the places that he has traveled to, places that Yiyi can only dream about.
Sometimes, while watching the popcorn man work his magic, Yiyi tries to imitate his simultaneous pumping and stirring motions. Pump with the right hand, stir with the left. It is a lot harder than it looks. Yiyi can barely pat her head and rub her stomach at the same time, but is determined to impress the popcorn man. She secretly thinks that, maybe if she shows him that she is clever enough, he will reveal the secrets of the popcorn machine, and even let her taste one of the round puffs.
Yiyi picks up the metal kettle and shyly approaches the popcorn man, clutching seven years of unfulfilled dreams to her chest.
When Yiyi feels bored, she flips through the secret magazine clippings that she has uncovered from odd places. Among her collection are photographs of foreign actresses, lazily basking in their beauty. Yiyi knows that pictures like these are banned, and that she would certainly be punished with three weeks of bathroom chores by her mother if caught. But ever since her encounter with the pomegranate man, Yiyi has had a certain fascination with the West. Often, Yiyi gazes at herself in the mirror, trying to imitate the looks and mannerisms of the magazine actresses. She pays special attention to her eyes, and thinks of new ways to make them more expressive. But no matter how hard Yiyi looks into the mirror, she can never fully escape her country girl appearance. She owns only two sets of clothing, one for daily wear, and the other for special occasions. Yiyi thinks that her clothes are boring. In fact, she thinks almost everything about her life is dull, including the food, rationed to families in the form of meal tickets. On good days, Yiyi might have the chance to sink her teeth into some soft egg yolk, although most of the time, she only eats plain white cabbages, steamed tofu, and rice. Thus it is not surprising that Yiyi craves the taste of something different, something that might bring her a little closer to the glamorous world of the pretty actresses. So Yiyi pines after the popcorn taste because, for her, the popcorn contains hidden knowledge and secrets. Each time her wishes are denied, her curiosity about the mysterious popcorn man, and the delicious white puffs he creates, deepens.
* * *
A curiously heavy fog settles around the village during the summer of 1968. Yiyi is at the marketplace buying fish for dinner. Today is her father’s fortieth birthday, and her mother wants to celebrate by cooking some seafood. Yiyi has not eaten fish for so long that she doesn’t even remember what it tastes like. At twelve years old, Yiyi’s face is losing its baby chubbiness and gaining the first signs of womanhood. Today, that face is streaked with angry tears, because the popcorn man came to her village and once again, Yiyi’s mother denied her daughter’s wish for popcorn. This time, however, instead of silently retreating to her room to wallow in misery, Yiyi argued back.
“You are so unfair!”, she screamed. Shocked at Yiyi’s insolence, Song slapped her daughter across the face, then immediately regretted her actions when she saw Yiyi’s eyes darken in anger. A few hours later, Song gently asked Yiyi to run to the marketplace to buy food for dinner. Song knows how much her daughter likes to go to the marketplace, and thought that maybe after Yiyi came back, Song would be forgiven for her earlier harshness.
Two hours later, Yiyi remains at the marketplace. While she may not remember the taste of fish, Yiyi certainly knows that it will start to rot and smell in the clammy hot weather if she does not return home soon. But she does not want to go home yet because she still feels angry at her mother, and because she relishes these rare opportunities of freedom when she can pretend to be someone else with a more exciting life.
After another half hour of aimless wandering between food stalls and daydreaming, Yiyi realizes that it is getting dark outside and that most shops are starting to close for the day. She is secretly disappointed though, as she was hoping to catch another glimpse of the pomegranate man she saw years ago. Just as Yiyi is about to turn to go home, she hears a loud clanking sound followed by a string of colorful curse words. Yiyi turns around to find herself staring at none other but the popcorn man, his bright blue shirt slightly torn at the collar, sitting on the dirt ground with scattered pieces of the popcorn machine around him. His tumble has caused his metal kettle to roll to the ground until it stops at Yiyi’s feet with an echoing clang-g-g-g. Her heart begins to race as she cannot believe her good luck. Yiyi picks up the metal kettle and shyly approaches the popcorn man, clutching seven years of unfulfilled dreams to her chest.
“Uncle…” Yiyi begins timidly. “You dropped your kettle.”
“Damned hell I did,” the popcorn man starts to swear, but abruptly stops when he sees Yiyi staring at him with wide, curious eyes. His eyes move to her cold pink cheeks, still wet from her earlier tears, and then falls on her round petulant mouth. Immediately, he adopts the demeanor of the cheerful and gracious popcorn man that he is known as, and winks at Yiyi.
“Why thank you, little lady." Yiyi smiles, her fear now completely replaced by excitement.
“You’re the popcorn man!”, she bursts out breathlessly.
“Ah, aren’t you a clever one,” the popcorn man says, encouragingly.
“I am clever! I know how to make popcorn too. I watch you all the time!”
The popcorn man looks at her curiously. After a pause he says, “I know who you are, too. You’re that little girl with beautiful eyes.” He starts to look at her with a new intensity. The man’s probing eyes make Yiyi feel slightly uncomfortable, but she ignores the feeling entirely because she is so thrilled that the popcorn man remembers her! And not only that; he thinks she’s smart and pretty. Yiyi’s smile broadens, and she flicks a shy glance at the popcorn man, keeping in mind the mannerisms of the foreign actresses. She thinks back to the day the pomegranate man gave her the fruit as a gift to her bright eyes, and hopes that something similar will happen today as well.
The popcorn man notices Yiyi’s longing glances at his kettle and once or twice even catches her pink little tongue licking her lips in hunger. “Would you like some popcorn, pretty missy?” Yiyi’s eyes brighten and she nods vigorously.
“Then come with me.” He motions to an empty food stall. Yiyi obediently follows the popcorn man to the deserted vegetable stall, behind which is a small alleyway used by merchants to quickly transport and restock produce. Yiyi wonders if the popcorn man will show her some unusual treasures that he has collected on his journeys, just as the pomegranate man introduced her to foreign magazines. Maybe he’ll tell her that she reminds him of some exotic dancer from a faraway land. Yiyi looks at the popcorn man expectantly.
“Now I do not usually give out popcorn, since my job is only to make it,” he begins, like an indulgent uncle to a spoiled child. “But luckily for you, I have a bag left over today.” He reaches behind Yiyi as if to grab something, and when he brings the hand back in front of her, there is a woven bag bursting with puffed rice kernels.
“Magic,” Yiyi thinks gleefully.
“But I would like for you to give me something first,” the popcorn man says, cutting through her thoughts. He takes a step closer to Yiyi. “Only fair, right? If I give you a gift, then you must give me a gift.” Yiyi nods, still captivated by the bag of popcorn in front of her. It is so close. The popcorn man puts a finger on her cheek, and traces its curved plumpness to the nape of her neck. Yiyi shrinks from his touch, which suddenly feels very, very wrong. She looks back at the popcorn man and realizes for the first time that his eyes are bloodshot. She opens her mouth to protest.
“Shhh,” he says. “Keep still if you want your popcorn.” Yiyi nods, less certainly this time. She assures herself that the popcorn man only wants to make sure that she’s worthy of such a generous gift. At her silence, the popcorn man moves closer, until his body is only an inch away from hers. He takes his finger and places it on her other cheek, then slowly makes the same outline around her face, but this time stopping at the tiny row of buttons at her collar. His breathing becomes heavier and more ragged. Being so close to the popcorn man is suffocating to Yiyi. She notices that his clothing is torn in several places, and the color is yellowed and sickly. His breath in her face reeks of a sweet, pungent smell that reminds Yiyi strongly of the day when her father came home drunk after losing his job. The popcorn man’s hands start to undo the neat little buttons on Yiyi’s collar. Yiyi feels sick to her stomach, all thoughts of popcorn lost, and now only eager to return home. She realizes that it is quite dark outside.
“Uncle..I-I need to go home. I have been gone for a long time and my mother will be very angry with me,” Yiyi squeaked.
“Ah…don’t worry. You’ll have your popcorn real soon,” the popcorn man now struggles with a particularly stubborn little gray button.
“Please Uncle, I really need to go,” Yiyi’s voice now sounds frantic. Her hair, wet with perspiration, is matted in front of her eyes. She turns around to leave but the popcorn man grabs her arm and slams her against the brick wall. Yiyi gasps from the force of the impact.
“Stupid girl! Stop moving. I just want to see a little more of you,” the popcorn man says, his nostrils flared, and face flushed. Yiyi starts to scream.
“SHUT UP, SHUT UP!” the popcorn man yells, his eyes now dark with anger. “You want popcorn, huh, pretty girl?” He reaches into the bag to grab a handful of rice puffs. Despite Yiyi’s protests, the popcorn man forces her lips open and stuffs the popcorn inside her mouth to muffle her cries, nearly choking her. The popcorn man now puts his hands on Yiyi’s waist, and slowly works them around her body, fumbling with the buttons on her shirt and pants. Yiyi is sobbing. Her tears fall in torrents, as if trying to drown out the shame of the man’s hands on her body. She cannot scream because of the popcorn in her mouth. The crispy kernels that she so longed for are stale and the taste of blood is in her mouth.
Several minutes later, the popcorn man finally releases her. He quickly gathers his machine and wooden staff and swiftly disappears down the alley. Yiyi sits in the alley, shocked and dumbfounded. She stares at the remaining popcorn strewn on the dirt ground, and feels her stomach churn in revulsion. Yiyi cries silently as she empties her stomach and then with shaking hands, slowly buttons up her shirt and walks home, completely forgetting about the fish and the popcorn, rotting away together in that alleyway.
At home, Yiyi ignores the sharp scolds of her mother asking her why she took so long or why she forgot the fish. She blindly walks into her room and pulls out her secret magazine stash. Yiyi places her finger on one of the actress’s cheeks, and begins to cry softly. She begins to rip the page apart, slowly at first, making a neat little tear through the actress’s pretty face. Then she begins to rip the pages more frantically, a sob now strangling her throat. Her crying turns into anger, and she shreds the magazine pages with such ferocity until nothing remains but a mess of sorry little pieces, briefly suspended in the air before falling to the ground in a halo-like circle around Yiyi’s trembling figure.