Bao

Bao

Po Po and I never really understood each other. I couldn’t speak Cantonese and she couldn’t speak English. My family used to visit her small Hong Kong high-rise every summer or so, but I would always dread going to dinner with relatives. Whenever she spoke to me in Cantonese, I could only reply in English, which my parents would then need to translate. She would always look at me with confusion and frustration, and I would be flushed with embarrassment. So we would end up just never talking to each other at all.

Every year, my family rode a cramped taxi cab from the Hong Kong airport to Po Po’s small apartment late at night. My sister, father and I would be shoulder-to-shoulder in the backseat, with my little brother sitting on someone’s lap. (This was certainly not safe but my mother would never pay for a five passenger SUV cab- are you crazy?) My mother would chit chat with the taxi driver in Cantonese as the meter ticked. The rest of us stayed quiet. It would be completely dark outside, with only the blinking high-rise building lights on the Hong Kong shoreline. I could look out my taxi cab window for hours.

The cab would roll to stop after around thirty minutes. Still dazed from jet lag and wanderlust, I’d stumble out of the cab, relieved of leaving the sweaty pleather seats, embracing the space around me. She’d greet us at the entrance, and we’d lug suitcases up the dingy elevator, through the narrow hallways. Exhausted, everyone would crash and fall asleep. But I stopped at the dinner table first, always, to find five, fresh pork and veggie buns laying on the table waiting. 

Five buns, originally one per family member. However, if anyone else touched one bun I would throw a major tantrum. I remember getting in a huge fit with my mother because she let my brother eat one for breakfast. It ended up being five buns, one per day for me. I would eat a bun everyday for breakfast, and squeal every time I wake up to see a fresh batch she bought at the market at dawn. 

Ho sik ah?” she would ask. Is it good? I would only be able to nod my head yes. But that was all we really needed. Steaming pork and sweet cabbage cushioned in soft white carbs. The five buns that only Po Po and I understood.

On a summer visit six years ago, I immediately noticed a difference when the buns that awaited for me tasted off. The cabbage ratio was wrong, the pork was blander and the bao was crumbier. I instantly asked my mother to relay to Po Po, what were such imposter baos doing here? I wanted the regular ones!

My regular bun store ended up closing permanently a couple months before we visited. I started eating less of them, for the first time ever, voluntarily offering them to my brother. Eating them just didn’t give me the same feeling.

As Po Po’s health deteriorated, she wasn’t able to walk to the market in the morning to buy me buns anymore. Eventually I would stop eating pork and veggie buns in Hong Kong at all.

The last time I visited Hong Kong was four summers ago, and Po Po passed away two years later. It seems as if I have lost all personal connection to that city, knowing that there wouldn’t be five warm buns or Po Po waiting for me. I sometimes wonder if I will ever go back to Hong Kong. I wonder if I will ever get that feeling back — a mix of calmness from the night shoreline, the sense of belonging from Po Po’s gaze, the taste of that first pork and veggie bun. My brain can’t comprehend what that exact feeling is, but my heart yearns for it to return.