|About Amy Mar
It was on a trip around the world a couple of years ago that Amy Mar realized she wanted to write fiction.
"I saw a lot of things I'd never seen before. It had a real impact on me," she said. She kept a travelogue to record her experiences, but soon she found herself wanting to rephrase what happened so she could better express herself. She discovered that the best way for her to write effectively is to "manufacture a story that will tell the truth," she said.
When she returned from her travels, Mar began attending writing classes, where she met people with similar interests. Over the past two years, she has joined a series of writing groups, a resource Mar feels fortunate to have.
"While the actual activity is a solitary one, I find I need the support of other people," said Mar, who lives in Menlo Park. It was her current group, in fact, that encouraged her to enter the Weekly's short story contest.
But the group's support isn't the only reason Mar, 38, values her colleagues. They also supply the motivation and constructive criticism she needs to succeed with her pieces.
"We know how to support each other without being totally positive," said Mar, who works as a technical writer for a software company when she's not writing fiction. If left alone, "I find all kinds of ways not to write."
When she does get around to writing, Mar says, her ideas come from her experiences. They can emerge from "something I observed, a person I found inspiring or an event that was moving," she said.
Like the main character in "Little Hearts," Mar's parents owned a restaurant when she was growing up in Manhattan, Kan. Although she's never been a vegetarian and her father is still living, the central themes in her story resonate in her life. "There is a lot of food-centered symbolism in my family--food means a lot," she said.
She also appreciates the struggle between traditional values and new ideas and the subsequent compromises families must make.
The world is constantly changing, and "you're not going to have the same life as your parents," she said.
by Amy Mar
I am a vegetarian everywhere except my mom's house. It used to be my house, too, but now I only go back there a couple of times a semester and on holidays. I stopped thinking of it as home about a year ago, the same time I stopped eating meat.
I like that I've chosen, deliberately, what I will and won't eat. At my mom's house, though, I revert; I'm not a grown-up anymore. When I come back from a visit, digesting the excess protein, I feel untrue, not only in my body but in my heart. My mom believes you become weak if you don't eat meat twice a day. As a girl in China during World War II, she learned what meat signifies. People who have meat are generous, their faces smooth and full. Meatlessness is poverty.
When my dad was alive, he made dim sum "little hearts," dumplings, for special occasions. They weren't like the eggrolls or wontons he cooked for my uncle's restaurant. They were wiggly translucent crescents, two bites' worth savory pork steamed in a slippery shell, and he made them just for us. The first New Year's after he died, my mom made them for the first time. I stood around the kitchen with my three younger brothers, watching her dislodge them from the steamer with tongs and lay them puffed and scalding on the serving platter.
We gobbled the first few down, sucking air into our mouths as we chewed to keep from burning. The dumplings were not like the ones my dad made. In the first place, they all looked the same. Dad's might be bulging or slender, shapely or lumpy, depending on his mood. Mom's could have subdivided from a single cell. They tasted different, too. Dad's dumplings had an aromatic fullness that left your mouth watering after you swallowed. Mom's were bland and weak. I could tell my brothers thought the same thing. None of us said it. But by the end of the day we made sure we had eaten them all.
My mom took my dad's place at the restaurant after he died. She had never had to cook, not in such quantity, not in the variety and complexity the menu demanded. She cried a lot the first month, shaken by my uncle's shouts, the soup too thin, the pork too salty, and who taught her how to hold a cleaver like that? But my mom didn't have a choice; she still had four children at home. Now, after five years, she's the master of the butcher block and the oven.
Her dumplings, though, never improved. She tried changing everything. She tried so hard because she wanted not to lose them, too. The dumplings are her way of remembering my dad, but they are imperfect as memories are, approximations of the way things were.
If I hadn't been a vegetarian, I wouldn't have met Eddie. Eddie has been vegetarian since he was 16. It's not that he's fainthearted or sentimental. He doesn't see animals as cute and cuddly. Eddie's got a strong animal nature, a kinship that makes it cannibalism for him to eat them. Me, I'm vegetarian from the head, not the heart. I respect animals, but if it's wrong to kill a pig, why is it okay to kill an insect, or for that matter, a carrot? I eat low on the food chain for conservation. It takes a lot of land and water to raise a cow.
"So you haven't told your mom you're vegetarian?" Eddie asked.
"It would be easier to explain to her that I was a Communist," I told him. "At least she understands what a Communist is." Tomorrow he is coming to my mom's house for Thanksgiving. He thinks he's going to live on rice for these three days.
I am sitting at the kitchen table watching my mom cook. The Formica table takes up most of the small room, and I am wedged into one corner to stay out of her way. She has given me an old sweater to unravel; a neighbor had thrown it out. She will knit herself a vest from the yarn.
The mound of dough has been resting for an hour, crystalline white and waxen on the counter. She pinches off a thumb's worth and rolls it between her palms. With fingertips, she presses the ball into a disc, turning it wider and flatter. She folds six dainty pleats along half of the edge, forming a pouch which she spoons cooked filling into. Then she brings the flat half over and seals the edges together: a plump half-moon with puckered lip. The dumplings collect on the counter like shells on a beach.
"Do you think you could make some without meat? Eddie likes them without meat," I venture.
She looks over at me. "What do you mean, no meat? Of course there has to be meat. Pork."
"Well, he doesn't really eat much, um, pork."
"Beef? Chicken? It's not the same without pork." She is shaking her head.
"He doesn't eat beef or chicken, either. Or shrimp."
"No meat?" It is starting to dawn on her. She looks around the kitchen. There is a roast marinating in a pan by the stove. There are lap cheong sausages on the cutting board. In the refrigerator are, no doubt, strips of beef and a whole chicken. Her hands are on her hips. "What am I going to do?"
"How about tofu?" I suggest.
"To-fu! Tofu. Tofu dumplings?" She is sitting down now. "Who ever heard of such a thing?"
"I think they would be all right."
"All right? And what about the chicken? Do I make it out of tofu, too?"
Just then my brother Eric comes in from soccer, carrying his cleats and shinpads.
"Hi, Cecelia. What's going on?" He looks at Mom.
"Your sister's boyfriend doesn't eat meat," Mom says.
"Hunh. Is he allergic?" asks Eric.
I almost say yes, but I have already told too many lies. "He's a vegetarian."
"Oh. Must be tough eating out." He gets a soda from the refrigerator, and I spy the chicken inside.
"It is. We cook together a lot."
My mom raises her eyebrows. She has gone back to making dumplings. The water in the wok is boiling beneath the steamer basket. I can tell by the sharp movements of her hands and the forceful way she shapes the dough that she's upset. Eric disappears into his room.
I finish off a sleeve, and my mom makes three more dumplings in silence. I remember the last time she was mad at me. A relative had given me a five-dollar bill in a red-and-gold envelope, and I tried to give it back. I thought I was getting too old for the ritual. "Thank you, but I don't need this," I said politely. My mom was appalled. How ignorant, how rude. "This is lucky money," she said. "You don't give it back." After that, whenever she gave me money, it was always in a red envelope.
"This wouldn't have happened if your father was alive," she says, arranging dumplings in the steamer. I am stung, but there is some truth there. My dad would have bellowed and raged. I wouldn't have dared to ask. I always thought my mom was too quick to give in to him, but now I am wishing for that conciliatory side. Since he died, she's tried to be more like him, to do what he would have done.
"Maybe Eddie will eat chicken," I offer, knowing he doesn't even like chicken.
"It's our fault. We didn't teach you Chinese ways. Now you don't know better." She puts the lid on the wok, her back to me. She had always looked small next to dad, and now she looks small in her own right, even in this crowded kitchen. Too small to carry what fate has given her.
I reduce the sweater to three balls of blue-green yarn, divorced from its former life, its new identity yet unformed.
So maybe you shouldn't come," I am saying to Eddie on the phone.
"It won't be so bad. There will be something I can eat." He is so innocent. Even the vegetable dishes will have bits of chicken, ham, or sausage. But starvation is not the issue.
"I just hope she can get to know you," I sigh. "There's more to life than food."
"I can eat meat just this once. It won't kill me. Not right away, anyhow."
I am touched and alarmed by this offer. "No, I want you to be yourself. You shouldn't have to be dishonest."
"But that's only part of the truth. The other part is that I want to respect your mother. In her house, I should eat what she serves." He sounds matter-of-fact, but I am not comfortable. It is a big sacrifice.
Eddie arrives at 4:00 the next day, and we play Pictionary with my brothers John and Frank. I am explaining my last drawing to Frank.
"It's supposed to be a hippie. See the long hair? The peace sign? Why didn't you say hippie?" I sputter.
"Is that hair? It looks like a hat. You just can't draw, Cece. It's a guy with a hat and a chicken foot."
"A chicken foot? Have you been living in a cave?"
"Hey, I wasn't around in the sixties. And not all hippies have long hair." Frank points to Eddie. "He doesn't have long hair."
"Eddie's not a hippie."
"I thought you said he was a vegetarian."
I am embarrassed. Maybe I was adopted. But Eddie just laughs. "I think I do actually own a peace sign," he says.
Dinner is ready, and Eddie helps my mom bring the food from the kitchen while my lazy brothers sit at the table telling bad puns. Eddie holds the chair for me, then for my mom, and I see Eric roll his eyes at John and Frank. But it's not an act; Eddie was raised with manners. My mom smiles a bit as he pushes her chair in for her.
Everyone slurps their soup as I scan the table for hazards. There's a Peking chicken oozing sauce, a whole baked fish with its surprised eye, and a platter of juicy roast pork slices. Those are obvious. There are bits of sausage in the long beans, and beef mixed in with the bok choy. Even the soup we're eating has chicken livers, but I saw my mom evade them as she filled Eddie's bowl. He downs the pork-based stock without signs of nausea and compliments the winter melon, which my mom grew in her garden.
John reaches for the dumplings. "John," my mom intervenes. "Those are for Eddie." For the first time I notice that the dumplings nearest John are faintly yellow, not the usual gray, behind their filmy skins. Eddie takes a bite of one. "Mm mm," he says.
I take one, too. It's full of chopped vegetables, onion and carrot and other green and yellow bits I can't identify. It's spicy and sweet and complicated. I pick up another. "Hey, these are great," I tell my mom.
I realize the betrayal in my praise when I see her smile turn to consternation. These mutant little hearts have no family tradition, no memory of my dad. They are children only of the compromise she is willing to make for me. And of the compromise I make for her.
"Please pass the chicken," I say.
With its artful and entertaining focus on three ways of preparing dumplings, this story makes a convincing case that the best way to a reader's heart is through his or her stomach. "Little Hearts" is an insightful, revealing and, above all, tasty morsel."
This witty, accomplished author lays out a grid of family emotions, then shows their interplay, exploring such tensions as a daughter's need for individuality versus her hunger for conciliation. Subtle perceptions are contained in virtuoso lines--"(My mother looks) too small to carry what fate has given her." I love the intelligence and polish of this story."
"'Little Hearts' grabbed and held my attention from beginning to end. The tangible smell of the heart-shaped dumplings--from which the story takes its title--followed me even as I moved on to reading other stories. The author creates the evocative situation of an Asian-American family working its way toward achieving harmony via a metaphor: What ingredients will fill the dumplings and what meats will grace the family dinner table--at which sit a vegetarian daughter and her boyfriend. Memories of the family's long-dead patriarch crowd all of the characters' minds and hearts, and these strong emotional reactions work to pull the story to life."
--Linda Gray Sexton