My earliest memory of eating popcorn was in a motel in Ashland, Oregon when I was about three or four years old, Jiffy Pop popped on the kitchenette stove. I loved it so much I made a sign with a piece of paper and a handy box of Crayola crayons to hang in the window of our room: Popcorn Pigs! Palomitas (little doves) in Spanish, pipoca (the sound it makes) in Portuguese, and ha li ke in pinyin Chinese. My favorite fiber*, popcorn is hopefully running interference between me and colon cancer. You might be asking yourselves what popcorn has to do with a) China, the subject of the moment, and b) the memoirs of an expat princess. Popcorn has everything to do with China. First, one can find it in the grocery store. Secondly, and more importantly in a memoir sense, I first connected with Princess Ai Lin , an expat princess in her own right, over an almost empty bag of popcorn.
Fast forward thirty years from my first memory of popcorn to a sunny day in August in Northern California: my youngest sister’s wedding reception held at my parents’ house. Five months pregnant with my third child, I’d had the presence of mind to hide the last bag of microwave popcorn in the house; I have a very clear memory of taking the lone bag out of the pantry cupboard and secreting it behind a stack of dishes on the open shelving in my mother’s kitchen. I knew that after the party I would want to relax with a nice bag of Orville’s**. No one raiding a kitchen would ever look for food there, right?
After the wedding ceremony, the guests mingled on the front lawn which was spectacularly decorated with quilted table cloths. A dance floor was on the lawn off the western deck of the house. The bride, the groom and their friends proceeded to celebrate in the warm sunshine. Somewhat of a whale and in no position to drink alcoholic beverages, I caromed around the lawn visiting family friends and changing bridesmaid’s outfits (I had three) at the whim of the bride. When it became apparent that the newleyweds had no intention of leaving their reception seven hours later***, I suggested she fork over her honeymoon suite to my parents as they were ready to leave. The sun had not set by a long shot. The bride merrily agreed and as my father left he said to me, “Now remember, the house is on the market. Don’t let it burn to the ground.”
As it grew dark, the party moved inside to the kitchen, a fact I failed to note as I was busy saying good-bye to the caterer and generally making sure nothing caught fire. When I walked into the kitchen to retrieve and consume my cherished popcorn, I found a dozen twentysomethings cramming the leftovers into their mouths. Everyone froze. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the only things left were the empty Tupperware containers. Hans Solo had a guilty look as he stuffed the last bit of beef tenderloin into his mouth; his sister KLab hid a biscuit behind her back. Ai Lin’s hand was paralyzed inside my bag of popcorn. And that’s when I lost it, yelling at everyone to move the party downtown, that it was rude to eat the leftovers at the same party and that it was especially rude to eat a pregnant girl’s last bag of secret hidden popcorn. Poor Ai Lin received the brunt of my hungry wrath.
Remorseful the next day, I went to Costco and bought Ai Lin a huge box of popcorn, wrote a note of apology, and sent them north to Seattle with my middle sister. She laughed and wrote me back. She was moving to China in a few weeks and was going to have to eat all the popcorn in hurry.
The moral of the story: don’t burn your bridges, especially if you are an expat. The largest city in the world can become the smallest, most inbred, town. (That German woman who drove you bonkers in your first assignment might be the one showing you the ropes in your third and bringing an hors d’oeuvre platter to your Christmas party.) When I was in China last week, Ai Lin graciously and enthusiastically showed me her stomping grounds, where to get the best noodles and dumplings, the (faux) antiques market, and the new H & M clothing store. She had an uncanny knack of calling me on the hotel phone to check on me just as I was midbowl. Thank God I wrote that thank you note.
* Go to http://www.popcorn.org – it is a whole grain food containing endosperm, a word I did not learn until today. January 30 is National Popcorn Day.
**Not loyal to just one brand.
***My mother kicked me out of mine, held on the back lawn, but I’m not bitter.