Sweet-N-Low

by Pingmei Lan Read author interview December 16, 2019

The backroom reminded you of a mouth, dark maroon stripes trimming pale peach walls, a listless carpet runner cutting the floor in half. Its soy and mustard-scented breath held you, as the nightshift manager stepped forward, backing you against rows of supply shelves. A naked bulb blinked overhead, strung from the ceiling on dusty wires. The last filament red. Packets crinkled. Crispy noodles or …? His hand measured the uneven terrains of your rib cage, the still implausible curves of your breasts. Your shirt was pressed this morning but you felt its haphazard creases, and sensations of steam and cold sweat. 

The tiny high window looked fogged. Perhaps there would be rain.

You were seventeen. New to the country. To the language. White-table-clothed and shiny spotless American restaurants wouldn’t hire you. The college courses you signed up for had drained your savings. A friend’s friend or third cousin was related to the owner, the boss of this business lunch and late night karaoke joint. He had white hair, a sharp little smile and promised to train you. No experience necessary. But first the nightshift manager needed someone to organize the backroom. A low-key way for you to get started. Cut him some slack, warned the boss. The man’s wife got cancer last year but he had been loyal, to the restaurant, and to his family. That kind of devotion is rare these days. 

You nodded. Tying and retying your apron strings, triple knots inside out. You had a bad feeling about what was coming. On the other hand, your own grandmother had died of cancer.

Seven years later. A shiny American company offers you an accounting job. The pay is nothing but the boss promises to sponsor your green card. Soon. It means an end to long held breath. To hair falling in clumps under hot fluorescent lamps. Shame pushed so far down your throat it gurgles under every breath. You take a picture of the company façade and send it home. You imagine your father framing it next to a picture of Mao and a statue of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy. 

You take the job.

On your first day, you sink into a gray office chair and spin, its nubby wool cover gritty and firm against your back, pale spotless walls all around you. You stare at your name on the door. They’ve spelled it Janie instead of Jian, to be more customer friendly, as casually suggested by the boss. 

You wish you could say you were outraged. And fought it. But the only thing you feel is tired. And what does it matter? A symbol meant for strangers, foreigners. Then you remember you are the foreigner now, in this parallel universe playing the part of another you. 

Your mind flies back to that other first day. The nightshift manager’s hand sliding across your skin. Behind him, a pink sweet-n-low packet fell and landed on a mound of real sugar packets. You told yourself to stop shaking. To stop trying to discern whether that bit of pink was burrowing down a path of its own choosing or swallowed whole and white by its surroundings. Don’t make trouble, your father had said while packing and repacking for your flight. Or did the manager whisper it in your ears, his voice bleeding into your thoughts. No big deal. American girls do this. Rich, pretty and famous ones. Who are you? A stupid teenager. A number, buried perhaps permanently somewhere in an INS cabinet. You have much to learn. How to hold a lunch tray over the shoulder like a rock, not a flying saucer. How to speak when the red-white-blue lights flash behind you. How to let pieces of your shoeless childhood on the Yunan Plateau become a scent you breathe out. To shape your mouth after the buttery vowel sounds chiming all around you. To cruise a supermarket aisle without screaming at all the lights buzzing your name. To write a sentence in a language so beautiful yet so wild you saddle it like a first time cow girl blinded by rodeo lights. 

You check the spelling of your name again. It blinks back at you from a silvery plaque on the door. You glance at the employee manual HR had stacked on your shelf. It whispers a promise, an idea, words on a stone tablet that simultaneously soothed and rattled your heartbeats. Too close to the words, and each letter inside might fly out, pelt you under, stone you to dust. 

The room is freezing. The spread sheet swells as your fingers peck at the keyboard. Your inbox chimes. The new boss has sent a dozen emails addressed to the new You. The faces of your ancestors spin into tiny white stars that dissipate behind the screen. Work orders balloon. Inside you. Shaped after those pink packets of sweet-n-low.

You remember then. How you’d leaned forward, your body a Peking duck shoved under its feed pipe. You close your eyes and swallow.

About the Author:

Pingmei Lan grew up in Beijing China. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Epiphany, Tahoma Literary Review, The Florida Review (TK) and others. She is a winner of the 2019 PEN America Best Debut Short Stories prize.

About the Artist:

Find more from Bannon Morrissy on Unsplash.