A Talented Boy
Ning Er was Mr. Hua’s grandson. He always said his grandson Ning Er was a talented boy, but Mr. Hua’s family had known the truth for a long time: Ning Er was a premature baby. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment when he was only three years old. Only Mr. Hua and his wife firmly believed that Ning Er could become a “normal” child. However, all of their other family members were afraid that Mr. Hua would not be able to accept the real situation. Nobody mentioned a word about it.
Mr. Hua had been a famous chef earlier in his life. He began to write his recipes down in cookbooks a long time ago. After he retired from running a famous restaurant “HONGSHENGXING”, he was provided sufficient retirement money from the Chinese Restaurant Association. But even after decades of work, Mr. Hua was still living in a tiny house with his wife. He was a strong-minded man: his suit was always clean, well-pressed, and wrinkle-free. Mr. Hua’s wife knew the facts: he only wore a nice suit at work. He immediately changed into faded, patched shirts when he got home. Each Saturday, Mr. Hua put on his chef’s apron, the one that had always given him so much pride to wear, and slowly took the apron off when he was done reminiscing.
During the summer evenings, in order to save money on air-conditioning and enjoy the natural wind, Mr. Hua would walk along the streets with Ning Er. Actually, Mr. Hua had many chances to get rich: his grandfather had also been a great master chef. According to legend, Mr. Hua’s forefathers used to work at the forbidden city and cook for the Guangxu emperor. Their original family recipes were selected as “official cuisines” by the governors in Shandong province. Their unique skills of baking sesame cakes were handed down from generation to generation. Mr. Hua, who had been called “Sesame Cake Hua,” was a great leader in the Chinese culinary world. After he retired, a lot of companies and restaurants invited him to become a consultant. They promised a lot of money and shares. However, Mr. Hua decided to reject their offers. Why? He had to look after his grandson Ning Er at all times.
Medically, Ning Er was born handicapped: he did not know how to tie his bootlaces when he was in primary school. He could not ride a bicycle after high school. Until recently, Ning Er did not know how to use chopsticks.
Mr. Hua became a private chef when his daughter got pregnant. The dining room had been turned into an exclusive canteen for Ning Er’s mother. Mr. Hua enjoyed fishing, so he fed a lot of fish living on the veranda. Mr. Hua knew that if a pregnant woman ate fish, the baby would become smarter. Eventually, Ning Er’s mother ate too much fish and threw up all she had eaten. Mr. Hua knew that if a pregnant woman ate strawberries, the baby would have good skin. Ning Er’s mother ate lots of strawberries until they were removed from the markets. However, the baby was still three months premature.
“You could try to have another baby,” said the doctor. “It is a mentally handicapped child.”
The mother suddenly broke into demented laughter. She was in the depths of despair.
Mr. Hua consoled her, “Don’t worry, we will help you raise him up!”
However the doctor said, “please think about it seriously! His fine motor skills were affected. He will not learn how to write. He will not… He will not… He will not…”
From that day on, Mr. Hua had no time to eat lunch. Every midday, he got home as quickly as he could. He added some soft rice to fish soup and boiled up some great liquid food for Ning Er. Mr. Hua cut a cabbage in half and scooped out the heart. After that, he stewed the heart of the cabbage in chicken soup to make a seafood paste. Finally, he spooned the soup into a bowl and fed it to his grandson. Ning Er’s mother had no more milk, and the baby was crying. Mr. Hua brought powdered milk from western countries. He never saved money in the bank from that day on. In order to encourage Ning Er to learn how to tie his bootlaces, Mr. Hua prepared colorful and creative dishes for him. Because of this care, Ning Er was admitted to a public primary school when he was six years old.
Ning Er lived in his grandfather’s home since he was in elementary school. Every night Mr. Hua would cook a variety of delicious dishes on big plates, such as soy-braised pork, sweet and sour pork, steamed fish, soy-marinated beef, and stir-fried vegetables. Every night after school, Ning Er ran back home with a tired body. Without putting down his schoolbag, the first thing he did was to ask, “Grandfather, what’s for dinner tonight?” At this, Mr. Hua would conjure up a great meal with a happy smile. On the way home from school, Ning Er’s classmates always talked about some funny things that happened in their classes. Ning Er’s mother would occasionally ask him, but Ning Er was only focused on his grandfather’s dinner.
“Don’t worry, I am fond of eating, too! My grandson is quite a foodie! Look, he showed great interest in my recipes!” Mr. Hua said to his wife.
To be honest, Mr. Hua really did not want to cook these home-made dishes. He became used to the taste of rare ingredients in his restaurant. His grandfather passed a family saying down to him, “The best food-lover will never object to the finest food, the best chef will never get tried of delicious meat.” However, if there was a child with cerebral palsy in any family, they would have many lean years.
But Mr. Hua still chose to eat at a restaurant with Ning Er in those lean times.
Ning Er took part in a final examination when he was in the first grade of elementary school. His name ranked second-to-last on the list. The final student who was in the bottom of his class dropped out of school and went to a special education institution. His parents alleged that their child could not pass the intelligence test.
It happened that a new Olympic mathematics course was offered for all first-year students. All of the students could register voluntarily. However, only Ning Er raised a hand in his class and said, “I want to join in the Olympic mathematics team!” His remarks were greeted with a burst of laughter. After school, a mathematics teacher had a talk with Ning Er’s mother. She said, “Please let your son learn basic mathematics courses first, and then he could consider taking part in the Olympic courses. Otherwise, I am afraid you will waste a lot of money!” Mr. Hua was very angry when he heard this. He decided to have a talk with the teacher by holding his round-bottomed frying pan!
Ning Er’s mother wanted to give up this course, but Ning Er still insisted on taking part in the Olympic mathematics team. Ning Er was always ill and so did not attend his regular classes full time each term. However, no matter what difficulties he met, he did not miss any class with this team.
The night before the test, Mr. Hua and Ning Er pigged out at one of the most famous restaurants in Beijing– Casserole.
During the dinner, Ning Er’s parents tried their best to teach him how to use the chopsticks. No matter how hard he tried, Ning Er could not seem to learn how to use them.
Mr. Hua was silent for a few seconds. From then on, all of his family members did not use chopsticks. They began to use spoons.
Maybe if God would not let Ning Er learn something, he could not control it during his lifetime.
At the end of this term, Ning Er, who was called “foolish student” by his classmates, got the highest grade in all the Olympic mathematics teams. Everyone in the school was shocked when they heard the grades. After school, a lot of students found him and said, “please do not tell my father anything about your grade, ok? Otherwise, if my dad sees your grade, I’ll get it!”
Ning Er understood the double meaning in their words, but he did not say anything about it.
By the fourth grade, Ning Er still did not know how to write an essay. One day, the teacher assigned a written composition on “Your favorite food.”
As expected, of the whole class only Ning Er turned in a blank paper!
Ning Er became the object of ridicule among his classmates again. On the way home, Mr. Hua asked himself, “Maybe he forgot? But we used to have a restaurant in our family.” He could feel the sweat on his hands. He was worried, “Maybe my grandson does not know how to write?”
Next month, Ning Er always requested to eat at the restaurants. Mr. Hua loved him so much that he almost never cooked meals at home. He took many big and small restaurants as the canteen of Ning Er and did not save any money during the second half of the year.
At the end of the semester, Ning Er finally turned in an essay to his teacher. He was awarded a prize in the Chinese national writing contest for his essay “My favorite snack.”
Mr. Hua repeated, “My grandson is a talented boy! I am sure of it!”
Ning Er had been a mentally handicapped child. However, after graduating from high school, he was admitted to one of the most famous liberal art colleges in the United States of America. He published several articles in U.S. magazines. His food blog was chosen as “featured food blog” by one of the most famous food websites in the states.
The biggest problem was solved. Mr. Hua had been very worried that Ning Er could not feed himself. The canteen was closed. Year in year out, Ning Er studied abroad in America and only went back home during the vacation. Every time when he got home, Mr. Hua would still prepare a lot of home-made dishes for him. Ning Er no longer asked those childish questions. He was no longer interested in the food, either.
Ning Er reminded his grandfather that he should not eat too much oily meat. That was not good for his health.
Mr. Hua still enjoyed cooking these oily meats all the time. In his memory, Ning Er was a child that never grew up.
Ning Er wrote a Chinese fiction based on the real experience of his great grandfather, “Sesame Cake Hua.” These family stories that came down to him from generations were recorded. A Chinese expert helped him to translate it from Chinese into English. Mr. Hua nearly cried with joy when he heard the news. He said, “My grandson is a talented man! I told you before, but you wouldn’t believe me!”
Ning Er seldom came back home at this time. He hoped to find a venue for the publication of this fiction. Ning Er wanted to give a surprise to his grandfather.
That winter, all of the written works were almost done. One morning, Mr. Hua suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away. Mr. Hua seemed to be in a deep, sweet sleep, but he never woke up.
Ning Er ran back home with rough hair when he heard this bad news. He could not control his balance when he was young. All of his classmates used to laugh at him. Even now, he still ran like a clumsy duck.
But this time, Ning Er ran as fast as the strong wind!
Dear Ning Er, it was your destiny. You would lose him.
Dear Ning Er, the gate of the canteen had already closed. There was a thick layer of dust on the doorknob.
Ning Er and Mr. Hua, they lived in different worlds.
Ning Er rushed into the mourning hall. He asked, “Grandpa, what’s for dinner tonight?”
Ning Er waited for the reply. His grandfather would always respond that they had prepared a lot of delicious meat for tonight!
Ning Er would never hear these words again.
Ning Er went back to the tiny old house. The dining room was furnished as it was before. All of the seasonings and cookers were available. Mr. Hua enjoyed cooking during his lifetime. He was waiting! He was longing to cook for his grandson!
Ning Er opened his grandfather’s closet. All of the clothes were neatly folded. Mr. Hua believed that he was a professional and holy chef. Ning Er began to collect his grandfather’s effects. He realized his grandfather only had one new uniform. Lying on top were worn clothes with many patches.
Ning Er opened his grandfather’s passbook. Over the years, Mr. Hua did not draw any money from his deposit account, but he paid a lot to his grandson’s tuition.
Ning Er asked his grandfather’s last words.
Ning Er’s mother said that Mr. Hua did not recover in the hospital. The doctor said it was almost impossible for him to wake up again. No matter how his family members called his name, Mr. Hua did not give any sign of waking up. This was all true until his sister said, “Mr. Hua, you could not leave this world! You did not fulfill your mission. Ning Er is coming back, you still need to cook for him!”
Mr. Hua suddenly shed tears.
About the Author
Weining Wang is a Senior student at Beloit College, WI, where he is majoring in interdisciplinary studies, East Asian Studies. He submitted his Beijing flavor fiction, “The Old Snack Shop,” for publication to the journal The Sucarnochee Review, a famous undergraduate publication by the University of West Alabama. He was informed that it was being published and printed this year (2021). He translated eight poems from the Tang dynasty and published them in the Equinox, a journal of contemporary literature at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His artworks, “Nose_Paper” and “Star_Canvas,” have also been selected for publication in this year’s issue of the Equinox. His Chinese-style artworks, “Fire and Ocean,” “Black and White,” and “Great Wall,” have also been accepted for publication in this year’s edition of Long River Review, an annual literary journal of art and literature staffed by undergraduates at the University of Connecticut.