I found a decent looking hole in the wall restaurant near the wide and beautiful Xiang River that bisects the city. I had just reconnected with long-lost cousins of mine whose late father was left behind during the Communist Revolution in 1949, while the rest of the family fled to Taiwan.
The restaurant’s menu was painted on the wall in red lettering. I was in a soupy mood and could choose any iteration of noodles and meat. I wasn’t in the mood for mutton. Didn’t want pork or chicken. I was going to settle on shrimp when I saw 人肉汤 (human soup) was an option.
I wanted to inquire and began formulating the question in Mandarin in my mind before speaking aloud. Then I saw someone at the next table over loudly slurping away at a bowl of soup containing what looked like a pale Halloween mask floating in the light broth along with some hand pulled noodles and chopped green onions. What made the face in the soup look real was the stubble.
The 老板 (proprietor) noticed me looking at the other patron’s soup.
A prisoner, he explained.
He then asked me if I was from Xinjiang.
I wondered if this was a loaded question.
No, I replied, I’m 混血儿 (mixed blood son).
We struck up a conversation of which I understood about 60% from his end.
I told him about how I was studying Mandarin in Nanjing for the semester. I had taken a flight in to Changsha for a few days to see my long-lost cousins. No one from my generation had ever been in contact with those cousins, until that day.
He was more in shock that my immigrant father had married a blonde American woman.
He said something about Chinese people that I didn’t understand, but I could sense from his body language that it was a proud statement.
I grunted a noncommittal acknowledgment.
He asked me why I was paying money to study abroad when I could just practice speaking Mandarin with my dad back in America.
He smiled and waited patiently for my response.
I couldn’t provide an answer nearly as succinct as the one he gave me regarding the questionable soup he was selling.
As I stumbled through my response, my Mandarin breaking down as I went, he continued to gaze at me. He had the warmth of a stranger. I wondered if he didn’t actually believe what I was saying all this time, and if that was the case, what untold change in my afternoon plans awaited me.