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The Taste of Mangoes

In August 1968, a visiting minister from Pakistan gave Chairman Mao a basket of mangoes as a token of the friendship between the two states. The Chairman, who was very particular about what he ate, did not care for the taste of mangoes, so he sent them to the worker-peasant Mao Zedong Thought propaganda team. The workers, flattered and overwhelmed by the Chairman’s love, preserved the mangoes in formaldehyde and revered them as sacred relics. Thousands from around the country made pilgrimages to the mangoes, and the mangoes, accompanied by drums, gongs, and banners, went on tours in various cities where they were placed under glass cases and watched over by security guards. When they started to decompose, thousands of replicas were made out of wax, and millions of propaganda posters were painted and disseminated, so that everybody, even toddlers with split pants, knew what a mango looked like, but almost nobody knew what it tasted like.

For the sake of preservation, the mangoes, brilliant as tropical fish, were already pared and cut into slices that came in a large, sealed bottle of salt water.

Two decades later, in 1988, Uncle New Sea came back from Hainan Island with a bottle of mangoes. Uncle New Sea was the big shot of the family, always at the tip of the new wave. Out of everybody we knew, he was the first to wear a Western suit, first to buy a color television, first to ride in a chauffeured car or fly in an airplane. From his plane ride he brought us children plastic forks and knives and butter and cheese wrapped inside shiny aluminum paper. He got to stay for three weeks in a state guest house in the city center, for free since he had government connections. During his stay we all went to his clean, white-tiled bathroom to take private showers and to use the flushing toilet. Uncle New Sea had been to Japan and ranted until his saliva ran dry about the huge apples and pears as large as baby’s heads and as perfect as wax fruits we painted in school. We listened incredulously, chewing our small apples and pears bored through by worms.

For the sake of preservation, the mangoes, brilliant as tropical fish, were already pared and cut into slices that came in a large, sealed bottle of salt water. As Second Uncle unwound the cap, we children gathered around the table, knelt on our chairs, and propped ourselves up with our arms. Everyone was given just one slice, perhaps a sixth of a mango, and told not to spill the juices on our clothes because the stain would be permanent. My piece was sour and bitter, and its fibers stuck between my teeth. I looked around and saw that my grandparents and my cousins all had the same awkward look on their faces, but as Uncle New Sea talked on and on about how exorbitant and high-class mangoes were, we all finished our slices, hoping to acculturate our tongues to a modern, expensive, foreign taste.

It was the era of Three-in-One Nescafé Coffee (which, aside from Coca Cola, was all that Uncle New Sea said he drank) and of “Melt in Your Mouth, Not in Your Hand” M&M’s, ten times as expensive as Chinese chocolate, which soon tasted to us like cement. For my ninth birthday, my little aunt took me out to Kentucky Fried Chicken. The newly opened restaurant was on the most prominent street in Shanghai, and I dressed up in my best clothes. The girls behind the counter wore red-and-white-checkered shirts and a matching paper hat. The place was clean, empty, and well lit, and it was the first and last time that chicken tasted so good.

In the summer of 2000, I returned to Shanghai after a decade’s stay in the United States. Before I left for China, Grandma blurted into the phone: “You don’t have to bring anything. Everything you have in America, we have here.” Nevertheless, I brought some toys and stationery for my young cousins, recalling how much I treasured even the fluorescent wrapping paper of a color eraser in my childhood, but of course my cousins were not in the least interested in my singing teddy bear or glow-in-the-dark stars. My grandparents proudly showed me a supermarket the size of a shopping mall right in their neighborhood, yet in the bounty of its aisles, my little cousin, whose childhood was defined by her gluttony, could not pick out a single item she wanted to eat.

That summer, there was a great harvest of mangoes and they became the cheapest fruit on the market, leading toward the ruin of several counties in the tropical south that converted all of its land to mango orchards. Finally, the mangoes made famous by the Chairman really entered worker households. Grandma bought so many mangoes that our stomachs revolted against their saccharine, medicinal taste. In the end, only Grandma, seared with the hunger of her childhood and the doctrine that no food should go to waste, sat by the table and bit into one mango after the other, patiently, dogmatically, as though demolishing the idols of a century.

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