On my last day in Nanchong, my aunt whom I’d met for the first time on that trip (she is younger than my father but looks a decade older than him) hugged me goodbye for a long while, and I cried in astonishment the entire car ride to Chengdu. My mother, who finds stories like “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Road Home” to be overly sentimental, held my hand beside me in silence. I’m known as the crybaby in the family, but she did not tease me or report to the rest of the family at later gatherings how the parting had affected me. I’d been dry- and wide-eyed during the trip until that point—a feat—but my aunt’s hug had taken me by surprise.
On that last day with my father’s family, we’d eaten at yet another hot-pot spot, this time on a boat. I said no to third and fourth helpings of oil and chilies, of “ma” and “la,” dismayed, alas, to be in their aromatic company, for my pores had never yearned more to be less coated, my gut to be less burning, the backs of my eyeballs to be less prone to metaphysical flights of fiery fancy. Twice on the trip my insides protested to the churning oils; even my father, who enjoys the opportunity to sweat from a Sichuanese dinner, had reached his limit by that final day with his family. So when my parents and I settled into Chengdu for three days on our own before returning to New York, the first meal we ordered was a mild beef noodle soup.
And now Matt Gross does spice in Chengdu.