When I casually agreed to my mother’s simple request, I had no inkling it would take on a life of its own.
I was visiting my paternal grandmother in Tianjin, China, and Mom requested I bring back some of her favorite childhood candy: tanghulu (糖葫芦), haws strung on a stick, dipped in rock candy, and left to harden. She wanted me to hunt down the same brand my father had brought back for our family in 2013, and only that brand. The kicker? She never wrote down its name.
Still, how many varieties could there possibly be? I figured I’d do some research and stumble upon the right kind immediately. My cousin helped me get set up on taobao.com, where you could order seemingly anything. We put in an order for tanghulu one night around ten and received it early the next morning. It made Amazon Prime seem positively sleepy.
The optimism of the early days quickly faded as we got shipment after shipment of sickly sweet, artificial, brittle candies — all somehow not quite right. We found new respect and terror for the task ahead of us. Our living room became an absolute wreck. On any given day, we had five, six, seven different brands rolling in. They all had similarly confident, unmeasurable promises — “finest in the land!” “fit for an emperor!” The smallest quantity I could purchase over the internet was 1/4 a kilo, so the piles began mounting. Every one of them tasted slightly different from my memory, which I truly started doubting. My grandmother became well-acquainted with the delivery guy. Ever more cardboard wrapping and overnight packing slips piled up; it looked like Christmas morning every day.
My aunt, uncle, and cousin and I went up to Beijing one sticky morning toward the end of my trip. I was pretty over the tanghulu mission at this point, having decided that admitting defeat gracefully was the only victory I could still salvage. On this trip would be our last-ditch attempt to look for my mother’s tanghulu. We went to Wangfujing, where my dad said he vaguely remembered buying the candy last time.
A street vendor was selling real, freshly made tanghulu. My aunt urged me to try one for the first time. “I can’t bring that back, no way.” She said to go on anyway.
It was a little tangy but overwhelmingly sweet. I got to the center of the first haw and hit the tiny pips that you have to spit out. The unexpected hardness jolted me into suddenly getting it: this was the real deal.
If parents are doing their jobs right, you rarely get the apprehension that they’re people, with fears and preferences and won’t-eats and would prefer to sleep ins. With that first bite, I noticed that it was exactly the kind of thing that would appeal to a four year old, instead of, say, my mother as I knew her, with her adult fondness for flavors like basil and cumin.
The candied treat tasted like China in August in the early ’70s might have, when my mother would walk outside holding her parents’ hands after dinner. If she had behaved, if she had minded her little brother, she’d get one of these as a treat, purchasable on every corner for fractions of a penny. I pictured the streets as being muggy but electric, as everyone milled around, entire neighborhoods enjoying the night air. I started to understand my mother as a little girl, enraptured by the taste of something a little tangy, a little sweet. A girl developing a fondness for the dark orange-y red of tanghulu, which remains today one of her favorite colors, down to her trench coats.
It’s only natural that I attempted to place my mother in the context of these evening walks with family. Of this past summer, that’s what I loved best: strolling around the lake when seemingly all of Tianjin was out gossiping, strolling, eating ice cream, and exalting in the longest, freest days of the summer. But these nights, it doesn’t look like the Tianjin of 2005 or even 2012, the times of my previous visits. People are on their smartphones, snapping photos of their kids’ first trembly steps to send over WeChat. Or they’re taking calls on speaker, yelling, “I’m by the roller-skaters.” The roller-skaters, by the way, are blasting electro-pop hits from a portable speaker, looping around and around in mesmerizing figure eights.
These evening walks took on for me an odd quality that seemed to exist outside of time. The plaza was invariably deserted when I went there in the late mornings, on my way to the sepulchral quiet of Tianjin Public Library. By the time we got there in the evenings, however — after we’d washed the dishes and cleared the table and swept, it was always already full of people. Even when we left, after we’d looped around and said hello to all of the neighbors, it looked like it had hardly emptied out at all. The lake and the plaza were always either completely full or completely empty, and though I knew there surely must have been times of transition, I didn’t see a single one in all those long weeks.
Though I loved how going outside for communal walks is a part of daily life in China’s major cities, I didn’t know what would become of that tradition, whether the same nightly walks would exist the next time I made it back. I started to understand the urgency and specificity of my mom’s request. She didn’t ask me for photos or music, or smells or textures. I’m guessing that the first two seemed too attainable and the latter two, not attainable enough. Instead, she asked me for a taste: her best proxy into a bygone time and place.
Back to Wangfujing, where I finished my fresh tanghulu and started searching with renewed vigor for a version that I could fly home to my mom. We paced up and down lines of stalls, all selling endless variations on the same few things. I kept sampling and discarding brands, feeling like nothing was getting me closer.
Finally, I paused in front of a stall that somehow seemed right. After taking a bite, I realized that this was the furthest away, but weirdly felt the closest to what I was seeking. The innards were totally wrong — a gummy, tacky mashing of light-plum colored flesh and sugar. This was stuffed, however, in a full sphere of unbroken haw skin, which I hadn’t tasted anywhere else. I was going all in on this one — my best shot for reviving the China of my mother’s childhood memories.
It felt like I had really lucked out with getting to taste the freshly made tanghulu on this trip. I have no clue if that’ll even be an option next go-around. Maybe China’s agricultural policies will change the weird, bumpy texture of haw, or the market will have stopped demanding the prepackaged versions. Maybe the street vendors will expand back out of the touristy enclave of Wangfujing, or maybe they’ll be gone for good. I don’t know this, or anything, and it drives me nuts because this is my mother’s childhood I’m dealing with.
So I called a temporary truce. I bought six kilos of the candy and packaged it neatly in my suitcase, cushioning so it wouldn’t get smashed. I waded through a multitude of transit connections: high speed rail down to Shanghai, subway to airport, layover in Chicago, and finally, the drive home. All the while, I couldn’t wait for the moment I unzipped my suitcase and brought this mission home, delivering to my mom a tiny taste of what she craved. Something a little tangy, a little sweet.
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