Fiction | My Chinese mother makes sourdough


‘Elastic bag,’ she repeats, holding the jar of starter. This is a question, I think, even though it doesn’t really sound like one (and how could I tell without looking up).

I look up. She’s standing there with a smile I can only kind of parse.

(Is it proud? Is it tentative? Is it familiar?)

‘Mm, elastic band,’ I repeat after her with conviction. I see it’s wrapped around the jar, this taut little blue thing choking it in a vice grip—or maybe it’s the jar that’s pushing back, cool glass contorting the rubber beyond its natural form. I spoon yoghurt into my mouth.

‘不对吧?’ she says and that’s when the question clicks—that can’t be right? and she repeats ‘elastic bag.’ Period.

I spoon more yoghurt into my mouth. It’s not even really yoghurt, it’s the high protein stuff that kind of tastes like cheese, mixed with this granola she bought me a week ago and I’d only eaten once since. I’m only eating it again now so she doesn’t feel like this purchase was made in vain. Also, she didn’t make anything this morning, at least nothing we could eat right away, and this is as much as I want to muster for myself, each spoonful a glacier, or an avalanche.

Yes, I realise my mistake, something about those last few letters falling short in the air between us. ‘Ah, elastic b a          n          d,’ I repeat and she nods with the same (?) smile she’s had all this time.

Those last few letters falling short. I down the rest of my yoghurt, chewing the granola crunch crunch like glass.

(Carefully? Shamefully? Boldly?)

I carry the shards around in my gut all week.



Is my turn to cook and I make a curry recipe I pulled off the internet, having first made sure the author was in fact Indian. I do the recipe what justice I can with what spices we have in the pantry: ground cinnamon, ground coriander, ground cardamom, no clove.

I peel the garlic dice the potato mince the ginger while she’s out in the garden. The least I could do. We’d recently planted what we thought was coriander, only it grew and grew and turned out to be Chinese celery this whole time. Mum smiled that smile again (?) as if this were some serendipitous discovery rather than an unwelcome shock, the shock of planting one thing and getting another through no fault of your own. But I guess that’s a familiar shock. She’s taking it better this time.

I empty the coconut milk into the wok, spoon clack clack on the can just a little louder than necessary. She doesn’t look up. She’s busy with the bloody Chinese celery pushing its unlikely little fibres through the soil like the poster child of adolescent growth spurts.

Clack clack again just for the satisfaction. I don’t know why I chose curry tonight. She doesn’t even like it to be honest, she just likes it when I cook for once. I guess I’m a bit of a needy kid with something of a rebellious streak but then I laugh because what kind of fucking rebellious streak is curry supposed to be—clack clack—and another pinch of cinnamon for good measure.

I call her three times before she comes back in to eat and I ask about the sourdough. ‘Have to give it another forty-eight hours,’ she says sagely, ‘but look how much it’s risen already,’ pointing at the elastic b           a          n          d. 

(Familiarity? Pride?)

‘Have to be patient,’ she says.



Dumpling night. Which means it’s time to revisit all my childhood memories of dumplings, I guess, countless iterations of countless little nuggets devoured over 21 years of life. To this day, I cannot fold them.

I try though, just to make up for the Middle Ages, but she’s so deft with it like she doesn’t even have to try. She’s making them because they’re easy and she loves it and she knows I love it too, really, despite the Middle Ages. She places a globule of red-green pork-chive filling in a circle of supple dough, then pinch punch between her thumb and forefinger and voila, a dumpling, quicker than you can say it’s the first day of the month (pinch punch? Wow, I used to get those words confused a lot).

And while I’m standing there stuck between times like a lost child, those dumplings take the plunge into the pot of boiling water. Then, I have the usual out-of-body experience, like, I take the plunge with them, down into the pot, only they come out (hah!) delicious and intact after about 15 minutes or so while I soak, losing myself for the better part of a decade or maybe even two.

The Middle Ages. They’re what I call the years between the first and second times I ever ate dumplings at school, years filled with sudden and acute cultural consciousness, clean-cut PBJ sandwiches (no crust, of course) and me not looking Mum in the eye. Maybe this is why I don’t read her so well these days.

Memories shatter into shards and you carry them carry them carry them try to make up for them carry them carry them carry them I don’t remember how Mum reacted to my tantrum the first time. I only remember tearfully staring out of the window from the backseat of the car while she drove. I don’t even remember if she said anything but there was a sandwich in my lunch the next day and I still carry it in my gut as I eat and eat and eat and eat and eat her dumplings so she knows I love them, really, despite the Middle Ages.

I do wonder sometimes what versions of the same shards she is carrying, whether the elastic b           a          n          d is pushing down on the glass jar or whether it’s more the glass jar pushing back.

‘Sourdough good for tomorrow?’

She smiles (?). ‘Yep.’



I forget to tell her I’m out for dinner today. I swear Cam and I really didn’t lock it in until yesterday but either way I can’t bring myself to tell her until just before her siesta. I catch her as she’s kneading (regular, not sour) dough for dinner.

‘Mum, I’m going out for dinner.’ I watch her hands, so precise with the dumplings yesterday, not so precise today. They press into the dough, deep and assured. She doesn’t ask who I’m going with and I am

(Relieved? Ashamed?)

The jar watches me from the other side of the kitchen.

She hasn’t met Cam and probably never will at this rate. I can’t tell if that’s her fault or theirs or mine but deep down I’ve known this for a while.

Specifically, since the first time I ate noodles with them. ‘I always just used a fork,’ they said and their laugh afterwards was a little too inscrutable. I sometimes think about what would happen if the three of us sat down together in one room, Mum ashamed of me ashamed of Cam ashamed of themselves just one big whirlpool of

Noodles. That’s what Mum’s making tonight, and I know that while I’m gone that dough under her palm will rise and rise and rise and when she too rises from her slumber she will shred it into noodles and eat half and freeze the rest for me.

‘Don’t stay out too late’ and she smiles(?). I lock the door behind me, still thinking about the dough rising and rising a few hours later while Cam and I are eating pizza. I don’t look them in the eye either.

‘How’s your week been,’ they ask, just like they’re supposed to and I scratch the surface, ‘Yeah, alright, Mum’s making sourdough.’ I wonder how many words are still falling short here, whether it’s not a me-and-Mum thing after all and it’s actually maybe just a me thing. The dough in my kitchen rises and rises.

Although it’s probably been sliced up by now, already shredded into neat and palatable strands; it’s probably already taken that dip into the boiling water waiting to come out soft and smooth and silky and this is where my mind catches right now, this process so linear and predictable of How Food Just Comes To Be. I take another bite of my pizza.

It’s probably not entirely fair to Cam that they’re just a side character in this story, it really isn’t, but the shards twist and turn and the only thing I really know for sure anymore is that there’s going to be sourdough for breakfast and noodles for lunch on



Mark Yin

Mark Yin is a PhD student in Criminology based in Naarm (Melbourne). His research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship.

More by Mark Yin ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays