Purple Corn

By Lillian Sun, age 17, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Va.

Illustration by Melinda Josie

Part of my youth remains in China, in the suburbs of Hangzhou where the children feed stray cats on the open streets and the elders take leisurely walks in the quiet parks. The roads were barely wide enough for one car to pass through, not that very many people knew how to drive. My grandpa owned a bicycle that he used to take me to wherever I wanted to go. At 70 years old, he could still pedal the two of us through the town fast enough for the wind to tousle my hair and send my hat flying.

The bicycle only had room for one passenger, so I walked with my grandpa and grandma whenever all three of us went downtown in the summer. We bought our groceries in a spacious multistory shopping mall that sold everything from cellphones to raw meat. I wasn’t tall enough back then to push the cart and decided to drift from stall to stall, eyeing the different foods on display designed to catch the eye of a wandering child. No matter how much I begged, my grandpa never bought me shiny red candy or steamed custard buns: Wai puo and I can cook better food for you.

Once back in our apartment, my grandparents got to work, creating an aroma that seeped through the kitchen and into the living room where I was reading an old book. Within half an hour, a whole steamed fish, white rice, and purple corn were laid out on the table. I always finished the fish and rice first, leaving the corn for last.

My grandparents only bought the freshest vegetables, especially so when it came to purple corn. They knew which corn was the most tender just by looking at the husks. Then, they boiled the corn for a good 10 minutes on their gas stove to ensure that it was fully cooked.

I was not a patient granddaughter and often burned my fingers picking up the purple corn, though my complaints were forgotten after the first bite. The kernels stuck to my teeth and filled my mouth with warmth. I chewed the glutinous corn until my jaw ached and my teeth were stained purple, leaving a wholesome aftertaste on my tongue.

After two years of living with my grandparents, I flew back to the United States. The streets here were loud and dogs barked all day long. The corn in American grocery stores was pale yellow, small and watery. I didn’t burn my fingers when I ate it, nor did I chew it for very long. Juice from the corn dripped down onto my plate and I wished I was back in China, walking hand in hand with my grandparents. Here in America, I could eat all the candy I wanted, but there were only so many pieces I could swallow before the sugar became nauseating and I threw up, crying.

My mother eventually found frozen purple corn at a Chinese supermarket, packaged in Styrofoam and plastic wrap. When boiled, the corn softened to a chewy texture, but I could no longer taste Hangzhou summers in this purple corn.