These are some of my favorite smells: toasting bagel, freshly cut figs, the bergamot in good Earl Grey tea, a jar of whole soybeans slowly turning beneath a tropical sun.
You’d expect the latter to smell salty, meaty, flaccid — like what you’d smell if you unscrewed the red cap of the bottle on a table in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant and stuck your nose in as far as it would go. But real, fermenting soybeans smell nothing like sauce in a plastic bottle. Tangy and pungent, like rising bread or wet earth, these soybeans smell of history, of life, of tiny, patient movements, unseen by the naked eye.
Everything I know about soy sauce I learned from my father and my uncle and my late grandfather. We are a family who can talk endlessly about soybeans and all of ^ttheir intricacies. But that morning at the family soy sauce factory, I was in no mood to chat. The only thing on my mind was the ninety-degree heat. Heat rose from the ground through my thin-soled flats; it filled my nostrils, mouth, and ears. Sweat bloomed under my arms, in the creases of my elbows, in the pockets behind my knees. Even in the shade, beneath the factory’s red-striped awning, the air felt thick enough to drink. Flanked by my father and my uncle, I shifted my weight from one swollen foot to another and wished the clients would hurry up and get here.
In the last three months, I’d turned thirty, gotten separated from my husband, and prepared to take a hiatus from San Francisco, my home of fifteen years. Now it was August. I’d been back in Singapore and living in my parents’ house for the past week. At my father’s urging, I’d agreed to temp at the factory, taking on mundane administrative tasks that had little to do with soy sauce. Even though I’d held this new job for exactly four days, my inexperience hadn’t stopped my father from insisting I attend this meeting.
Forming a visor with the flat of my hand, I squinted at the logo embedded in the center of the compound gate: thick brushstrokes that formed the Chinese character for my family name. Since the founding of Lin’s Soy Sauce by my grandfather fifty years earlier, the factory had grown into a gated campus with three squat concrete buildings surrounding a central courtyard. The architecture was spare and utilitarian, almost ascetic, as though any kind of ornamentation would distract from the task of creating soy sauce. My father, my uncle, and I were standing on the steps of the building that housed the office staff, and each time the glass door swung open, a wave of air conditioning rushed out, providing temporary relief from the heat.
If my father noticed my discomfort, he chose to ignore it. He checked his old-fashioned flip phone for missed calls. He removed his glasses and began to polish them on the edge of his shirt. Stripped of their familiar shield, Ba’s eyes looked puffy and helpless. When he caught me watching, he smiled. Tiny lines radiated outward from his temples as if etched into his skin with a fine-toothed comb. It was a simple smile, involuntary — the kind of smile you flashed at a toddler wearing a funny hat — and in spite of myself, I smiled back.
On my other side, my uncle pulled an already limp handkerchief from his pocket and swiped it across the back of his neck. Where Ba was wiry and compact, Uncle Robert was tall and wide by Singaporean standards, with an ample belly perched precariously atop his belt. He grinned at me. “Hot, right?” he asked cheerfully. He reached over and squeezed my father’s bicep. “Gretchen is A-mah-ri-can now,” he said, elongating the word and chuckling. “Can no longer tahan
For fans of Kyung-Sook Shin and Anna Quindlen, a story of family, loyalty and fresh starts in the heart of Singapore.