Plastic 7: Karen Gu’s fiction meditates on the contaminations of white, sweet, toxic nostalgia.
The countertranslation below features translations of Karen’s work by a fellow contributor to this folio. By making visible the multiple languages hiding in a mouth, and promoting translations that destabilize notions of mastery, countertranslation hopes to open possibilities of exchange beyond the frames of English and support a wider community of interpretation.
Seven White Rabbit Candies is Equivalent to One Cup of Milk
Melt seven white rabbit candies in a cup of hot water and you’ll have a cup of hot milk. It won’t taste like the real thing, but it will taste like vanilla and nostalgia. You’ll remember rubbing the crinkled wax paper wrapper between your fingertips. Your thumb stroking the cartoon rabbit mascot, wishing you could touch its soft ears. Your waxy fingers will reach for another.
This is how you eat a white rabbit milk candy. Twist open the wax paper ends, and feel the thin rice paper dry on your fingertips. You can eat the rice paper. It will dissolve on your tongue, and it will taste like the translucent film left in the rice cooker after dinner.
The creamy candy is hard to the tooth, and you’ll taste its condensed milky sweetness when the rice paper melts away. Its surface is not as smooth as a tootsie roll, but more jagged and angular, and you might think about how many times the candy melted a little, and then re-hardened, in the process of being shipped from warehouse to warehouse, making its journey all the way from China. You will coax the taffy from hard to soft in the heat of your mouth.
You’ll hide the candy wrappers under your pillow, shamed by your gluttony, by your toothaches.
In the last drawer on the side of the kitchen island counter in your childhood home there is a hollow and hinged plastic tooth box. Inside are your decayed baby teeth, their surfaces rough to the touch, all that shiny white calcified tissue eaten away by sugar.
Once you and your mother were heating up milk in a saucepan before bed. You stirred the milk, watched it form a filmy skin which you skimmed up with a wooden spoon and draped into your mouth. You loved eating the milk skin. You both forget about the pan for a little and when you remember the milk is sweetened and condensed. The bottom of the pan is burned black and jammy. The kitchen smells like burnt sugar. It is all delicious.
You wake up too late for breakfast, but your father tells you to at least drink a glass of milk before you leave for school. Milk will make your bones strong. Milk will fortify you. And don’t you know that your dad didn’t have any milk when he was your age? The only milk his family had was powdered and precious. Sometimes you can drink it and catch the bus, but other times you take a few painful gulps and pour the rest down the drain, careful to rinse away the white cast it leaves behind.
First your family buys gallons of 2% from Costco, and then you switch to organic skim. After you move out your dad gets you a borosilicate glass French press for your birthday, and every morning you make coffee with organic skim, honey, and cinnamon.
Years later you meet your family in Shanghai. The hotel room is cluttered with hard shell suitcases bursting with gifts for your grandparents: shelled and salted pistachio meats, Lindt chocolate truffles, bulk pack gel capsules of glucosamine, coenzyme Q10, and fish oil, and giant canisters of powdered milk. Your mom tells you she renewed her Costco membership just for this trip.
When your grandmother sees the canisters of milk powder she asks you to read her the expiration date. You tell her it will last years and she crinkles a smile of satisfaction and relief.
In your old apartment, the ceilings were stippled drywall. They reminded you of the shallow spikes and peaks of meringue frosting, lifted by a spatula or spackling knife. The top of a lemon pie or a Baked Alaska. You imagine taking a blow torch to singe the ceiling, caramelizing those glossy paint peaks.
Everything reminds you of candy sometimes. The lamp in the hallway was faceted like an old fashioned lozenge. Inside you could see the silhouettes of flies and moths that died inside, trapped as if in amber, or hardened sugar syrup. A fly throws itself against the lamp, buzzing against the hot glass, thrashing into the light.
You remember the days when you could eat whatever you wanted. The supermarkets were open all day and all night, refrigerated cases humming with electricity and illuminated by white fluorescent light. The dairy cows seemed infinite. There was all you can drink milk at the fair to go with your bucket of cookies. There were the butter sculptors carving the likenesses of young dairy princesses. You didn’t know this was abundance. You got used to it.
The milk was contaminated, your mother told you on the phone. Don’t buy any more Chinese snacks, she said. People, children, are getting sick, dying. The baby formula was contaminated, the candy was contaminated, the cookies, the cakes, the yogurts, the cheeses.
Even after you read the news articles and scientific studies, you still buy white rabbit milk candies from the Asian grocery store. You always go to the candy aisle first.
You get a sour twinge in your cheek when you see the salted plums dusted in aspartame, but you don’t eat those anymore, not since they were recalled for lead contamination. In Chicago, they are sold in plastic baggies at the corner store, but are labeled saladitos instead of hua mei. You don’t touch those either, but you yearn for them, your mouth pooling with saliva.
In Beijing you ate skewered hawthorns dipped in molten maltose syrup that hardened in the air. You think of the polluted air, all the toxins and city grime sticking to the glossy golden sugar. The candy shell cracking under your teeth, the sour fruit yielding to your bite, the stony seeds spat out into your palm. You buy more and more, filling yourself with skewers of red fruit and shards of hard candy. “They don’t have this in America,” your aunt says. She’s right. But there’s still the milk candy, always inviting and familiar, a taste of some kind of home.
You can’t resist eating one more. You finally open the bag you’ve been taking with you from city to city, never able to throw it away every time you pack up and move. A sugary slurry coats your tongue as your teeth work into the candy, kneading it between the peaks and valleys of your imperfect molars. All those cavities, the blood in your mouth at the dentist’s office, and yet here you are still eating candy like a child. You tongue your fillings for any sweet remnants.
In elementary school you grew sugar crystals on a string. They climbed up the cotton thread and built themselves into perfect geometry. This is how rock candy is made. You always whined for rock candy whenever you saw it glittering behind a glass case, but it never tasted as good as it looked.
Melamine is a white crystalline substance that softens hard plastics and resins. When ingested it can cause renal failure and death. It can look like a gleaming chunk of quartz or it can be ground as fine as cornstarch. You Google image search “melamine” and you see colorful plates in a variety of decorative finishes. You Google image search “melamine powder” and you see mounds of white powder laid out in a grid. They all look like poison.
On Youtube you watch a video called AUTOMATIC MELAMINE CROCKERY MOLDING MACHINE. Huge machines stamp out dinner plates like waffle presses, and a worker chips off the runoff melamine batter with a small steel spade, varnishes the edges with a sticky brush. As long as you have the molds, you can make anything.
Melamine is 66% Nitrogen in mass, increasing the Nitrogen content in whatever it’s added to. Nitrogen marks the presence of protein. Milk is tested for protein levels. The milk is laced with melamine to increase its protein reading. Melamine beefs up the protein readings of watered down milk. The watered down milk passes quality control tests and goes to market.
Manufacturers sell white powdered melamine to dairy farmers. Maybe they don’t know what will happen, maybe they think the melamine is a white lie. Milk cut with melamine cuts costs and increases profit margins. When ingested in large enough quantities, melamine crystallizes in the kidneys, creating plastic stones.
Magic Erasers are made of melamine foam. The sponges are soft to the touch, but melamine is harder than glass. The sponges scrape away stains. They don’t wipe, they abrade.
On the way to the movie theater you pass the vape store and it smells like candy—like all the gummy bear flavors mixed together, and your mouth waters. There is a user generated database of e-juice recipes, and there is someone who is wondering if anyone has the recipe for white rabbit milk candy. He heard of the contamination and doesn’t want to eat them anymore, plus he’s watching his weight, but could anybody help him recreate the flavor of his favorite candy from childhood?
You only just learn how cotton candy is made even though you once helped to make cones and cones of it at a fair. The cotton candy sugar came in a big paper carton, like milk, and you poured it into the machine, the hard granules drumming against the stainless steel.
Here’s what you didn’t know—the machine melts the candy into a liquid. You somehow missed this part. You thought there was some kind of alchemy going on under the hood of the machine, but now you understand. The liquid candy is sprayed out through tiny nozzles and the sugar filaments harden when they touch the air. As soon as they touch your saliva, the filaments dissolve. Their structure can’t sustain the contact. The sweetness is the taste of collapse.
Polyester is made in a similar process called melt spinning. Hard pellets of polymer are poured into a machine and melted down. The melted plastic is extruded into fine threads. Spools of satiny thread are wound around metal prongs, and then the thread will be dyed and woven into synthetic silk, crepe de chine, chiffon. Back at home, you wash your cottons and polyesters in the same load, and brittle plastic fibers flake away, washed back into the water supply.
The candy hook is affixed to the factory wall with two big bolts. It looks like a regular coat hook but sharper. You slick the marble counter with vegetable oil and pour out the syrup. You wipe the oil left on your hands onto the hook. You scrape the sugar into itself as it cools and hardens. You drape the shiny mass of sugar over the hook and you pull. Your back muscles clench, and then you wind it around the hook again and stretch it over and over. The candy aerates. When sweat beads at your brow, the sugar looks like ropes of satin. Tomorrow your shoulders will be stiff and sore, but you will have a fresh tray of candy. The next day you start again and boil sugar and water in the copper kettle until it becomes slow and honeyed.
In the lab, scientists in white polyester lab coats take notes in front of taffy pulling prongs that stretch sugar into shiny white ropes, fold them over and stretch them out again. Their shoes are swaddled in paper booties with elastic around the ankle, their hair encased by nylon nets.
The cartoon mascot, the wide eyed jumping rabbit, watches over everything. The stuffed polyester rabbits are everywhere, their synthetic fibers rustle against each other, and then there’s a worker who puts the rabbits in a big stainless steel vat and turns the burner on blue and the smell is cloying poison and saccharine. But they melt and melt into glossy white, and a scientist scoops some into a beaker and drizzles it over the taffy.
It’s all plastic. The polyester lab coats are the rabbit dolls are the rabbit candies, everything melts into everything, and under the hot blue flame, it all melts into hot white milk. Melamine laced milk packaged into plastic bladders and paper cartons and little bottles of that sweet yogurt drink you sucked through a tiny straw. Melamine laced milk dried into powder, sifted into baby formula, baked into cake, stirred into coffee.
Tap water around the world tests positive for plastic microfibers. First, the dairy cows stop making milk. Their insides are iridescent, hardened with colorful plastic filaments. The honey bees will be next to go, but still, sugar is plentiful, and as long as we can synthesize we can survive.
C O U N T E R T R A N S L A T I O N
Once you and your mother were heating up milk in a saucepan before bed. 昔はあなたとあなたのお母さんは寝る前に牛乳を加熱していました。You stirred the milk, watched it form a filmy skin which you skimmed up with a wooden spoon and draped into your mouth. あなたは牛乳をかき混ぜた、スプーンから牛乳の皮を食べました。 You loved eating the milk skin. あなたは牛乳の皮を愛していました。 You both forget about the pan for a little and when you remember the milk is sweetened and condensed. あなたたちはしばらく鍋を忘れた；覚えている時、牛乳は甘くて濃いです。鍋の底は燃えて黒くなった。The bottom of the pan is burned black and jammy. The kitchen smells like burnt sugar. It is all delicious. 全部が美味しいだよ。
As a third-generation Japanese American, my understanding of Japanese is limited to a mixture of overheard colloquialisms, an elementary knowledge of the polite-form after many summers spent wandering through Kyoto as my father’s shadow, and two failed attempts at a Saturday Japanese school in Sacramento. And so, the idea of reading-as-translation was daunting, to say the least. But, in the same way that reading stories freed me from painful introversion as a child, reading-as-translation felt like a safer way to wrestle with the discomfort of not knowing exactly what to say or how to say something in Japanese. An old copy of a Japanese-English dictionary inherited from my father was heavily involved, as was the internet. But Karen Gu’s homage to white rabbit candies and their sweetness, imperfection, and possible toxicity was too wonderful to pass up. The translation is in no way perfect; in fact, it may be too literal, the way language tends to be before one really understands it.