The Call of the Watermelon

When I go grocery shopping every summer, I always gravitate toward the giant bins full of those green, basket- ball-sized fruits Americans call watermelons. To me, this particular example of nature's bounty reflects what summer is all about.

Through years of practice, I've learned how to quickly pick out what I deem to be "the best in the bin." First, I search for the one with darker and straighter lines on the rind and then check the freshness of the stems before I set my eyes on a potential winner. With the knuckles of my index and middle fingers, I give it the sound test. If I hear a distinctive, hollow "pop, pop," I know that I've found my prize. It will then be placed in my shopping cart.

To many of my readers, watermelon may be an ordinary summer fruit. But to me, it has the extraordinary ability to trigger some of the sweetest memories of my childhood. Life was hard in the 1960s in Shanghai, China. My parents often didn't have enough to provide us four little girls with three meals a day, let alone buy us treats. But, when summer arrived, we could always count on cheap, plentiful watermelons to bring us a lot of pleasure and excitement.

It felt like a celebration every time when a rusty old truck unloaded a mountain of watermelons at a designated street corner in our neighbor- hood. A man rang his bell as loudly as he could as he raced with his bicycle through our lane, yelling: "Xi Gua! Xi Gua!" Residents soon poured out of every door toward that green mountain, eager to get the first and best of them.

My parents often brought us kids along with some bamboo baskets to haul our loot home. We skipped happily alongside other giggling children and their chatty parents, stood patiently in a long line, and waited for our turn to pick out our family's share. I still remember how heavy my basket felt even though my father always placed a very small fruit in it. My older sister and I took turns in carrying it.

My younger sister often helped as well. We often struggled to get it home while our father walked proudly ahead of us with a giant melon on one shoulder, and his other arm holding a big basket full of oddly shaped little ones. We couldn't wait to sink our teeth into a slice of sweet, juicy heaven that made our long, sweaty summer so fun and exciting.

In those days, there were a wide variety of watermelons, some long and lanky, and others oval or round. They came in all sizes, as well, with some as big as an iron wok and others so small it was as if two rice bowls had been fused together. The inside of a melon would always remain a mystery until it was opened, ranging from a deep red to a soft pink to a bright yellow. Once we were awed to discover a half-yellow and half-pink miracle.

As a child, opening a melon meant discovering all the secrets it held within its rind, from its color to its taste. Watermelons were not always sugary-sweet like they are now. They all had a varied degree of sweetness and sourness, which could only be discovered once they were cracked open and tasted. Because of their mystery and variety, I was obsessed with my watermelons.

So many years have now passed. And yet the watermelon still holds that magic power over me, luring me down the memory lane every time I taste it, retrieving those idyllic moments that happened so long ago, and which would otherwise have been lost in the passing of time. Bite into one and see what I mean.

Reflections From The East Column:

By Qin Sun Stubis


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