I’m sixteen years old. I was born in space, and I will die in space, never having set foot on a planet. Some of the first generation thought this would make my generation depressed, but it doesn’t bother me. There is plenty to explore and do on the many pods of the Esperanza, the ship where I live. I can’t imagine what I would do with an entire planet. It would take more than a lifetime just to walk across such a vast surface. Who needs that much space? Although, it would be cool to see an ocean.
I hold the awesome responsibility of preserving the culture of my people. Or at least, that’s what they tell us all the time in school. Mostly, I just try not to overcook the falafel.
It was a Tuesday night, and I was just pulling a batch of falafel from the fryer when the call to Salat al-Maghrib, the evening prayer, came over my earbud. I dumped the falafel in a strainer to drain, and retrieved my rolled-up prayer mat from the shelf where I stored it while I was working. The prayer mat was a woven rug that had once belonged to my great-grandfather, a man who lived his whole life on Earth, in the country of Lebanon. I laid out the mat oriented toward the aft of the ship, the direction of Mecca. Mecca was always behind us on the Esperanza. Assuming there was anything left of Mecca at this point. Our ship’s last contact with Earth was before I was born.
When I finished the traditional prayer rituals, I carried the falafel to the warmer behind the counter in the restaurant stall where my father was serving late-dining guests, mostly from the other cultural pods of the Esperanza. I noticed a Chinese girl picking at an order of knafeh. Most Asian people don’t care for the dish – it’s too sweet for them.
I watched her pull apart the pastry and dig out a tiny bit of the creamy Akkawi cheese with her fork. She placed the cheese on her tongue and savored it thoughtfully. She had large, full lips and dark eyes with long lashes. Her ink-black hair was piled on her head and held there with a carved wooden pick of some kind. Her body was impossibly slim. She was about my age, but I didn’t think I had ever met her. I would have remembered meeting a girl who looked like that.
“Ahmed,” my father barked from the register. “Quit daydreaming.”
The girl looked over and met my eyes. I felt heat rise in my cheeks and turned away. “May I go do my homework?”
My father looked at the newly-deposited falafel and smiled. “Excellent technique, Ahmed. This is good. You will be ready to make shawarma when they slaughter the lamb next month.”
I felt a stab of pride in my chest. Raising livestock on the ship was resource-intensive. A small number of sheep were bred in the hopes that when we reached our destination, the climate would be suitable for them. There were hundreds of egg and sperm samples frozen in storage, but they would need live sheep to bear the first lambs. I would be long dead before any of that happened, of course. But once a year, a lamb was slaughtered so that chefs-in-training such as me could learn to cook their meat. I would then need to hand that skill down to my successor.
The last time a lamb was slaughtered, I was not deemed ready to cook any of it, but I did get to taste it. It was delicious. I had assisted my father in making chicken shawarma – chickens were harvested more often as they took less resources to raise – but it was not the same. I was looking forward to the chance to taste lamb shawarma made with my own hands.
My father gave me a curt nod. “You may go study.”
I hurried off, stealing one last look at the Chinese girl. She had returned her attention to her dessert. Too bad she had already eaten her entrée. I would have liked to know what she thought of my falafel.
As I approached our cabin, I spotted my younger sister, Alia, slinking down the hallway. I knew she was supposed to be doing her homework as well, but my sister often did not do what she was supposed to do. I did not want to get her in trouble, so I didn’t call out. She slipped out into the main passage without noticing me.
I decided to follow her. I’m not sure why, exactly. I suppose I was curious and not anxious to start my Earth history homework. I knew it was part of my duty to my people to ensure our history was remembered, but it was so boring – a bunch of names and dates and places that didn’t exist anymore. We were going to colonize a new world; who cared what happened on the old one? Spying on my sister sounded a lot more interesting than writing a paper on the reorganization of the Middle East after World War Two. Besides, if our parents discovered we were gone, Alia would bear the brunt of their anger.
Alia left the Middle Eastern pod and entered the central concourse, the large structure that connected all the cultural pods, where everyone mingled, and resources were exchanged. I had assumed she was going to meet friends or maybe a secret boyfriend on the entertainment promenade. But instead, she went to the engineering section at the back of the ship. I stayed well back in the shadows, just close enough that I could keep her in sight. She descended green, steel access stairs toward the vast chamber with the water processors. I could hear some kind of strange shuffling noise coming from down there.
As I peeked down from the top of the stairs, I was shocked to see that the aisles between the twenty-meter-tall, ovoid tanks were filled with dozens of teenagers from all of the different pods, swaying and gyrating silently, their feet clumping on the metal floor and their clothes rustling as they waved their arms. It was a silent disco! There were dance clubs on the entertainment promenade, and occasionally they held silent discos out on the promenade itself when there was a festival or something, but I had never seen a large, unofficial party like this before.
I watched my sister join her friend Talia, who was with two Caucasian boys. They greeted Alia with hugs, and one of the boys kissed her on the mouth. My father would not be pleased if he saw that. I crept down the stairs and found a spot off to the side of the dancers.
Someone tapped my shoulder, and I jumped.
It was the pretty Chinese girl I had seen earlier. “You work at the Arab restaurant,” she said.
“Is this your first time at the Melting Pot?”
“The Melting Pot?”
She laughed. “That’s what we call the underground party. Tune your audio to ‘Boring Hymns.’”
I tapped the screen on my wrist, and my augmented reality dashboard popped up in my vision. I searched audio feeds until I found the one she’d indicated. I tapped it, and a pulsing electronica song came over my earbud. It seemed to be a synthesized blend of American jazz instrumentation and traditional indigenous American vocals.
“Manuel Sanchez is the DJ tonight.” My new acquaintance gestured behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw a heavyset Latinx teenager standing on a maintenance catwalk above the dancers, his fingers swiping across a personal tablet. “Isn’t he great?”
“Yeah.” I stuck out my hand. “My name is Ahmed.”
She laughed, then shook my hand. “Xiao Li.”
I tried out the unfamiliar syllables. “Xiao Li.”
“Close enough. Let’s dance.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me into the crowd. She closed her eyes, raised her arms above her head, and undulated with a liquid grace. I did not know how to dance. I tried to imitate some of the boys nearby, but I felt clumsy and awkward. Xiao Li didn’t criticize though, even when she opened her eyes to smile at me.
We must have danced for nearly an hour. Finally, Xiao Li said, “I need a break.”
We climbed up to a maintenance catwalk and sat with our legs dangling over the edge. I tried to casually wipe the sweat from my forehead and temples. My shirt clung to my damp back. I wished I had worn a nicer shirt – I was still wearing the old T-shirt I wore to work. I detached my water bottle from my belt and took a long swig.
Xiao Li was watching the other dancers, swinging her legs.
“Did you like your knafeh?” I asked.
She wrinkled her nose. “Too sweet.”
Yep. Asians never liked the knafeh.
She turned her attention to me. “It has cheese inside it, yes?”
“Yes. Akkawi. It’s a white cow’s-milk cheese.”
“I’m studying culinary arts as well.”
“So, we have that in common.”
She looked at me with a sly smile, her eyes half closed. “We do.”
I felt tingly all over. I knew what I wanted to ask, but the thought caused me to begin sweating again. I had to act quickly before I chickened out. I took a deep breath. “I would like to kiss you.”
The corners of her lips curled up ever so slightly. “You have my consent.”
I kissed her. It was like electricity shot in through my lips and spread throughout my body. Her hand found mine. Our fingers intertwined.
Miraculously, neither Alia nor I were busted by our parents that night. I saw Xiao Li half a dozen times over the next two weeks, and we spent much of our evenings messaging back and forth or chatting via video channel. My schoolwork took a bit of a dip, I must admit, but my cooking was going well. I was motivated to focus because Xiao Li was becoming a regular at our restaurant. I never knew when she might show up and try my falafel or hummus or tabbouleh.
I learned that the Melting Pot dances happened once a week on a random day. Xiao Li showed me where to find the encoded announcements. The second time I went, Alia saw me there. She was not pleased that I had discovered her secret hobby, but what could she do? If she told on me, she wouldn’t be able to go anymore either.
One Thursday, I convinced my father to give me the night off from the restaurant. It was still a weeknight for Xiao Li – their weekend was on Saturday and Sunday, following the western calendar – but her parents were not as strict as mine. Xiao Li and I saw an old movie called “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It was from the United States in the 1980’s, but set during World War Two. Much of it took place in Earth’s Middle East. It made it look very exciting to live there in that time. Though I don’t think I would like to live somewhere where snakes just slithered around wherever they pleased.
We walked through the entertainment promenade afterward, holding hands. “Was the Ark of the Covenant real?” Xiao Li asked.
“Yes. You’ve never heard of it?”
“They don’t teach us much about western religions in my classes.”
I bristled. My father would have pointed out that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions were all born in the Middle East, not the West. But, I held my tongue. After all, west and east were fairly abstract concepts on the Esperanza. And now that she mentioned it, they didn’t teach me much about Asian religions or history. I suppose there was so much to know that they wanted everyone to specialize a bit.
“Where did the Ark get its power?” she asked. “Was it from the ghosts inside?”
“I don’t think that part’s real.” The question bothered me for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate, but Xiao Li must have been satisfied with my answer because she changed the subject.
“I had an idea for a new recipe.”
“A new recipe?” I had never thought of creating a new recipe. “Aren’t you learning to cook the food of your people? Our job is to preserve our authentic cuisine.”
“What is authentic? My mother told me that when she was little back on Earth, her mother used to make noodles with ginger, garlic, and avocado. It was one of her favorites. We aren’t allowed to make that on the Esperanza, though, because avocados were an imported fruit in China. But it was a family recipe. Who gets to tell us it isn’t Chinese enough?”
“There were councils…” I knew the history, how the generation ships were created to preserve a sample of each major Earth culture, then sent toward potentially habitable planets with the hope that at least one planet would be suitable for the continuation of the human race. It all made sense in the big picture, but none of it seemed like a convincing argument against creating a new recipe.
Xiao Li stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Haven’t you ever wanted to do something creative?”
“I guess I hadn’t thought about it.” My face got warm. It sounded lame.
“The trouble is my idea requires cheese. Something like that Awka-why cheese you use.”
“Right. I think if I combined it with spicy pork in a guo tie dumpling, it would be delicious dipped in chili sauce.”
I tried to imagine it. I had become a regular at the restaurant where Xiao Li worked, as well. I liked the spicy guo tie dumplings, though my favorite was red bean bao. But I grasped her idea. The creaminess of the cheese would contrast nicely with the heat of the chili sauce. “That does sound good.”
“Unfortunately, cheese is not part of traditional Chinese cuisine. We don’t have access to it in my pod.”
“Do you think you could get me some? Not much, just enough to try my idea. Maybe one hundred grams.”
I was taken aback. What she was asking was a pretty big deal. Resources on the ship were carefully tracked. I could probably steal enough Akkawi for her experiment without it being missed, but if I got caught, there would be hell to pay. My father would ground me for at least a month. No movies on the promenade, no dancing at the Melting Pot, no making out with Xiao Li in hidden corners. I most certainly would not be permitted to participate in making shawarma when they slaughtered the next lamb.
Xiao Li was biting her lower lip. She looked adorable. How could I refuse her anything? “All right. I’ll see what I can do.”
She squealed, did two little jumps, and threw her arms around my neck, pressing her body to mine in a tight hug. Whatever the risk, it was totally worth it.
I pondered my imminent crime the next morning while I was doing my English homework. We spoke Arabic within the pod, but English was the designated common language of the Esperanza’s population, the language I used with Xiao Li. There was a soft knock at my door, and my father entered. He sat on the edge of my bed with the expression he had when he wanted to have a serious talk. I was gripped by a panic that he had somehow found out what I intended to do, though of course that was impossible.
“Ahmed, I know about the Chinese girl.”
That was not impossible. My face grew warm. I did not want to talk to my father about girls.
“I don’t wish to tell you who you may love,” he said. “Thankfully, those days are in the past for our people. But is there no girl in the Middle Eastern pod you find attractive?”
My discomfort turned to anger. “Are you telling me I should only date Arab girls?”
He sighed. “It’s not about her race. You carry a very important duty, my son.”
My duty. Did every aspect of my life have to revolve around preserving my people’s culture? Was I not allowed to choose any of my own experiences? It wasn’t fair.
“It’s not like Xiao Li and I are getting married or anything.”
“Yes, but sometimes one thing leads to another.”
“So, what if we do get married someday?”
“I’ve told you that my older brother, Mohammed, was not chosen for a spot on a generation ship. I’ve never told you the reason. Mohammed went to school in Germany. He fell in love with a German woman, got married, and settled in a German city called Munich. My parents were unhappy that he had moved so far away, but they did not disapprove of the marriage. Yet, when it came time to select those who would get a place on one of the ships, advantage was given to those with cultural skills and knowledge. Those who had left one culture and assimilated into another were rarely chosen.”
I was shocked. How had I not known about this? “That’s not fair! Uncle Mohammed didn’t do anything wrong.”
Anger flashed in my father’s eyes. “How else were the councils to decide? The world was ending. Everything humanity had ever created was going to vanish. These ships were an act of desperation, a last chance to save our culture, all the art and music and language and food and philosophy built up over thousands of generations. These were the things that made us who we are. But there was only room on the ships for a small percentage of the people on Earth. Hard choices had to be made. Many had to sacrifice for the greater good of mankind.”
“So, because grandfather and great-grandfather screwed up Earth’s climate, I cannot choose my own girlfriend?”
My father sighed. His fury had passed. “I will not forbid you to see this girl. I just ask you to consider that your cousins never got the opportunity to grow up and have girlfriends and boyfriends. We are fortunate, but we are fortunate for a reason.”
He patted my leg and left the room.
I opened a video channel to Xiao Li. She told me all about a fight she’d gotten into with a girl at school who was part of a joint project but wasn’t doing any of the work.
I didn’t tell her about my conversation with my father.
That day, I watched my father prepare the knafeh, looking for a way to get what Xiao Li wanted. In the morning, he measured out the precise weight of Akkawi needed for the day and recorded the amount on the refrigerator’s resource tracker. I wouldn’t be able to take the cheese directly from the refrigerator without the discrepancy being noticed eventually.
Dad then diced the cheese and placed it in water to soak out the salt. This process took hours. It would be a simple matter to pluck a few cubes from the water when nobody was looking. As long as I took only a few cubes, my father wouldn’t notice the difference when it came time to fill the pastries. However, it would take several days to collect the amount of cheese that Xiao Li wanted without drawing attention. In the meantime, I would have to keep the cheese cold somehow. If I placed it in the refrigerator either at work or at home, it would surely be discovered.
It took me all day to hit upon a solution. Like most people on the Esperanza, I carried a personal water bottle – since water was such a valuable resource on the ship, it was important to maintain one’s hydration. I was able to find a small, watertight container that would fit through the neck of the water bottle. If I put the cheese in the container and kept the container in the water bottle, then all I had to do was regularly add cold water to the bottle.
It took me four days to collect about one hundred grams of Akkawi. I called Xiao Li to let her know.
“Perfect,” she said. “My parents are playing ma jiang tonight. I’ll be here alone. Come over at nine, and we can try my idea.”
After dinner, I raced through my homework seated cross-legged in the dining room next to my sister. I should have gone to my own room.
“Let me have some water,” my sister said, reaching for my bottle.
“No,” I shouted, too late.
She picked it up. “What’s your panic? Do you still believe you’ll get girl germs?”
She flipped the spout up and raised the bottle toward her mouth. There was a soft clunk as the container with the cheese bumped the inside edge of the bottle. My sister’s hand froze, the spout an inch from her mouth – a mouth that slowly formed into a grin. “What do you have in here?”
She started to unscrew the top. I grabbed her hands to stop her.
She laughed. “Ooh, must be bad. What is it, did one of your creepy friends give you pornography on a flash drive?”
“It’s none of your business. Give me my water bottle back.”
“I don’t know. Dad might think it’s his business.”
“Please, Alia. Don’t be a bitch.”
“Do you think calling me a bitch is the way to keep me quiet? You know how this works. If you want me to keep your secret, you do one of my chores.”
“I kept your secret about going to the Melting Pot.”
“Only because you like going there, too.”
“I also didn’t say anything about your boyfriend. Your boyfriend who is not an Arab.”
“Really? You want to push that button? I might point out to Dad that it would be unfair to prevent me from dating a non-Arab and allow you to continue seeing Xiao Li.”
She had me. “Okay, fine. I’ll do the laundry when it’s your turn.”
“Nope. I’m supposed to clean up the kitchen from dinner tonight. I want you to do that for me.”
“I don’t have time!” I was supposed to meet Xiao Li in one hour, though if I told my sister that, it would only give her more ammunition. “I have a lot of homework.”
“You’re not the only one with homework, you know. It’s the kitchen or I’m opening this bottle.”
I sighed. “Fine.”
Alia released the bottle. I closed my books. I would have to finish my homework in the morning. I was going to be hard pressed to clean up the kitchen and make it to the Asian pod by nine as it was.
Xiao Li opened the door and pulled me inside. She gave me a long kiss, her tongue flicking in to tease at mine. It was the first time either of us had been to the others’ quarters. I knew she was not supposed to have boys over when her parents weren’t there. The multiple ways we were breaking the rules was exhilarating. I thought about suggesting that the cooking could wait for a bit, but I knew how excited she was to try her recipe idea.
“Do you have it?” she asked.
I held up my water bottle. Her brow wrinkled.
“Oh, it’s inside.” I unscrewed the top of the bottle and retrieved the container.
Xiao Li’s eyes lit up. She took my hand. “Come on, I have everything prepared.”
The layout of their kitchen was similar to ours. The arrangement of human living spaces was pretty consistent across cultures, and I supposed it was easier to build the Esperanza with repetitive architectural elements. It was the furnishings and decor that were different. I marveled at the extensive spice collection. Chinese cuisine tended to be more complex than that of the Middle East.
Xiao Li had arranged the utensils, pans, and spices that we would need on the table. She mixed a dough for the dumpling wrappers. It was not too different from the pita dough I made daily.
While the dough was resting, she mixed the filling, combining the cheese I had brought with chopped shrimp, scallions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, and pepper. “The cheese is a little salty,” she said, “so I’m leaving out the salt from the normal recipe. It really should include ground pork, but pork is too precious. I would get in trouble for using it.”
I was secretly grateful. I was not always strict about eating halal food, but I never ate pork. “You won’t get in trouble for the rest of this?”
She shrugged. “No. If mama asks, I’ll just tell her I made a snack.”
The filling had to refrigerate for twenty minutes, so she showed me her room. The digital wall displayed a riot of colorful posters featuring Chinese cartoon characters I didn’t recognize. We made out on her bed until the timer alert interrupted us. I no longer cared much about cooking, but Xiao Li peeled herself away. “Come on, I’ll show you how to fold the dumplings.”
Back in the kitchen, Xiao Li cut the dough into circles. She plopped a spoonful of filling into the center of one. “You need to pinch first in the center and work outwards.” She demonstrated, crafting a perfect looking dumpling in a moment. “You try.”
I took a spoonful of filling and dropped it on a circle of dough.
“No, no,” she said. “Too much. It won’t seal fully.” She picked out about a quarter of the filling I’d used.
I tried mimicking her movements to seal the dumpling. It worked, but the pleat was uneven. It looked sloppy.
“Nice work,” Xiao Li lied.
We made the rest of the dumplings, Xiao Li moving at about three times the pace I did. By the end, I thought I really was doing a pretty good job.
I tried to put my arms around her as she pan-fried the dumplings, but she shrugged me off. “I need to concentrate.” After the dumplings were charred, she added water and covered the pan to steam them.
“There’s chili sauce in the refrigerator,” she said as she turned the dumplings out onto a plate.
I located the jar of chili sauce and closed the door to the refrigerator. But when I turned back into the room, I nearly dropped the jar. My parents were standing in the doorway with a Chinese couple I assumed to be Xiao Li’s parents.
They did not look happy.
“Xiao Li,” the Chinese man said. “You know the rules. No boys over unless we are home.”
Xiao Li blushed and hung her head.
“And you,” my father said, fixing me with an icy glare. “Haven’t I taught you more respect for women than this?”
“We were only cooking…” I mumbled.
“We’ll talk about it at home,” my father replied.
I nodded and set the chili sauce on the table. Xiao Li took my hand briefly, pressing something into it. I put the object in my pocket without looking at it. I didn’t think it would be appropriate to give her a goodnight kiss under the circumstances. “I’ll see you soon, Xiao Li.”
“We’ll see about that,” my father snapped.
My mother berated me the whole way home. My father was simply silent, which was worse. I knew I’d let him down. I think he was looking forward to teaching me to make lamb shawarma as much as I was looking forward to making it. Now he would have to deny me that opportunity. Part of me felt I’d even let my people down. I felt an ache in my chest. It would be a long year until the next lamb was slaughtered, and I got another chance to fulfill my duty.
When we entered our quarters, Alia was watching video in the living room. She gave me a sly smile. “Shouldn’t have rushed cleaning up the kitchen.”
And with that I was able to piece together how I’d been caught. My mother had been displeased with my shoddy job of cleaning. She had yelled at my sister. Alia, angry at getting in trouble, had ratted me out. My parents must have messaged Xiao Li’s parents. That’s why they had arrived together. I wondered if that was the first time the two sets of parents had spoken to each other, or if they’d been discussing Xiao Li’s and my relationship for a while.
“It’s late,” my father announced. “We will discuss this more in the morning. But for now, you are grounded for a month. Only school and the restaurant. Go to bed.”
I went to my room and flopped on my bed. A month without Xiao Li. It would be interminable.
I remembered the object she had given me and retrieved it from my pocket. It was the container in which I had kept the cheese. There was something inside of it. I pulled off the lid and saw one of the dumplings. Xiao Li must have slipped it into the container while our parents were distracted with me. So clever!
I retrieved the dumpling and took a bite.
The texture of the creamy cheese complimented the chewy outer noodle nicely. The ginger and cheese made for an odd combination, but I could imagine with the chili sauce it would be amazing.
Or maybe I just thought that because I was in love.