a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
The way you cut your meat reflects the way you live –Confucius
If Confucius was right, then my mother lived delicately, treading a tightrope as thin as the slices of her twice cooked pork.
When she ate her first American hamburger, she had complained. “Ai ya. Why is the meat so big and thick? Where is the Americans’ refinery? With a hulking piece of meat like this no wonder they all in debt. Americans cannot save.
She told me this as she watched me mince the pork for our dumplings while she rolled out the dough, flour streaking her hands with white quotation marks. “Thinner, Jian Yang. We are not the barbaric Americans. We have fineness in our food.”
She didn’t intend it, but with those words, the knife I was holding slashed its decussation across my life like the cuts across the pork. In that moment the lines were drawn and I told myself I am not a barbaric American because I am not an American. In that moment my narrative became a relic of my mother’s, two sides of the same page with her side’s ink still impressed on mine.
For five years after that, I remained scared of knives, and my mother cut my meat for me.
You are what you eat –American proverb
“Is that dog food?”
“It can’t be, because Ling Ling doesn’t feed dogs, she eats them.”
That day I went home in tears and asked my mother to pack me a sandwich. I showed her pictures of what the pale kids kept inside of their princess lunchboxes—spongy white bread around a single piece of ham and cheese, a cereal bar, an apple.
“Ah yes, I make for you.”
The next day I found that she had left a pork bun in my backpack. I picked up the baked dough and took a bite. I tasted pork marinated with soy sauce and chives. As I chewed, I hoped the hu jiao bing could pass off as a hamburger to the pale kids.
“Ling Ling is eating dog food again.”
“Does that make Ling Ling a dog?”
The next day there was steamed bun inside my backpack, filled with barbecue pork and black pepper. I took a single look at the pearl white bun folded into a delicate knot before throwing out the cha siu bao. I didn’t eat anything that day, or the day after, or the day after.
If you are what you eat, I thought, I don’t want to eat Chinese anymore.
And so my transformation began. Each day at lunch I would throw out the delicacy my mother had crafted the night before. Each day at dinner I would pick at my rice while I stared at the woman across from me, yellow face dotted with brown spots and creases like valleys in her forehead. My greatest wish was not to turn out like her.
I thought I had actualized my wish when my skin began to turn translucent as I skipped meals. I thought I was becoming white. I started eating nothing altogether to spur on my transformation. I became nothing.
Once my mother yelled at me for not eating. “Jian Yang, you look like ghost. Eat your noodles and you become yellow like egg again.”
I don’t remember most of what I said, but I remember how I felt. I remember red hot rage and acid tears burning lines down my face. I remember my tongue, poised like a knife, uttering some ugly sounding words I had picked up in school. I remember that I wanted to make her bleed with my words, one cut for each bite of dog food I had endured, seeping out red on a cutting board, until both of us were left colorless.
I remember her face, creased valleys twisted like bonsai trees, immovable as a mountain. I remember her hands and their calluses, the sign that her life was like the meat that she minced: tainted by the chemical fumes of the nail salon she worked at, haunted by the ghost of a continent she had left behind, battered from the English jargon scrawled on each month’s bills, worn by insults hurled on the streets from drunk and ignorant men; all these irreconcilable parts rolled and reshaped into a clumsy meatball of existence, now assailed and sliced open by one last word flung by her own daughter: “Chink.”
He who takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the skills of the physician –Chinese adage
My mother does not cook anymore. She remains in her bedroom or her garden, because she believes that being around white hospital gowns and grey surgical tools will drain her qi. And so at night she lays on a bamboo mat with red blankets in a room that brims verdant with qi-rectifying rhubarb stalks and shen-calming wolfberry seeds. On her desk sits an incongruous collection of terracotta cups, out of each drifting a different herbal energy. She tells me their contents are magical. I nod and continue my nightly ritual of adding her ground up pill powder to the herb concoctions when she is asleep.
The doctor said that her condition is too fragile to eat. He said that strong flavors could disturb her gut, and I should blend basic vitamins and nutrients into a pulp for her to drink. I told him that I respected him but he was a fool for thinking my mother to be anything but the strongest person in the world.
And so, my mother and I share overflowing bowls of red and and gold and browned meat over steamed rice every day. The first time I cooked her a meal was the day she came back from the hospital. When I saw her, face of mountains reduced to jaundiced ash, I cried and almost dropped the plate. She asked what was wrong with me. Between sobs I told her that my greatest wish as a girl was never to turn out like her. She told me that she had shared the same wish.
“You must turn out better than me,” she said.
We ate my meal, pork buns ribbed in ginger, in silence.
Fashion is in Europe, living is in America, but eating is in China –Chinese adage
I saw this scribbled against a dusty window to a beat-down grocery store in Chinatown. I wouldn’t know about the Europe part, but I don’t know why they say living is in America when this is the country that killed my mother. She died two years after the pork bun meal. The doctor said it was inevitable. The nail salon she worked nine hours a day at had been using highly toxic unapproved polishes for years. Each day she scrubbed counters and coughed chemicals until her liver resembled a sponge. It was a miracle that she lived as long as she did.
My mother was a failure of an immigrant in most aspects. She stood on that bridge at Angel Island seeking freedom, yet each day she beat herself an ocean back, drifting further and further from her vision. By imagining walls of white supremacy and dangerous businessmen, she had trapped herself in a prison of her own making. She never found freedom because she never made it off that bridge.
I live in America, though. For lunch I go out for IHOP or Chipotle with friends. We catch up on Grey’s Anatomy and someone invites me to a party later today. I only pretend to consider their offer.
For dinner I stay home and cut my own meat. I cut one piece for America, one piece for Xi’an, one piece for each brick of the bridge at Angel Island, one piece for eating, one piece for living, one piece for me, Kahoot champion and rom-com connoisseur, one piece for the broken spirit of a girl dreaming of princess lunchboxes. They are the decussations of a third-person America, carved apart by my mother into island pieces long before I realized how that action of carving had shattered me. And so, I take on the liberating duty of reassembly as I take the pieces and toss in a million red chili peppers and saute them in an ocean of soy sauce until they become one and the same.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.
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