I don’t have a rice cooker
The other Friday morning, before work, I was washing the dishes.
I didn’t have many to wash. The main use of our kitchen is plates for Seamless and Caviar. I thought, ruefully, that all my meals had been a hodgepodge of delivery food: American, Thai, Indian, burgers.
My mother always asks, now that I’m an adult,
“What do you eat?” It feels like a very important question to her. “Oh, you know. Pork chops. Vegetables. Burgers. Steak.” “No Chinese food?” she asks. “No, no Chinese food. Maybe once every month.”
I thought of myself as cosmopolitan.
I wasn’t like my parents who, upon being served medium rare prime rib that I prepared for Christmas dinner, swished it around first in the hot pot.
I wasn’t like my parents, who, upon trying Chipotle for the first time, said, “This is nothing special. This is just rice, and meat, which we have, and too much cheese.”
My parents viewed everything through the lens of Chinese food, where nothing else could compare.
I was proud of myself because I did not discriminate against foods. I was proud of myself because I was not stuck in the old ways, in the old tastebuds of our heritage.
I was not like them.
I was different.
When I went carb-free in 2013 in an adventure to try all the diets to lose weight, I remember how my grandparents looked at me, concerned, and said, “You will die if you do not eat rice.”
I had laughed. I knew about nutrition, and they did not. White rice was the culprit, and they were benighted. I would be fine without eating rice.
Now, I do not eat rice often. I don’t have a rice cooker. I’m not like my other Chinese-American friends who make dumplings during the New Year.
So as I stood, dishes in hand, on that Friday morning,
I was hit with a wave of uncertainty.
I asked myself,
Do I even feel Chinese?
Or am I an American?
I thought of my mother’s tongue
And the cow tongue my mother prepared
That looked nothing like spaghetti and meatballs
The myths of the Monkey King, that other Chinese children grew up on,
That I found boring and obtuse and uncool
The CCTV with Chinese voice actors,
Speaking too dramatically, dubbed over grainy video
That looked, to my Western eyes,
Like poor production quality
Like a substandard culture
I thought, deeply,
That I had always been Chinese
That I hadn’t wanted to be Chinese
That I felt that I should want to be Chinese
That I didn’t know what I wanted
Here I stood, 29 years later,
In the kitchen of a SoHo loft
Washing empty dishes which had held burgers
Washing knives and forks
Was I where I wanted to be?
I tried to imagine myself
Growing up in China
Drinking soy milk and eating you tiao in the morning
Basking in the heat and the sun and the billions of people
Dust in the air
That is as far as my daydream went
I could not imagine myself there
Because that was not a life I had
And that was what knocked me over
That was what sent tears to my eyes,
A flood of homesickness and grief to my heart
I felt as though I had peered into a deep well that ends at the other side of the world
A well I had always known, but did not dare to peer into
There was no opening for me at the other side
So why peer in at something that could have been and never was?
I felt that I had lost something important
Lost something that I had never had.
It was my birthright, to be Chinese, and to be American.
And it was not my birthright to be Chinese, nor to be American.
I was who I was
Eating burgers in a New York City kitchenette
About not owning a rice-cooker.
I felt angry, like I had dropped into this world without a choice
But, I thought, at least my parents had a choice
They came to America, of their own volition, with their own dreams
I could at least trust their will,
And have gratitude for this body and this lifetime
Others in America came not out of hope and free will
Instead, they were ripped from their homelands, transplanted against their will
Instead, they were forced to flee oppression, with nowhere else to go
And their children live here now
I wonder if those children are knocked over by unknown grief, by righteous anger, by a well to a homeland they could never return to
Stunned by loss of something they never had
What pain they must feel
Or what pain they must hide
I dropped to my knees
Alone in my kitchen
Thinking, this is too much
Too much emotion
For such a silly, imagined loss
It was my Chinese sensibility, speaking to sooth my emotions
Speaking for my survival
But I thought
It is okay, today, alone, to feel
To look down this well
And see what I might find.
Just a few minutes, I thought,
On a Friday morning
A few minutes to myself,
To feel whatever I might feel,
No matter how silly it seemed.