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

Somewhere in-between

Eating burgers in a New York City kitchenette

Feeling conflicted

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.