I’ve never liked kitchens much. A thick fog hangs perpetually over ours, and a symphony of clanking pots, kettle whistles, and popping bubbles is performed day and night. The messes in my kitchen are like the piles of grass left after the lawn is mowed: they sit by themselves, wasting away.
My grandma’s love of cooking has sometimes frustrated the rest of my household over the years. More cooking leads to more food, and more food means we each get a bigger serving. The sound of running water is incessant, cascading down over the mountain of dirty plates. While we are away, my grandmother, a petite woman, tackles the heap like a student tackles homework the night before it’s due, scrubbing relentlessly and urgently. It is all in vain, because whenever dinnertime arrives, the mountain makes a comeback.
When I was younger I enjoyed watching my grandmother cook. In the mornings, when I ambled into the kitchen sleepily, my grandmother was always there, an apothecary stirring another brew in her mysterious pot. A bowl of bright green spinach might sit next to the sink, waiting to be rinsed and then bathed in scalding water. There was always something on the trusty stove, and my grandmother’s glasses were constantly fogged. Pots hissed like cats, warning you of the consequences of getting too close. Once, when I pulled the lid off a pot that was boiling furiously, a geyser of steam shot up and burned my finger. The enormous blister lasted three weeks – and reminded me never to provoke an angry pot again. From then on I stood quietly to the side, watching my grandma create many somethings out of almost nothing.
The kitchen wasn’t just a hub of life. Occasionally a crab or lobster was brought home to be killed and cooked, and skinned, plucked chickens sometimes found their way into the ornery pots. On Qing Ming, a Chinese holiday when families visit gravesites of relatives, cooked pig parts were packed up ready for travel in Tupperware containers. And our cutting board must have looked like death itself to the countless fish that entered our kitchen. Fish taste much better if they’re cooked immediately after they’re caught, my grandfather explained nonchalantly. Out of water, these live fish would flop insanely. Their glassy eyes, usually so cold and distant, seemed filled with panic as our dinner anticipated its impending doom. The scales shimmered like stars, reminding me of the tale “The Little Matchgirl.” The grandmother in the story claims that every time a star falls, another soul goes up to heaven – and I knew that the quelled soul would be the fish’s.
I bore all this with a staunchness uncommon in a young child who has just witnessed the vanquishing of a life. Maybe it was because I didn’t value a fish’s life as much as a human’s, or because I wanted to be a doctor, and to be one, you had to handle dead animals. Inside, I felt only a slight nudging of sadness for the fish, and when dinner arrived, I had no trouble eating my food.
Many of my family members’ routines were centered around the kitchen. Nearly every morning, my father, with his face still unshaven and his glasses on, drank water mixed with apple cider. He thumbed through the newspaper, its gritty pages making a shlk shlk noise as he turned them. Next to him, my brother wolfed down his noodles, hair still messy – “like a bird’s nest,” my mother clucked, yanking a comb through his mop. My grandma was always at the stove, pouring soy sauce into a crackling pan. Her face lit up when my brother coyly asked for seconds. My mother tied her shoes, readying for work. My father crunched his eyes up thoughtfully at an article.
I used to watch all this from behind my enormous white mug, a snow-capped mountain that isolated me in this moment from my family. I have come far from the young girl. Now I wake up earlier in the mornings and go downstairs to find that my grandmother is, for once, not in her sanctuary. Every day this discovery astonishes me until I remember how fast time passes – how something you once took for granted may not always be there the next day. I’ve even tried cooking a few things, although I am simply a naive chick in the culinary arts compared to the old wise bird my grandma is.
Dawn shows its face, shyly rising up into the drowsy sky. The cloud of steam returns. Never have I been so happy to hear such a rowdy tumult. The kitchen is a place of birth, a place of death – and as I see now, it is a place of love.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.