The same familiar sight greets me every time I come home, a scene so integral to my being that I often forget its importance. The sun has just begun to meet with the horizon, streaks of orange and blue, day and night, grappling for dominance over the sky. A Chinese news channel blares on the TV screen, volume turned all the way up so my mother can hear it over the sound of boiling water and sizzling oil as she steams and stir-fries dinner. Some of the food is already on the table, platefuls of cold beef slices and green beans and pork soup. The smell, so distinct and unavoidable, consumes the natural wooden scent of our Tennessean home and imbues it with the aroma of a faraway country. I smile as my mother asks me to set the table in Mandarin. After a long day of being American, of having American friends and American classes and American food, it is nice to feel Chinese again.
Most of my friends don’t understand how Chinese people eat. For them it’s confusing to switch out forks and knives for chopsticks, to trade plates for bowls of rice. The part of Chinese cuisine they tend to focus on the most is what we are eating. “Why do you eat chicken feet?” they wonder, or “Why is pig blood a delicacy?” Sometimes they will even ask, half-jokingly, “Do you really eat cats and dogs?”
This makes the way I eat, so natural to me, seem alien and strange. As a child I often wondered why we still even ate Chinese food at home. “We live in America,” I would argue with my father. “We should eat American food.” This came up during the nights when I didn’t like what was served for dinner, when I longed to go out and eat hamburgers and spaghetti and pizza like my friends did at their homes. American food tasted better to me; or rather, it was what the other kids thought tasted better. My father would simply shake his head and tell me to finish my bowl. “Keep eating,” he said. “Don’t let your food go to waste.”
Everything I know about being Chinese means not to waste. It’s always knock offs instead of name brand, staying in instead of going out (gas prices are always rising even if they’re not). Being a doctor instead of a writer. When we’re old and can’t see, can’t walk, can’t work, will you pay for our care with stories?
This was especially true with food. I first discovered this fact on the internet as part of a project for school, where I had to construct a tri-fold with the history and culture of a certain country. I chose China, confident that I knew everything I could ever know about it. The project would be unbelievably easy. Except that I really knew nothing about China, apart from the language I spoke, the way I looked, and the food I ate at home.
Do you really eat cats and dogs? I thought to myself. No, of course I didn’t. But did other Chinese people? I typed “Why do Chinese people eat strange food?” into the search bar, feeling very strange.
Famine, 1920s and 30s. Another in the 40s. The final in the 50s and 60s. Years and years of hunger, resulting in tens of millions of bodies piled together in unmarked graves. I saw a quote from Yu Dehong, a government official during the last and worst famine: “I went to one village and saw 100 corpses, then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.”
I imagined what it was like to be truly hungry, not just rumbles but the feeling of your stomach being so empty that it begins to sink into itself. As if your lungs deflated after breathing out and never blew back up again. Sick and emaciated, wandering the dusty streets for a rat, a cricket, anything, wouldn’t a dog be an unbelievable sign of good fortune from the Gods? And if I somehow had even better fortune and got a hold of a chicken or pig, wouldn’t I suck all the meat off of every bone, even the feet and ears and tails? The food my American friends called “strange” and “exotic” had been the only way my family had survived. Chinese cuisine was a badge of honor, a battle scar that was both prideful and remindful.
This epiphany, however, occurred far into the future. As a teenager, I had more important things to worry about than my culture and heritage. Suddenly assaulted by an unstoppable wave of whiteheads, makeup products, and long-legged blondes biting into Carl’s Jr. burgers, I became acutely aware of how I looked in the eyes of my American friends. Every day, I weighed myself, wearing only a tank top and shorts so I could get the smallest number on the scale; every night, I ran on the treadmill, desperately trying to be “healthy” – to me, that only meant losing weight.
At dinnertime, I refused to eat my rice, dumping at least half of what was in my bowl back into the cooker. Once again, my parents didn’t understand; my actions were the complete opposite of what they expected from their child. How could I not want to eat? They had already cooked the food, put it on the table. It would all go to waste.
I remember a specific episode. It was an hour before dinner, and I had just run and weighed myself. I was 97 pounds, at the 35th percentile for my height. It was the heaviest I’d ever been. I immediately went to my mother, who was cooking in the kitchen, and laid my head on her shoulder.
“I don’t want to eat dinner tonight,” I told her quietly.
She hugged me. “We’ll have leftovers tomorrow then,” she responded.
That was when I stopped eating. Not completely, of course; I still had to justify my actions as part of a “healthy” diet. This meant eating vegetables and rice (no meat) and only then in small amounts. Refusing the occasional ice cream or snack bar, when the offer came up. Getting used to the growl of my stomach as the background of my day. Food was a nuisance, and the act of eating it was a waste of all the work I had put into my “healthy” lifestyle. I dropped to 86 pounds, the 13th percentile for my height.
“Wow,” my doctor said when I stepped on the scale at my yearly check-up. I was proud.
Did I think I had become prettier, more attractive? To American tastes, yes. My friends had all begun to comment on how skinny I was, how they wished they could look like me. I was the magic number, a size 0, a size nothing. Little to no space was required to fit me into a place.
Though my parents had gotten used to their daughter’s strange aversion to food, they still did not approve of it. Every night at dinner they’d complain to me that I was too skinny, all the while sneaking a piece of pork or bok choy into my bowl. Unamused, I flung the food away from my meager pile of rice. I didn’t understand why they insisted on going through this ritual of forcing food upon me over and over again. Perhaps they knew they were losing their daughter to the country they had immigrated to.
In ninth grade, my grandparents flew over from Zhenjiang, Jiangsu to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a trip they had made only twice before in my lifetime. We met them at the airport and quickly headed home, arriving just in time for my parents to prepare a traditional Chinese meal. While we waited, I tried to converse with my grandfather in Mandarin, an attempt that ended in utter failure; it was so disgraceful that a summary of a book I was reading about two women’s lifetime friendship somehow reached my grandfather’s ear as a lesbian romance.
In the end, I resorted to Google Translate, typing in what I wanted to say in English and showing my grandfather the Mandarin. The experience was so ludicrously tragic that I couldn’t help but laugh at my inadequacy, my shame.
When dinnertime came, I sat at the table next to my grandparents as they told me about their flight. Still embarrassed from my earlier attempt at conversation, I kept quiet and picked at a piece of steamed broccoli with my chopsticks. A thick slice of pork belly landed on top of my rice; confused, I looked up to see my grandfather’s concerned face, tan and wrinkled with age.
“You don’t eat enough,” he said. “How will you grow up to be strong and healthy?”
Although I had turned away food from my parents countless times over the past few years, I couldn’t bring myself to refuse my grandfather’s offering. How could I possibly explain to him the reasons why I didn’t want to eat? He was seventy-five years old, which meant his entire childhood and adolescence had been plagued with the famines I had researched so long ago. He understood hunger and survival; he would not understand me, who had strayed so far from his way. I had already completely lost my ability to speak my family’s native language, one third of what made me Chinese, and I was dangerously close to losing my looks, too. (I dyed my hair with blonde highlights, stayed away from the sun to avoid tanning, and wore eyeliner that made my eyes twice as big as they really were). Was I going to let myself lose the last part of me that was truly Chinese, the food that had nourished my family and given me life?
That night, I ate two whole bowls of rice.