“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? With a hulking piece of meat like this no wonder they all in debt. Americans cannot save.”
She told me this while I minced the pork for our dumplings and she rolled the dough. “Thinner, Jian Yang. We are not the barbaric Americans.”
She didn’t intend it, but with those words, the knife I held slashed across my life like the cuts across the pork. In that moment I told myself I am not a barbaric American because I am not an American. My narrative became a relic of my mother’s, two sides of the same page, 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 what the pale kids kept inside of their princess lunchboxes—spongy white bread around ham and cheese, a cereal bar, an apple.
“Ah yes, I make for you.”
The next day I found a pork bun in my backpack. I held the baked dough and took a bite. I tasted pork marinated with soy sauce and chives. As I chewed, I hoped the hujiaobing could pass off as a hamburger.
“Ling Ling is eating dog food again.”
“Does that make Ling Ling a dog?”
The day after, there was steamed bun inside my backpack with barbecue pork and black pepper. I looked once at the pearl knot before throwing out the chasiubao. I didn’t eat my lunch 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. Everyday at lunch I’d throw out the delicacy my mother had packed. Everyday at dinner I’d pick at my rice while staring at the woman across from me, pockmarked yellow on her cheeks and creased 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 from skipping meals. I thought I was becoming white. I started eating nothing altogether, and I became nothing.
Once my mother scolded me for not eating. “Jian Yang, you look like ghost. Eat your noodles and you become yellow again.”
I can’t remember most of what happened next. I remember my tongue, poised like a knife, uttering some ugly sounding words I barely understood. I remember wanting to make her bleed with my words, one cut for each bite of dog food I had endured. I remember pretending she could seep out red on a cutting board, bleeding until we were left colorless.“Chink.”
“He who takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the skills of the physician.” —Chinese adage
My mother doesn’t cook anymore. Instead, she lays on a red-blanketed bamboo mat in a room brimming verdant. On her desk, an incongruous collection of terracotta cups, holding qi-rectifying rhubarb and shen-calming wolfberry.
The doctor said her condition is too fragile to eat. Strong flavors could disturb her gut, and I should instead blend basic nutrients for her to drink. I promptly replied that he was a fool.
The first time I cooked for her, she was coming back from the hospital. When I saw her, face of mountains reduced to ash, I dropped the plate. She asked what was wrong with me. I told her that my greatest wish 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 grocery store in Chinatown. I don’t know why they say living is in America, because this country killed my mother. She died four months after the pork bun meal—inevitable, the doctor said. The nail salon she labored nine hours a day at had used illegally toxic polishes for years. While she scrubbed counters and coughed chemicals, her liver simply gave out. 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 at the Angel Island bridge seeking freedom, yet each day she beat herself an ocean back, until her vision became a mirage on the horizon. By imagining walls of white supremacy and shadowy businessmen, she 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 drinks with my roommates. We catch up on Grey’s Anatomy and someone invites me to a frat party later, which I only pretend to consider.
For dinner I stay home and cut my own meat, a piece for Brooklyn, a piece for Chinatown, for eating, for living. One piece for Jane Young, amateur journalist and cup-pong champion, one piece for Jian Yang, aspiring princess haunted by the paleness of memory. They are the decussations of a third-person America, carved apart by my mother into island pieces long before I realized that action had shattered me.
And so, I reassemble. I take the pieces, toss in a million chili peppers, and sauté in an ocean of soy sauce until they become one and the same.
By Samantha Liu, 16, New Jersey. She adds:“Mother’s Daughter” parallels my two clashing heritages. Having been raised speaking and reading Mandarin Chinese, I was expected to fulfill all the Confucius-esque dreams of my Chinese immigrant mother, whom I ended up resenting more than anything. Through the symbol of food, my story explores my struggle to reconcile these beliefs as I learned to define myself—as Chinese-American, as heterogeneous as food itself.”