Of Race and Relationships: Bread Isn’t Just For Sandwiches

2011 October 16 § 3 Comments

In an effort to save money, my SO and I were thinking about what foods we could get that would be versatile options during the food-making processes of cooking breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. One particular exchange during our meandering journey through Safeway really brought home to me an important aspect of growing up in any culture: food.

“Celery?” He suggested. “We can put it in soup or eat it as a snack.”

I shook my head, wondering if I should suggest garlic even though I knew we wouldn’t be able to use it all. “I don’t like celery. How about broccoli?”

We passed by the green onions (which went in almost every dish my mom cooked) and selected some fruit in the produce section, then selected his favorite cereal (Raisin Nut Bran) and my favorite cereal (Honey Bunches of Oats, but only the Honey Roasted variety) before heading for the refrigerated dairy section in the back.

“We can get bread,” he commented as we walked past shelves of bread in all its wheat, white, honey oat, potato, rye, and sourdough glory, all packaged in neat loaves along the aisle.

“Why?” A lot of surprise; a little distaste. Nothing against bread; I just didn’t much like sandwiches.

He sounded confused. “Well, it’s something we can eat for every meal. Toast, and sandwiches, and dinner-“

“But I don’t like sandwiches…” My experience working in the dining hall at my university had raised my standard for sandwiches – I wouldn’t be satisfied with just lettuce, a couple of slices of tomato, and one or two other vegetables. Plus, sandwiches were a pain to prepare… and who ate sandwiches for dinner, anyway?”

There was a pause, a moment of silence while we stopped in the aisle. And then he started laughing.

Dinner in my thoroughly Chinese household varied in the details, but had certain mainstays that were reliably constant:

1. Soup before and after dinner.
2. Rice was served more than nine times out of ten.
3. We almost always had at least one plate of vegetables, one plate with seafood or fish, and one plate of some other kind of meat.
4. Fruit for a late dessert.

For me, rice is comfort food, happy food, filling food, and the staple I always cooked when I needed a pick-me up or something that was familiar and reminded me of home. My mom always cooked porridge with chicken, ginger, and green onion when my brother or I were sick; it got so that whenever I was sick at school, that was the only thing I wanted or had much of an appetite for. This was something I’d taken for granted as “normal,” as something that I would cook when I was living on my own.

Even if my significant other had a Chinese or Chinese American background, I’m sure there would still be differences in the foods we would be used to eating (for example, even the foods that my younger cousins on my dad’s side eat are slightly different than what my family usually eats at home). Even allowing for small differences, though, my boyfriend’s food and my food are completely different in type, variety, and staples. His grocery store is Safeway, his parents’ first choice the produce market, and mine is Zion and Ranch 99. We become so used to the food we grow up with that seeing how other families eat can take some adjustment, especially when that other family is the boyfriend’s (or girlfriend’s) family, and their ethnic background is very different from our own.

I can only imagine the kind of culture shock I’m going to get when I experience a “real” Thanksgiving with his family, complete with the turkey and stuffing and who knows what else. (Back home, we never really acknowledged the Western holidays, aside from the fact that my parents didn’t have work on those days. If we “celebrated” Thanksgiving at all, it was with a gathering of family friends, grilling chicken or beef ribs in the backyard, and eating chow mei fun. The only turkey I ate growing up was the kind you bought sliced in plastic packaging in the deli section.)

Being in a long-distance relationship also means that it took me well over a year to really understand what it meant to date someone from a vastly different ethnic background than my own. Because we ate out more often during those rare visits to see each other, I didn’t realize just how different our day-to-day eating habits really were.

So what did I learn during my August visit?

My rice is his salad.

Hamburgers, steak, and hot dogs grilled in the backyard are high on the list for family gatherings.

There actually exists an invention called the “salad spinner.”

Rice eaten plain and white is basically nonexistent as a dish or even as a side.

There are more specific names for different pasta dishes, because they actually eat more than one kind of pasta.

And lastly, bread is not just something you eat in a sandwich.

 

More thoughts on my identity as an Asian-American can be found at An Asian-American Diary.

a story from my life, part i.

2011 October 9 § Leave a comment

Taken at Ballard Locks, Seattle, WA

Ballard Locks, Seattle, WA

My name is Yvonne, and I’m 23 years old.

Out of cultural context, some things that my mom said could be considered downright mean. “Oh, she’s not as beautiful as your daughter, she’s a little

chubby.” That’s what she would say to her friend, a friend that had a daughter my age. I looked at my childhood friend, and saw someone who was my opposite – she was the perfect image of what I thought was the “ideal Chinese girl.” Slim. Petite. Small-boned. Pretty. Fashionable and popular. I looked at myself and saw none of those things, even though I had my own qualities that made me amazing.

I understand now that it was not malicious in intent – culturally, it was a way to be humble and to show pride in your children to say such things. Ten years ago, I didn’t understand that, and each time I heard those words, it cut me like a physical whip. I was already quiet, and shy; I became quieter and more withdrawn, desperate to win my parents’ approval and to become perfect.

It’s not that those were the only things important to me. But from parents who wanted perfection, I always felt like it wasn’t good enough. Somewhere along the way, I started to believe that nothing that I did was good enough, that perfection was the only way to acceptance. Magazines that I read told me that I needed makeup and a thin body to be beautiful, that I needed silky blond hair and blue eyes to be pretty and desirable to guys. Mainstream television didn’t offer any Chinese or even Asian role models that I could look up to – all it told me was that “beautiful people” were white and American, and implied that minorities were not. I took in all of these external messages and they haunted me, made me doubt myself, made me hate myself and what I looked like. I looked at my body and saw fat, even though I was just your average teenager. I let the voices of others overpower that of my own.

My judgment and perception of myself became warped because of what I felt was constant pressure from my parents to be better. Home became a place I wanted to avoid, and I threw myself into school activities, into sports, into volunteering at the library and reading like crazy. Things began to change because I found joy and power in my body and my mind. I was new to tennis, but I made the varsity team during my first tryout. With a racquet in my hand, I felt powerful and strong and amazing. When I stood on the green court with its white lines and red boundaries, I wasn’t a non-ideal Chinese girl who wasn’t smart enough or pretty enough – I was a winner. When I started playing badminton, the same thing happened – I was new to the sport, but agile and hard-working. I was a valuable member of the team. And when I stood in a school gym, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t skinny and didn’t have blond hair or blue eyes – I was just me, a formidable opponent and badminton player, a good partner.

I also had the good fortune to get involved in Marine Corps Junior ROTC. Even though I was already athletic and fit, I became more so. I learned to take care of my appearance in uniform and do all sorts of things I didn’t learn in AP Calculus or Honors English or Biology. In JROTC, it didn’t matter what any of us cadets looked like – we were judged on our work ethic and our skill, and promoted accordingly. For the first time in my life, I felt like people were seeing me as an individual. I felt like people saw me as Yvonne, not just my mother’s imperfect daughter or a so-so student.

In middle school, I had also begun writing fanfiction, out of a distant dream to become published one day. Online, as just another author, I was anonymous. Only my writing mattered, not my beauty. When people praised my writing, I was happy – and when I found a plethora of friends within the fanfiction community, I felt like I had finally found a place where I belonged. As a writer, and as a reader, I could close my eyes and travel to many different places, to many different worlds. At a time when “online” was synonymous with “dangerous” and “online predator”, I found people who saw me for me, and nothing else. When I was feeling down, and when I cried, these friends were here to listen and support me. I think that, most of all, was what helped me to really look beyond that external noise, and find value in myself beyond what television, magazines, and other people told me.

I had friends, and parents who loved me, and many people besides who were supporting me in my life. But because I had this litany of negativity in my head and in my heart, I couldn’t see any of that. Being a part of sports and JROTC, finding a dream and holding onto it, and having friends who taught me how to find value in myself – these were all only steps to the individual that I am today. Ultimately, I had to make the choice to either listen to “everyone else” and become bogged down by never being good enough, or being proud of who I was and believing in myself. Only after I began believing in myself did I begin to correct my negative body image; only after I saw my value in my individuality, did I begin to embrace myself for my differences and see the beauty and strength in my body, that could play tennis and run and shoot at targets and was a powerful, beautiful creation.

There is a lot more to this story, and to my journey to self-love, and self-confidence, and to understanding my identity. But the start of it, and the heart of it, was telling myself to listen to and believe in my own voice. I looked at myself in the mirror everyday and told myself that I was beautiful and amazing and strong, and even if I didn’t believe it at first, there was a day that I believed it a little, and then later there was a day when I began to truly believe it in my heart. The beginning of the process took months, even years, and even today, I continue to struggle.

Don’t let others tell you what beauty is – only you can decide for yourself what it means.

Do you have a story to tell?

Where Am I?

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