RICE + SHRIMP HEADS
Water occurs in three different states: liquid, solid and vapor. I would have to say vapor is my personal favorite; ethereal, tiny particles of water just floating around suspended in the air. It’s also fascinating because steam can form condensation on surfaces like glass. For example, imagine steam rising from a giant tray of creamed corn or meatloaf overcooking under heat lamps. On its journey towards the ether, it fogs up a pair of glasses and produces opaque but discernible images, kind of like clouds in the sky. Fascinating, also weirdly gratifying to watch. However in this scenario, it's not so much the steam as much as the eyewear that holds particular significance. Oversized, wire-framed, gold in color, and etched with the shape of a crescent moon indicating the power of two lenses in one. This very special pair of glasses belongs to Mrs. Hotchkins, my elementary school lunch lady.
She was a pudgy woman with upper arms that swung back and forth like the Golden Gate Bridge flexing in the wind. She expertly scooped mashed potatoes, forming the perfect indentation for a volcanic flow of gravy. She had a giant fold of skin at her wrist where a dainty gold watch nestled between the creases, hidden by plastic serving gloves. Her over-dyed fiery hair was encased in a stringy net, which gave notice to the small beads of sweat welling at her temples. She may have just been a lunch lady, but my exchange with her was symbolic. Her smile was a sign of approval, a bouncer’s go-ahead to gain entrance to an association primarily meant for the white kids of Washburn Elementary.
Growing up in the Midwest, I always felt different. I didn’t know it at the time, but the truth is, no one in my proximity looked anything like me - no one in my school, no one in my neighborhood and definitely no one on TV. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. During the 1980s, people who looked like my family and me had a very special place in the media. I attribute this to my failed venture into journalism. If it weren’t obvious I was different because of the way I looked, my lunchtime meal would give me away. I thought that if Mrs. Hotchkins served me lunch everyday, I would fit in. However, that was not my reality. My lunch consisted of a Tupperware filled with rice and shrimp. All of my blonde hair, Wonder Bread dreams of peanut butter and jelly, shattered.
School lunch was such an extraordinary phenomenon to me. Students who purchased “hot lunch” had their meals served on plastic trays in muted shades of pink or green. The tray itself was compartmentalized for each component of your meal. The largest section contained a square piece of pepperoni pizza, another was filled with overcooked green beans and of course, a very special slot was reserved for a carton of 2% milk. This was fascinating to me because that’s not what our meals looked like at home. In my family, everyone at the dining table shared their food. We had our own bowls of rice, obviously, but all of the dishes were skillfully placed at the center of the table like an intricate puzzle. Steamed fish with ginger and scallions, yellow curry with chicken and potatoes, long green beans, and pickled cabbage. None of these foods had any place on a school lunch tray.
All my seven year-old self wanted was to open my lunchbox to a bologna sandwich and a crinkly bag of Cheetos. Instead, the horrifying contents of my lunchbox contained rice and braised shrimp, heads still firmly attached. Their huge, crispy black eyeballs stared back, mocking me while snuggled under blankets of boiled bok choy.
When I asked my mom to make me white people food for lunch, she had no problem reminding me about the children back in Vietnam who would gladly eat my food and that I was lucky to even be alive.
“Côn, you know peepoh have to run to boat with no food after war done? You know how lucky you eat food?” my mom would say in Vietnamese and broken English. “Ngôi dây. Sit and eat everything I put in front of you, okay?”
She meant it too. If I didn’t finish every single noodle swimming in a seafood broth with pork and crab meatballs, I’d end up sleeping in that chair.
“But, Mooooom!” I would cry out. “I hate it! Can’t I just have some macaroni and cheeeeeeeese?!”
“I don’t know that one, eat your bún riêu,” she’d reply.
My mom knew exactly what she was doing. She was only pretending she didn’t know what white people food was. She did things like that a lot. I knew she was lying to me because first of all, she grew up in Vietnam. French people took over and they brought Catholicism, the Latin alphabet and sandwiches. Okay, so a báhn mì isn’t exactly a club sandwich but my mom could make substitutions. She could replace the crispy baguette, pate, cured meats, and pickled vegetables with white bread, salami and Kraft singles. Secondly, when she first came to the United States, she worked in a nursing home that was full of old white people. I’m sure they told her all about casseroles, and potato salad, and Jell-O molds, and chili. She could have asked them what was appropriate for my lunchbox so I didn’t have to be the weirdo Asian kid with the smelly food.
Yet somehow, I managed to survive Washburn Elementary School and became a teenager. I no longer had to endure my mother’s school lunch audacity, but she upped the ante and made me cook the stuff. Instead of hanging out with my friends at the movies or loitering around strip malls and parking lots, my mom made me spend hours in the kitchen helping her prep dinner. It was absolute torture. I had to crush garlic, chop onions, boil noodles, and peel the shell off disgusting raw shrimp.
“No, you do like this,” my mom would say, taking the shrimp and knife away from me. With surgeon-like precision, she’d slice down the middle of its back to pull out a string of guts. Being an immigrant, my mom was very crafty with her time and resources. She would take these moments in the kitchen as opportunities for learning and covert criticism.
“Côn, you look so skinny and no eat vegetable that why you look so tired and hang out with friend too much and get no good grade” she’d say.
My mom has an impeccable way of shaming every aspect of your life in a single sentence. Responding to her in English was absolutely forbidden and also disrespectful. She would frown and tell us to find our Vietnamese words because she didn’t speak English. That was not true. My mom effortlessly watched daytime soap operas and action movies featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Also, didn’t she have to speak to the old white people in the nursing home? Regardless, she would simply ignore us until we found our words.
Moving away to college was like escaping the state penitentiary. I finally had the freedom to eat whatever my heart desired - macaroni and cheese from the box, bologna sandwiches with Kraft cheese singles and crinkly bags of Cheetos. Living in the dorms, I was making all my Wonder Bread dreams come true. The cafeteria didn't have trays in muted pink or green, but the lunch lady did wear oversized glasses that perfectly captured steam. As time went on, the novelty of it all began to wear thin. The overcooked green beans, bland. Mountain of mashed potatoes and lava gravy, lumpy. Meatloaf, pretty gross. After a few months of this, I started to think that white people food just wasn’t what it’s cracked out to be. All of the things that I thought would make me fit in wasn’t what I really wanted after all.
My mom knew exactly what she was doing. She didn’t really care about me eating or learning how to make sautéed garlic shrimp; she wanted me to be the shrimp. Infused with the tastes, sounds and flavors of her homeland. My mom didn’t want me growing up in America forgetting where I came from and more than anything, being ashamed of where I came from. In those moments we spent cooking together in the kitchen, she taught me about our culture. As we made pho, a beef noodle soup us Vietnamese people are so famous for, she’d tell me stories about soldiers eating it in the mornings. The steam would rise from their bowls; their faces were solemn with the unmistakable knowledge that it might be their last meal.
There were a few times when my mom taught me the names of the herbs we used. She would reminisce about the markets she went to in her childhood to buy the same herbs. She went with her mother, noting that everyone turned to stare at them because my grandmother was so beautiful. There was another time when my mom picked up a dish and held it to the light, telling me in a distant voice about the dishes shattering all around her when the first bombs fell on Hanoi. All of this was her way of making me understand who she was. Who we were. Who I am. She was the one who pushed me to find my words.
Growing up in the Midwest, I looked and felt different than everyone else. I was just a little kid with a bowl cut who wanted to fit in with all the other kids. I wanted Wonder Bread and Sunny D. My mom could have given me those things, but instead, she spent hours in the kitchen making me Vietnamese food. Because growing up Asian American, she didn’t want me to forget about the Asian part. Every time I opened up my lunchbox, it was her way of telling me, “Côn, you don’t forget who you are, okay? You are a shrimp.”