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rice + shrimp heads: personal essay

RICE + SHRIMP HEADS

 co/ woks of life

co/ woks of life

I spent a lot of my childhood at our dining table, mostly because I never wanted to eat, and my mom would make me sit there until all my food was gone. I devised a variety of tactics to combat this dilemma. Spitting food into my napkin was a classic. Moving it around and mushing it down worked well. My go-to for a period was pretending to eat and then throw my food on the floor. One time, at a quaint Midwestern diner, my scrawny four year-old arms found a mighty force that propelled my hamburger across the table and into my mom’s lap. That was the end of that ploy. Thus, I spent a lot of time at the dinner table musing about the meal in front of me. I grew a disdain for food because of this.

By the time I was old enough for school, I’d sit in the cafeteria staring into the contents of my lunchbox and then comparing it to the hot lunches the other kids bought. I’d watch them come out of the lunch line with pepperoni pizza or slices of meatloaf, an effervescent glow surrounding their auras. I looked down at my own food, and it looked back at me. Like literally staring back at me. A typical lunch would be a Tupperware filled with white rice, some sort of vegetable and shrimp, heads still attached. What I wanted more than anything was to come out of that lunch line with meatloaf too. The gatekeeper to this sacred chamber was Mrs. Hotchkins, my elementary school lunch lady.

Because I always brought my lunch from home, my interactions with Mrs. Hotchkins were rare and sacred. She was a pudgy woman with upper arms that swung back and forth. Her over-dyed fiery hair was always encased in a stringy net, bringing attention to the small beads of perspiration welling at her temples. Mrs. Hotchkins never broke out in a full sweat, but her waxy makeup was always on the verge of melting. Yet, there is no way to precisely describe the remarkable command she had of her craft. The way she expertly scooped mashed potatoes, forming the perfect indentation for a volcanic flow of gravy. She may have been uncouth, but she was kind. She remembered the names of every student, always making food puns as they passed through the line.

“I’m a big dill around here, Jonathan!” she’d say, “You butter believe it.”

Once when a student passed away in a car accident, I walked in on Mrs. Hotchkins crying in the bathroom. That always stuck with me. Startled at my presence, she proceeded to wash her hands and abruptly walked out of the bathroom. I only knew the reason why she was crying because she accidentally left a wallet-sized photo of the student on the counter. To the other kids she was just the 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 meant only for the white kids of Washburn Elementary.

My mom was dead set against me buying school lunch. I always thought it was because we were poor, but it was mostly because we were Asian. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Lutheran churches sponsored an influx of displaced Southeast Asian refugees. These generous folks helped relocate my family and other immigrants throughout Minnesota’s Twin Cities. The Lutherans helped my parents with an apartment, found them jobs and provided them with special seats at Sunday service. My mom kept an article from that time, written by the local newspaper. It was about a young family who came to Minnesota from Vietnam, highlighting their joy and fascination for their new home. The piece included a photo of my parents and older sister in an apple orchard. My dad smiled proudly, standing there like a statue of a Roman warrior with one leg elevated on a wooden bench. My mom posed beside him with a dainty smile, wearing a classic seventies shift dress in a blown out floral print. My sister showed no emotion at all, which she has an uncanny ability to do in pictures. The whole feature made them appear simple and quaint, almost childlike. If you read between the lines, the article was almost saying, “My dear, fellow Americans - This whole war thing wasn’t great, but we are doing the right thing now. See?”    

By the time I was born in the early1980s, the Asian American population in Minnesota had grown exponentially. As welcoming as the Lutherans were, I never felt like we were truly part of this community. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as a kid, but I realize now it was the way non-Asians interacted with us. Although I was born in the United States and English was my first language, I nevertheless was put in ESL classes. There were only a handful of Asian students at my school, but they would always pair us together. For example, a new student arrived from Cambodia and even though he was three grades older than me, I was asked to walk him to the bus stop every day. We didn’t even speak the same language. I would go to his classroom right before the end of the day, guide him through the halls and walked him out to the sidewalk. It couldn't have been more than a few hundred feet away. I did this for almost a year in complete, awkward silence. Why did they choose me instead of another student in his class? One can only assume it’s because we were both Asian and it would only be fitting. We were foreigners and they didn’t know what to do with us.

If it weren’t obvious I was different because of the way I looked, my lunchtime meal would give me away. It was usually whatever my family had for dinner the night before - stir fry noodles, fish stewed in soy sauce, oxtail soup, or sometimes a bánh mi sandwich if I was lucky. I would close my eyes and pray for something normal, but upon opening my lunchbox, I’d only find an aberration. No matter what my mom made me, I could be sure that the dense smell of spices would hit you like a stink bomb. My neighbor sitting next to me, a towhead snotty-nosed boy named Beau would scrunch up his nose in repulsion.

“Eww, gross! What are you eating?” he would ask.

“It’s xôi lạp xưởng,” I’d respond, poking into my sticky rice with bright red sausages.

“Whatever that is, it’s gross,” he would say, biting into a mayo sandwich.

It was unbearable. In my childish understanding of the world, I thought eating American food would be the one thing that would make me fit in. Since my parents would not make it for me, only Mrs. Hotchkins could provide me a sense of normalcy. Unfortunately, it was rare I ever got to eat her food. 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 was reserved for the entree, typically a pile of spaghetti or fried chicken tenders. The smaller section was always occupied by some kind of overcooked canned vegetable. And of course, a very special slot was reserved for a carton of 2% milk. This was fascinating to me because my meals at home looked very different. 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 I wanted was to open my lunchbox and find a ham sandwich with a crinkly bag of Cheetos. Instead, the horrifying contents would be rice and shrimp heads. Their huge, crispy black eyeballs stared back, mocking me while snuggled under blankets of boiled bok choy. One time, that snot-nosed Beau grabbed one of my shrimp and chased his crush around the lunchroom with it. Her shrill screams only confirmed the food I was consuming was gross. The very sight of my food made me angry. It was so unfair; all I wanted was to be like the other kids. It was hard enough trying to fit in, and my lunchtime meal wasn’t helping. When I asked my mom to make me white people food, she had no problem diverting the issue by reminding me of the starving children back in Vietnam.

Côn, you know peepoh have nothing to eat and you sit here and you tell Mom you don’t like this one? You know how lucky you are?” my mom would say. “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 around the seafood broth, 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, you eat your bún riêu,” she’d reply.

Somehow, I managed to survive Washburn Elementary School. I no longer had to endure the brutal chastising from Beau. Our family made a move west when I was ten years old. It was the nineties in SoCal - skateboards, surfing, crop tops, Blink 182, OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, and the first Gulf War. Everyone looked like Beau in our small town in Minnesota —blonde haired and blue eyed. After all, it had the country’s largest population of people from Scandinavia. California looked completely different; there were students of every color across the spectrum. Even though I was surrounded by people who looked more like me, I still didn’t fit in. There was more diversity, but it came with complexities of its own. Looking around the quad at lunch, students of the same ethnic and socio-economic background cliqued together. This, however, was not applicable to me. I wasn’t Asian enough for the Asian kids. Also, I didn’t grow up eating enough casserole for the white kids. As a result, I found my place with other kids who didn’t fit in either: my flamboyant gay best friend, my beautiful multiracial best friend, and a pack of skater kids who only cared about fixing up their shitty cars and smoking pot during lunch.

My mom, on the other hand, had a completely different experience in California. Having a larger community of Vietnamese friends and family around us seemed to make her retreat further away from anything that was “too American”. What she didn’t understand about the world around us, terrified her. Most parents would be ecstatic to have their teenagers join clubs or play sports after school. My mom believed that time spent outside of the house created opportunities for drug addiction or gang recruitment. As the world around her became more progressive, she held more strongly onto traditional Asian values. Lucky for her, she had a whole network of paranoid Vietnamese peers who reinforced this philosophy. My aunts were always gossiping about so-and-so’s child and how they were ruining their lives by doing the most mundane teenage activities. For instance, a cousin of mine joined cheerleading. This, to my mom, was completely unthinkable. Not only was she gallivanting around in a skimpy uniform, she was interacting with boys. Her life was basically over because cheerleading ultimately leads to pregnancy. Anything that deviated from their conservative outlook was damaging to our well-being and their reputation. In addition, everything my mom knew about American teenagers she learned from television. Kidnappings on Dateline, the crack cocaine crisis on CNN, and teenage pregnancy on Ricki Lake. We watched shows like Dawson’s Creek together, and my mom would practically lose her mind over what she saw.

“Oh my gosh, Côn! Can you beleeb? That one,” she’d say, pointing at the TV, “he go up the window to Joey room and they kissing like that! Next time you see that girl she pregnant soon, ruin her life. So bad, like Britney Smear!”

My mom’s fear was paralyzing, to her and me. Doing the most ordinary things like going to a school dance was perilous. Allowing your daughter to attend such an event was basically opening the door to rehab. It was absolute torture. I thought the worst was over by not having to deal with my mother’s school lunch atrocities, but she upped the ante and made me cook the stuff. Instead of hanging out with my friends, loitering around parking lots, my mom made me help her prep dinner in the evenings. As a result, I spent much of my young adulthood crushing garlic, chopping onions, boiling noodles, and peeling the shell off disgusting raw shrimp. All I wanted was to hang out at the mall.

“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.

My mom knew exactly what she was doing. As an immigrant, she learned to be exceptionally stealthy with her time and resources. When we spent time in the kitchen together, she was using those moments to covertly chastise me. My mom has a savant-like way of shaming every aspect of your life in a single sentence.

Côn, you look so skinny and no eat vegetable that why you look so tired and hang out with friend too much and no get good grade,” she’d say.

Unfortunately, I was not the Vietnamese daughter my mom hoped for. I have a very large extended family with cousins ranging from infancy to retirement. Some of these relatives personify the quintessential Asian American offspring. They never gave their parents any trouble, became doctors or lawyers and married other Asian Americans. I, however, joined after-school clubs, and my mom would spy on me from the hallway. I snuck out of the house, and my mom would be waiting for me at the window. I went to school dances, and my mom would glare at me from the punchbowl. She dreamed about me becoming a pharmacist, and I dreamed about getting as far away from her as possible.

Moving away for college was like escaping the state penitentiary. I finally had the freedom to do and eat whatever my heart desired - macaroni and cheese from the box, bologna sandwiches with cheese and crinkly bags of Cheetos. Living on my own, I was making all my Wonder Bread dreams come true. The campus cafeteria didn't have trays in muted pink or green, but the lunch lady did wear a stringy hair net. I ate all the white people food I desired. That is, until I didn’t desire it anymore. As time went on, the novelty of it all began to wear thin. The overcooked green beans, bland. Mountains of mashed potatoes and lava gravy, lumpy. Meatloaf, absolutely disgusting. After a few months of this, the only food I could stomach was packages of instant ramen. Which now that I think of it, is Asian.

Côn, you look so skinny and always study so much you come home and hangout with friend and rest, Mom do laundry for you,” she’d say, enticing me to come home for a visit.

My mom knew exactly what she was doing. It wasn’t until my early thirties before I realized how intentional she was. On one particular evening, I found my mom sitting by herself at the dining table, eating a plate full of spaghetti. It’s not like she never made American food growing up, but finding her with a plate of noodles that wasn’t stir-fry was shocking. She proceeded to casually tell me how much she loved pasta. Was this a newfound love for Italian food, or has she been secretly eating spaghetti all these years? Has she been waiting for us to fall asleep before she made herself a mayo sandwich? I realized that she never cared 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 who I was.

In 1975, we lost our country and had to make this one ours. We didn’t come here because we wanted to, we had to. Most immigrant families assimilate to American culture easier because they chose to come to the States, whereas we did not. That’s what my mom was teaching me in those moments in the kitchen. We’d make phở together, and she’d tell me stories about soldiers eating it in the early mornings. The steam would rise from their bowls, their eyes solemn with the unmistakable knowledge that it might be their last meal. Yet, the way my mom painted this picture wasn’t entirely bleak. Hanoi was a bustling metropolis then, full of cultural complexities unlike any other place in the world. The grand state buildings in classic French colonial design sat in complete juxtaposition to a surreal landscape of dusty streets, exotic scents and a tsunami of people whizzing by on bikes. The centuries old mercantile influence was still prevalent with street vendors who specialized in the perfection of a single dish. They set up shop on sidewalks with little more than a few pots and pans, selling world-class food for pennies. Patrons sat on plastics stools enjoying their bánh mì sandwiches wrapped in paper or vibrant bowls of noodles balanced on their knees. Among the customers were soldiers who joked around with one another, retelling stories of mishaps and screw-ups while catcalling girls on the way to school. In reality, many of them were only teenagers. They sought a sense of comfort in each other, and in the food. I too have found myself staring into a steaming bowl of phở contemplating my existence. It was not, comparatively, during war. It was more of an existential conflict set in an elementary school labyrinth of cafeteria tables.

As we cooked together, my mom taught me the names of the herbs we used. She would reminisce about the markets she went to in her childhood, full of people in orchestrated chaos. Patrons haggled over prices and shared nonsensical gossip over tea, all of which transpired with the scent of star anise, mint and raw fish in the air. She went in the mornings with her mom, noting how everyone turned to stare at them because my grandmother was so beautiful. My grandfather passed away from a heart attack and left her with three kids to raise on her own. She was only in her late twenties at the time. My grandmother had an air of nobility to her, always holding her head high and never giving notice to anyone who looked her way. She didn’t remarry, or from what I understand, never even held another man’s hand. On one of my visits back home to San Diego, I asked my mom if my grandmother ever dated again and she laughed out loud.

Côn, no!” she said, completely amused, “Bà Ngoại, your grandma she just stay with the family. They don’t dating like that.”

What I remember most about my grandmother was her long black hair. It trailed all the way down her back, but she always wore it up in a bun. She would chase me around the house, forcing me to eat my noodles. When I wouldn’t, she would secretly appease my demand for a grilled cheese sandwich by microwaving Laughing Cow Cheese smeared on a baguette. I remember watching my grandmother spend hours in the kitchen making bánh rán for dessert. These deep fried sesame balls were her favorite. She'd start by making the filling, a blend of sweet mung beans and coconut. This mixture was then rolled into a ball and encased by rice flour dough, her delicate hands working meticulously. She would hand them to me one at a time, and I'd roll them in the sesame seeds. After we were done, she would deep-fry these little pockets of dough. We would always put aside a few dozen for our neighbors. Without a single word of English, she would drag me around the neighborhood to act as her translator. I was a four-year-old diplomat negotiating between two nations. Our friendliest neighbor was Mrs. Darlene. She was a middle-aged lady with big, fluffy blonde hair and a son that we occasionally babysat. My grandmother and I got to her doorstep and rang the doorbell. She answered the door in a coordinating pink tracksuit with geometric details. Since my grandmother didn’t speak any English, she simply held up the Tupperware, gesturing for her to take it. My grandmother then nudged me to speak on her behalf.

“Good morning, Mrs. Darlene,” I’d say in my most grown up, cordial tone possible. “My grandma made these for you and you should eat them right away ‘cause they’re still hot.”

“Oh, thank you sweetheart! Tell your grandma I am very grateful for them,” she replied.

Turning to my grandmother, I said to her English, “Bà Ngoại, Mrs. Darlene says thank you”.

My grandmother didn’t respond, but simply smiled back at Mrs. Darlene and gave a little bow. We then walked back across the street to our house. It was the silence and her smile that always stuck with me. I wonder what she would have said if she did speak English. Perhaps she would say something sassy to Mrs. Darlene about her overgrown bushes, or that her son was a monster for laying me out and spitting ketchup in my face. I wish I knew what her real thoughts were, but she passed right before I started kindergarten. My mom always tells me I’m just like her, but I couldn’t imagine being that selfless. My grandmother became a widow younger than I am now, and she gave up her entire life to take care of her children. I never had the chance to ask her the real reason why she never remarried. Maybe her husband was awful and didn’t want another one. Maybe he was so wonderful no one else compared. Maybe she had a ton of secret lovers and nobody knew about them. If she were alive today, I wonder if she would let me sign her up for old people Tinder.

Every so often, I would ask my mom about her. She would share stories about how strict my grandmother was, which only gives us a good laugh because my mom did the exact same thing with me. She recounted a time when she was around eight or so, and a boy passed her a love note. When my grandmother found it in her pocket, she was livid. My mom was spanked and forbidden to ever speak to the boy again. Of course it was innocent, but those kinds of interactions were not allowed then. We laughed at how absurd my grandmother's reaction was, but I reminded my mom of the time I caught her spying on me during Model U.N. after school. Her head ridiculously popping in and out of the doorway with my little sister clutched in her arms. My mom swears I didn't have it that bad, but it was completely mortifying.

I suppose moms are always fearful for their daughters. I don’t have one of my own yet, so I can only assume the danger of gangs and crack cocaine are always looming. You tell yourself you will never grow up to be anything like your parents, but you do. My mom’s fear of the world made me fear I would never find my place in it. Once she was able to let me go and trust me to find my own way, all of that changed. There wasn’t a single gang out there, Bloods or Crips, who wanted to recruit me. Asian moms may have a funny way of showing their love. 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 my daughter. You're Bà Ngoại’s granddaughter. And you are this shrimp.”

I suppose my mom’s mission is finally complete, and she can openly eat all the spaghetti she wants.