When I moved to the East Coast from Los Angeles for college and encountered large numbers of white people for the first time, I learned that there are people who do not eat pork—not for health or religious reasons, but because they consider it dirty, fatty, uncouth. This came as a shock to me. Even now, I don’t think of a vegetable dish a complete unless it is sprinkled with ground pork. The first time I heard a classmate say, “Pork just feels unhealthy to me,” I felt exposed. The feeling was similar to the feeling I got when tourists in Chinatown gawked at the ducks hanging in restaurant windows: a mixture of embarrassment and indignation. This feeling confirmed something that I had long suspected, something lodged deep in my subconscious: the food my family eats is somehow barbaric, that we are somehow monstrous.
For many years, I tried to civilize myself. I took a class where we read Paradise Lost and another where we read John Locke. My first winter break back home, I asked my mom to buy me two cardigans and a pair of suede boots, leaving every piece of clothing that was remotely colorful back at my parents’ house. I smiled more and tamped down the volume of my laugh. When people called me “cute” or “adorable,” I told myself it was a compliment.
The year after graduating from college, I tried to be a vegetarian. I did this partly because it was better for the environment but mostly because I felt like I was unhealthy, like I needed to be fixed. On the fifth day of vegetarianism, I was chopping a cucumber for a salad and started crying. A couple of hours later, I stopped in the middle of a sidewalk and devoured a 菜肉包 while other people nearly ran into me and were forced to walk around.
My father grew up watching men curse and slam cleavers into sides of ribs at his family’s meat market in Stockton, California. As a child, he stood on a step stool to fry himself a pound of bacon for breakfast every morning. When he was a teenager, he worked at the market, spending his afternoons making deliveries in a stick-shift truck that he once crashed into a pole. The first time my mom visited his family for Christmas, she was shocked at the spread: roast beef, a whole turkey, 叉燒, 燒肉, barbecue ribs.
When I was in first grade, my dad performed a one-man show about three Chinese American men, all with connections to his family’s meat market in Stockton. My parents pitched a tent in the corner of the rehearsal room so that I would have somewhere to play while they wrote and rehearsed. As a first grader, I didn’t pay much attention to what they were doing, but I do remember this one line (one of the characters, recently divorced, is complaining about his ex-wife): “She always picked the worst steaks,” he said. “No fat, no marbling.” I thought it was funny to think of some confused person at a meat counter picking out the skinniest, saddest steaks.
Acting is my father’s passion, but in the absence of steady work, he cooks. He did all the cooking when I was growing up, every meal a thoughtful, loving array of meat: black bean spare ribs, taro and pork, lamb chops with big chunks of marrow that I liked to suck out of the bones. Trying to help him was always frustrating—he didn’t want anyone else to interfere with his creations. The stove at my parents’ house always smells like oil and seared fat. The freezer is packed with chickens, steaks, and pig feet. The balcony is my dad’s second kitchen; he keeps his deep fryer and barbecue there, where he regularly produces pot roasts with fat that melts in your mouth and cha siu that glistens a bright, violent red.
“What do you think?” he always asks as soon as we sit down to eat, before me or my mom has gotten a chance to take a bite. “There’s not enough soy sauce. Do you think there’s enough soy sauce? I should add more soy sauce next time.”
When I was in third grade, my dad had a heart attack. Beyond eating of large amounts of meat, his side of the family is prone to high blood pressure and cholesterol. We are four generations into the feeling of perpetual foreignness, anger swallowed, rage flowing through the bloodstream.
After his heart attack, my dad became a vegetarian and replaced all the salt in his food with Mrs. Dash, an herb blend often used as a substitute for sodium. “I want to meet my grandchildren,” he said, shaking too much Mrs. Dash onto his vegetable and egg white stir-fries. Because I was a kid, I thought that it was fun we were cooking with all these new ingredients. I didn’t realize how difficult it must have been for my dad to give up foods that were such an important part of his identity.
Still, in those first years after his heart attack, my dad cooked more meat for me and my mom than ever before. “Living vicariously,” my mom said when he came home with a bag of steaks or a side of ribs that he found on sale. He always tried a bite of what he made and then spit it out. “Is it good? How is it?” he asked even more intently than before, staring at us as we ate.
The neighborhood in Los Angeles where I grew up is now a ground zero of gentrification, something my middle-class, East Asian family of artist types has undeniably contributed to. When I was a kid, one of my family’s favorite neighborhood restaurants was a pupuseria. In high school, the pupuseria seemed to get more expensive every time we went, which I now realize was because of the rising rent. Soon after it closed, the space reopened as a Berlin currywurst take-out. I remember not liking this change, but I didn’t possess the language yet to explain why.
The Berlin currywurst place closed a few years ago, replaced by a pan-Asian noodle restaurant with a menu that included spinach noodles with kale and a tom yum soup with chicken meatballs. I peered inside last year when I was home. A white hipster in skinny jeans was sitting on the patio. They smiled at me. I didn’t smile back.
My dad doesn’t like it when I complain about the gentrifiers. A couple years ago, he and I were walking around the neighborhood and passed a newer restaurant with minimalist decor and high metal stools instead of chairs. “Look, there are maybe five people of color in that entire restaurant.” I said, pointing through the window. I had just returned to LA after two years of living in Hong Kong and was resentful about being a racial minority again. “And they’re all the token non-white friend in their group.”
“Why are you being so rude?” my dad said, quickly turning away from the restaurant. “That’s just who lives here now.”
I don’t like it when my dad dismisses my anger. He’s seen his own career as a Chinese American actor stalled by Hollywood’s racism. When I tell him stories about my friend’s experiences with racism, he is always indignant (“You mean all the people of color got passed over for promotions?”), but when I complain about a rude thing a white person did to me, he says something like, “You can’t be this angry. You’re going to be dealing with white people for the rest of your life.”
To some extent, I understand why my dad is wary of my anger. He knows better than I do that racism is something inescapable. He knows, too, the way untamed anger can be misdirected at people you care about, the ways resentment can leave a person bitter.
Despite father’s anxieties, I am not the kind of person most would describe as angry. I’m more likely to be described as shy, sweet, kind of awkward. For most of my life, I turned any anger inward, where it manifested as brutal perfectionism and periods of vast, crushing sadness. I hid it, still afraid of appearing monstrous. Only recently have I begun trying to harness my anger as the powerful tool that it is: a force that transforms shame into action, a guide that leads us forward, butcher knives at the ready, in search of a better world.
When I was living in Hong Kong, my friends and I did the privileged Westerner thing where we “explored” the “local” restaurants. One of our favorites was a dai pai dong that specialized in roast pigeon. The pigeons came on a large plate, quartered and complete with their heads. My friends never ate the heads, a habit I secretly hated. What if someone killed us for food and then threw our heads in the trash? I always thought.
One night, after we finished eating, I asked my flatmate if we could take the heads home. My (white, ostensibly liberal) flatmate looked at me suspiciously. “Why?” Hearing the annoyance in her voice, I doubled down and insisted on taking the pigeon heads. I clutched the take-out container to my chest the entire subway ride home.
A week later, I ate them for lunch. I felt squeamish placing the heads on a bed of rice. Was I immature for bringing them home just to spite a white girl who was also my friend? But then, as the heads warmed in the microwave, I was relieved by the rich smell filling our apartment. No, I thought, this was so right.
I sat at our table and ate each head one by one, relishing the idea of some snobby person I knew in college walking in on me. I savored the residue the skull and the brains left on my tongue, partly because I liked the texture but more because I thought it would be funny to describe the experience to my flatmate later. So many of my pleasures are vindictive—staring at hipsters in their pan-Asian noodle restaurant, leaving pigeon heads in the fridge for other people to find.
I wish I could say that I no longer care what people think of my food, of me. Instead, I settle for being the kind of monster that tries to laugh when you stare.
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.