(*part 2 of: oh don’t be such a pad thai)
If you haven’t figured it out, I was a picky eater and hated vegetables. When I was a wee little sprout I remember taking a bite of peas and looking up at my mom in repugnance.
“Yuck! Do I have to eat this?”
I chewed the mushy peas and swallowed it as quickly as possible with a swig of milk. After doing this a few times I decided there was no way I would be able to finish all of my peas. I would fill up on milk and be too full! So I decided to scoop the peas into my glass of milk when my mom was not looking.
My mom hardly ever ate with us. She would cook for Larry and I and if she was dating, for her current boyfriend too but she waited until we were finished before eating her own meal. Sometimes she would sit down on the floor of the kitchen and eat her food while we were in the dining room.
Of course I asked her many times to join us but she never did. I think she was more comfortable eating on the floor like she did when she was living in Thailand. I think she wanted to be spared the strange looks and wrinkled noses when her food was present. I don’t think I thought about it too much because it was simply what she did. I decided it wasn’t a big deal so I left her alone.
So it wasn’t too difficult to scoop the peas into my glass of milk, her back was turned towards us. Larry eyed me as I giggled at my sneaky cleverness.
“I’m done!” I announced. “I can’t finish my milk though. Is it okay if I don’t drink it all?”
“Okay.” My mom was distracted with something else she was preparing.
Triumphantly I walked to the sink and poured my milky peas down the drain.
When I was going through my teacher training at Eugene Waldorf School one of the requirements was to log in a certain amount of hours and classroom time. As one would expect before entering the wide wide world of academia. I chose to do my first practicum on Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington State with a class of 5th graders. Quite possibly one of the most heart-warming experiences of my life.
But I’m not here to talk about that, I’m here to tell you the frightening tale of an Asian woman who cannot cook rice with out a rice cooker.
I stayed in the home of the 4th grade teacher then with one of the students of the 5th grade class. I was on Whidbey Island a total of three or four weeks and my time between these two homes were divided depending on how awkward I felt at the 4th grade teacher’s home. I know, I know. This was quite a story but I can’t digress from the kitchen theme because then all the writing critics would be foaming at the mouth sputtering about how I can’t stay on topic and what a sloppy writer I am. Blah, blah, blah.
So I am currently at the 5th student’s home. Adorable kid. He had some friends over and I was in the kitchen trying to figure out what I was going to eat for dinner. I was in an ambitious mood. Well, I must have been because I decided to cook rice without a rice cooker. I had seen a few times where someone puts rice and water in a pot over the stove and cooks it that way. I confirmed this carelessly by scanning the directions on the box. Then put the rice on the stove top.
I watched it and then I got bored and decided I would return to it later. When I returned I lifted the lid to see white fluffy rice but the sizzling sound alarmed me so I turned off the stove and proceeded to stir the rice around until I saw that on the bottom of the pot I had burned the rice.
Saving as much rice as I could I scooped it out into a bowl I started to panic. I stared at the scorched bottom then looked up to see if anyone was paying attention to the idiot disguised as an Asian. I soaked the pot, scrubbed it, and then soaked it again. I wondered if I had ruined the pot. Great. Nothing like being a guest in some stranger’s home. “Uh, hi. Yeah, I’ve ruined some cookware here. . .Is there a vase I could drop somewhere around the house? Perhaps a glass of red wine I could spill on your carpet?”
I decided to just leave the soaking pot in the kitchen and deal with it later. It needed to soak and there was nothing I could do about it now anyway.
Long after my dinner was digesting I heard the father come home. I tried to beat him to the kitchen to explain. Too late. I saw him looking at the soaking pot in the sink.
“Uh. Hi. Sorry about that. I accidentally burnt some rice.”
He smiled. He had returned home late and I’m sure this was the last thing he wanted to see. “That’s okay.”
“I know you’re concerned. . .about the Asian burning the rice.”
His first reaction was to laugh but then he stopped as if he wasn’t sure he was supposed to.
I think when I rejected my mom’s lessons in the kitchen I rejected responsibility and stereotypes. Cooking seemed like an adult thing to do. Cooking felt like I was learning a skill or trade that would serve me well in finding a husband and I found that to be repulsive. Not because I didn’t like boys but because it seemed like a superficial reason why a guy should like you. He likes you because of what you can do not because of who you are.
When we went to temple and we saw a young Thai woman cooking – my mom would comment, “She’s a good cook. She helps her mom in the kitchen. You should learn.” That just made me roll my eyes and wish I never agreed to go to the temple in the first place. It wasn’t so much I didn’t want to do what adults expected of me as much as I had no interest in learning to cook Thai dishes in the first place.
In America it is one of the first questions people ask after they learn I am Thai. Can you cook Thai food? They asked hopefully. Depending on my mood I reply: sure, of course, some things, from a cookbook or no.
Culture manifests itself in the simplest and most subtle ways. Food is an obvious difference and it brings people together like no other ritual. Food served as a barrier between my mom and I, just as much as our inability to communicate through the Thai language. And while we definitely had our distant moments, more often than not we had our close ones too.
I think growing up had a lot to do with that. Thankfully I am more open-minded and mature. I have to use the measuring cup, while I can say I have never seen her use one. I had to learn from a book and she learned by watching. It is the strangest thing to be culturally different from your very own flesh and blood. Without the common language something is inevitably lost in translation but with the food there is hope that we can meet one another half way there.
While I have played the idiot in the kitchen I stopped playing the idiot in matters of culture, in matters of sensitivity, in matters of food. There is something profoundly respectful when you have cultural sensitively to food. I don’t know why this is. When you don’t like what someone has prepared for you it is almost like you don’t like the person or have rejected their love.
My mom constantly told me, “Just try it” when a new culinary experience was set before me. I think it has taken me entirely too long to recognize a world of wisdom in that. Who knows? Chicken feet stew might not taste so bad.
The first time I saw a cheese grater was in college. I held up the stainless steel pyramid object, “What’s this?”
My roommate who is a first generation Italian looked at me in disbelief, “It’s a cheese grater! Are you being funny?”
“No. I’ve never seen one before. How does it work?”
Nadya continued to stare at me.
“Look. My mom did not use this thing. There’s not a lot of cheese in Asian cooking.”
She picked up the block of cheddar cheese and moved it across the grater.
“Neat!” I told her. I decided now was not the time to mention that this was the first time I had seen a block of cheese. Cheese came in slices wrapped in their own little wrappers. I became eternally grateful (ha, ha) to Nadya and Clint for teaching me the finer points of college cuisine. Clint was to become another good friend. I would watch them make cheesy Mexican dishes and they would watch me eat great quantities of Top Ramen with fascinated disgust.
One day I was toasting a slice of bread and it got stuck in the toaster as they have a tendency to do. As I was attempting to pry it out with a fork, Nadya and Clint yelled from the living room, “Stop!”
My body quivered. I looked up at them, “What’s wrong?”
Clint got up from the couch, “Are you serious?” They started to giggle. “Lani, you can’t stick a fork in a toaster. You could electrocute yourself.”
“Oh.” I started to smile. I felt totally stupid. Did I mention we didn’t have a toaster growing up? Then I switched tactics, “How am I going to get this out of here?”