There are writers who write within a genre and those who write outside of them, too. But what about the readers? How do you read? What do you read? Why do you read?
Grace Rowe’s video message to Asian Americans reminded me why I never pursued acting after high school. She pleas for AAs to get into acting and she’s witty about it, too. I liked the video. But even in high school, I knew I wasn’t the right color for Hollywood or NYC theatre. I knew that I had to be utterly stunning and talented and I knew I was just the class clown.
I was also aware that I would have to literally face endless rejection and I didn’t feel like I had the confidence or the EGO to endure that. So, I was practical. I wasn’t the good dreamer like my other Asian and half-Asian friends who went off to university to major in theatre and then on to the Big Apple to pursue acting.
If my high school years had been peppered with Asian Americans in television, film and music, then perhaps I would have dared, “Why not?” But late 80s and early 90s entertainment was nothing like the revolutionary and original Star Trek where minorities were part of a team exploring space rather than wince-worthy stereotypes.
Because even though I chose not to pursue acting, I stayed in touch with those who did. And nowadays I’m familiar with frustrating phenomena like yellowface and Asian actors, like the great Anna May Wong, getting passed up for Asian roles by Caucasian actors. (If you want to read a hilarious, but heartbreaking story go here.)
One person in particular who I stayed in touch with after high school was my friend, Lena. She’s half Japanese and half British. I thought for sure she would make it in NYC because she’s pretty and passionate about the craft.
When I asked her why she was having a hard time finding work, she confessed that when she did get work, it was ironically, for Asian acting bits. It would seem that theatre wanted their Asians to be hidden behind a whiter fan. Of course, here in Thailand (and much of the rest of Asia), halfsies, hapas and those with mixed Caucasian blood, do very well in entertainment and advertising. And please let’s not get into skin color because I’m waiting for much of Asia to embrace Asians with darker skin on TV, too.
To be honest, I was simply going to post the video on Facebook and write a couple of sentences about not pursuing acting, but since I have theatre friends I didn’t want to receive any, “Oh, but you should have…” well-meaning comments. I still don’t think I should have. I could dance, but I couldn’t sing. I could make people laugh, but I always forgot my lines.
What I should be doing is writing and more writing, and maybe I’ll get the chance to write something for Asian Americans instead.
First of all, let me say that I’ve never stolen anything before. Well, that was what I truly thought until I started to write and then I began to remember my dishonest and theiving past. I was astonished, really. It’s funny what we forget and what we remember once we start writing. Forgive me and my mother, dear readers, forgive us.
I was probably around 10 years old, my brother 7. My mom would take us fishing somewhere past Wahiawa, but before the North Shore on Oahu. I found the whole process mysterious because she would drive our gray Isuzu Impulse through Dole’s pineapple fields until she hit a line of trees. Then we would grab our fishing gear and walk out to the edge of Lake Wilson.
One day as we were leaving, our little car driving fast and furiously over the red dirt roads, my mom stopped the car. The engine was still running.
She looked over at me, “Take a pineapple.”
“What? That’s stealing!”
She gave me one of her notorious dirty looks, “Do you think anyone is going to miss it?”
I reluctantly opened the car door and peered out at the sea of pineapples. There were fields of them – golden pineapples sitting on top of the dirt in haphazard positions ripe for the picking.
“Do you wanna get caught?” She hissed. “Take one!” My mom quickly scanned the area for an imaginary policeman.
I was confused by the many pineapples sitting before me, “Which one?” I cried.
“Any one!” She cried back.
I grabbed the ripest-looking one and shut the car door. From the backseat my younger brother Larry admired our latest catch of the day. A cloud of red smoke followed us until the car hit the pavement. My mom started laughing.
The PX (Post Exchange) are department stores located on military bases. And because my father died while serving in the US Air Force, we were able to enjoy base privileges. My mom would have them for the rest of her life, while Larry and I would have them until we turned 18. It was in the PX that this particular incident occurred.
My mom and I were looking at dresses for me. She never wore dresses. I saw her in traditional Thai skirts at Buddhist celebrations or parties from time to time. Somehow after we arrived at our destination she would magically reappear in one. The strangest thing. I guess she borrowed them from friends.
We were able to narrow down our search to two dresses. This was when baby doll dresses were in fashion. I couldn’t decide between the two. Well, actually I liked the more expensive one – the pink one.
I bit my lower lip. Held the dresses against me, “What do you think mom?”
She tilted her head. “I like the black one.”
Since my mom’s wardrobe consisted primarily of the color I was disappointed in myself for asking. I sighed. These were difficult moments for a teenage girl.
My mom started looking through the clothing racks again when a price tag hanging off one of the dresses ended up in her hand. The rectangular shaped tag was torn right where the plastic fastener previously held it in place. The rip was hardly noticeable. She could have easily put the tag back on the plastic. Like a three hole punched page – when one of the holes rip, but you can still slide it back into your three ring binder? The tag was like that.
As soon as the price tag ended up in her hand she made a surprised sound, “Hmmp.” Then she read the amount $6.99. A tiny smile appeared on my mom’s face. Swiftly she ripped off the price tag off of the pink dress. The $6.99 tag found itself dangling from a pink dress. The $19.99 tag magically made its way to the dress on the rack.
“Mom!” I scolded as quietly as possible. I scanned for surveillance cameras or people watching us.
Her grin was wide now and she was giggling, “Come on. Let’s get both dresses.” She patted the dresses in my arms.
“What if we get caught?” I couldn’t believe she was doing this.
We continued to walk to the cashier.
“How will they know?”
I gently placed the dresses on the conveyer belt.
“Hello,” the cashier said, “How are you?”
“Fine.” My mom replied with a smile. Then she gave me a slight nod.
I realized I must have been wearing the fright on my face like a Halloween mask so I tried to act calm as she scanned the first dress through.
When the pink dress’ tag fell off the plastic loop I felt like Winona Rider when she got caught for shoplifting. I waited for the cashier’s reaction. My mom’s face a picture of serenity. No one would ever suspect this sweet-faced Thai woman who barely was 5 feet tall with short black (dyed) curly (permed) hair.
“Oh!” The cashier exclaimed. She ran the price tag through and gave us a smile. “$26.89”
My mom handed her cash. She gave us change and I grabbed the plastic bag. As soon as we walked outside I breathed a sigh of relief. I couldn’t believe we got away with that. I couldn’t believe my mother.
When I was about 9 or 10 years old I started to steal money from my mom’s purse so I could buy candy. Whenever she took a nap on the couch or in her bedroom I would tiptoe around her and open her purse. She always kept her purse near her during these nap times. Perhaps it is an old school way of thinking. Perhaps this is just poor people’s version of an alarm system.
When my mom is exhausted, tuckered out and plum tired, she snores. Depending on how hard she worked and how worn down she was, there were variations or levels of snoring. There was the deep heavy breathing variety. There was the occasional snore variety and then there was when she snored so loud she sounded like a cow mooing.
Obviously cow mooing was a-go-go since this meant she had entered the deepest sleep. These rare moments meant that I could open her purse and unzip her pocketbook with more confidence. Nevertheless, my heart raced whenever I went for her purse. And I constantly stopped my actions to stare at her to make sure she hadn’t moved or heard me.
When I did open up her wallet I was faced with several bills and the important choice of how much to take. I wasn’t stupid enough to take a $20 bill and I knew I needed to make sure the amount was insignificant enough for her not to notice, yet enough for me to head over to the white van of hope.
Candy was my crack and I needed my fix on a daily basis. How did other children get the money? Exactly. I could not have been the only one who chose this dark route. Allowances were for white kids. We never got an allowance. We got an allowance of spankings and beatings. Generosity then knew no bounds.
Whenever my brother and I walked home after school and got past the high school (where the distinct smell of marijuana lingered), there our friendly white van awaited. The black van with the tinted windows took children. The white van with the open sliding door embraced children.
There we would wait our turn as we pondered what to buy today. I felt like Wile E Coyote rubbing his paws licking his chops over the mere thought of a roasted Roadrunner. Behind that plexiglas those shelves were lined with candy after candy. My favorites: Nerds, Jawbreakers, Fireballs, Chicko Sticks, Fun Dip, Sixlets, Big League Chew, Tootsie pops, rolls, Pop Rocks, candy necklaces, candy cigarettes, Now and Laters, Smarties, Sugar Daddy suckers, Sweet tarts and the original gummy bears.
I was a connoisseur of candy willing to explore new territory. “What’s this?” I pointed to the black and white nondescript confection.
The man behind the counter touched the item in question. “That!” he said excitedly, “That is gum from Japan. It’s black.”
“What does it taste like?” I was practically shaking with anticipation.
There was a glow in his eyes, “Coca-cola.”
Steady. Steady girl. “How much does it cost?”
“A dollar. But it’s worth it.”
“I’ll take it.”
My mom never caught me because I was too clever. I’d pluck a few dollars here and a few dollars there. When there was a lot of cash I could steal a $5 bill with daring ease. There were a few times when I tiptoed around my mom, opened her purse, dug around for her wallet, slowly clicked it open to find nothing but a couple of $1 bills or a lonely $20 bill. I would look at my unsuspecting slumbering mom with disgust.
There were close calls – which required quick reflexes. I was in her bedroom creeping towards her purse when she rolled over. Originally her back was towards me and I thought I was home free, but when she rolled over I crouched down behind the bed and waited and listened. I was too spooked to continue so I crawled out of her bedroom.
But the first time I stole was in the first grade. And I got sent to the principal’s office. I was in the cafeteria for lunch. My mom always gave us lunch money. If we had a field trip, I remember having to make one up with whatever was handy in the cupboard.
Lunch cost 25 cents and it tasted like it. (Although, I remember the due-to-inflation-45 cent lunches tasting better) As soon as I sat down with my lunch tray, another kid from kindergarten sat next to me with his brown-bagged lunch.
Kid junior probably pulled out a shiny bag of chips, Jell-o pudding pops and a bologna and cheese sandwich on honest white bread. I looked back at my lunch which suddenly looked like prison gruel.
“Hey. You wanna trade lunch?”
He sniffed at mine like a dog. “No, thanks.”
“Oh c’mon. Look how much more I have than you. I have all this.” I waved my hand over the lunch tray, “including milk.”
“Well,” he began to waver.
“Please!” I could smell and taste potato chip victory.
“Okay.” He put the items back in his bag and gave it to me.
I slid my tray triumphantly over to him.
Then he peered down at his new lunch, “I don’t like it. I want my lunch back.”
“No way. You traded it fair and square.”
Kid junior’s face crumbled. “I want my lunch back!”
Hugging the brown bag lunch to my chest I retorted, “No! It’s mine.”
“Give it back to me!”
“No! Eat your lunch and shut up.”
He started crying. “I want my lunch back. I want my lunch back.”
I panicked. He was causing undue attention to the situation.
Oh, god. “Okay.” I shoved the brown bag back in his chest. But he continued to cry. So I started to pet him like a dog and looked around. “It’s okay. Here’s your lunch.”
He got up from his seat.
I sat there forlornly, waiting for the inevitable. Seconds went by and I start to wonder if he must have decided not to tell. I began to eat when a lunch monitor tapped me on the shoulder. “You’re going to the principal’s office.” Kid junior was smiling behind her.
The principal’s office is a dirty place where all foul little thieving children go to be punished. There were cobwebs, sewer rats, vultures and even a blind boy with no hands sitting on a pile of unfinished homework begging for change. I bravely stepped over him and walked into the principals’ office.
I must have blacked out momentarily or fainted because I don’t remember much. I remember being thankful that there was no parental involvement and I remember the principal was kinder than I thought he would be. But what I remember most was leaving his office, seeing the sun again, breathing in the fresh free air and thinking, “I never want to do that again.”
And now it’s your turn. Have you ever stolen anything?
Eating as a kid – in the beginning, there was sugar.
My brother and I pretty much had free range over the foods we wanted. But not in a “Do you want sushi or beef wellies?” kind of way, more like we rode the shopping cart down commissary food aisles with reckless joy throwing in Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ho-ho’s – kind of way. We enjoyed our junk food and took full advantage that our immigrant mom didn’t know any better. I’m also sure she wanted to give to us what she didn’t have as a child in rural Thailand.
My mom is chubby, but I never saw her starve herself (she grew up too poor for that nonsense) to lose weight or reject food. She’s not a picky eater. She’s very good about trying new foods, actually. In fact, I was the picky one growing up, but I got over it (young parents rejoice). So, I think she was a good food role model.
Despite growing up working class, we ate a good balance of packaged conveniences and healthy foods. Thankfully, my mom cooked often, grew herbs and fruit in our yard and didn’t put crazy restrictions on what we could and should eat. Of course, she admonished me for not eating enough vegetables or eating too much junk, but she wasn’t strict and I think this has helped me have a balanced palate.
Dieting fails – dairy is the devil.
When I was in high school, I eliminated butter and mayo from my diet to see if I could be skinner. I was briefly obsessed with being skinny and quickly caved because I like fats. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was probably reading too many fashion magazines at that time.
During my 20s I was a vegetarian for a year until I realized how bad I was at finding protein and better ways to feel full. Before that I was on a 75% raw food diet because a friend of mine convinced me that cooked food was evil. When I was dating that MMA guy, I didn’t eat pork because he convinced me that pork was evil.
But generally speaking, I haven’t restricted myself. I suppose that might sound like a contradiction, but I guess I see food restrictions as painful choices and my decisions have been relatively easy because I know how important my health is. When I do restrict myself it is when I know my eating habits have been out of balance. In other words, I need to cut down on meats or sweets.
College – I miss my mom’s cooking.
There is nothing like being taken out of your eating element to make you realize that yes, you like food a certain way and that you have your particularities. I didn’t recognize how lucky I was to grow up around great food until all that good food was no longer available.
You see, my mom is an accomplished cook. I was eating Thai food before it was trendy (sooo needs to be a t-shirt). And I grew up in Hawaii, which not only has amazingly perfect weather, but excellent dishes from all Asian ethnicities under the rising sun.
So what happened? Well, I wanted to go out of state for college, and being the “I’d rather walk in the woods then lie on the beach” type, I fell in love with Colorado. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with this Rocky Mountain State, it’s colder than Hawaii – and it snows.
There are more mountains over 14,000 feet (58 to be exact) in Colorado than any other state. And there are were not many Asians, 1.8% during the 1990s, and they were probably all in Denver where I did not reside. Now let’s consider Hawaii, during the 1990s, there were 68.8% Asians. Let’s allow those numbers to sink in…
But I thought you were talking about food, Lani? Yes, and this is related because there was not much in the way of Asian flavors in the little podank town of Durango, Colorado. Of course, we had the Golden Dragon which was like eating Chinese food from the frozen food aisle.
Suddenly – food mattered.
I gained weight during my first year away because I was freezing cold and starving for good food. During cafeteria hours, I’d watch my roommate’s friend Rachel carefully weigh her food on a little white scale then later I would order pizza or subs because the school food was so horrible. My mom sent me Top Ramen and Cup ‘o Noodles. I thought I was going to die from the lack of edible food.
I didn’t die, but I got really sick. I blacked out on the toilet (always a good place to lose balance and sight). A cyst formed on the back of my neck that has never completely gone away, and makes appearances when I’m sick… So I went to the school doctor and found out I was slightly anemic. I also received a bizarre checkup that involved the good doc putting his hands down my pants to see how my other glands (some sort of lymph nodes) were fairing. I never went back.
And even though my first year was the unhealthiest I had been, I never been that unhealthy again. Thank god. My roommate and I moved out of the dorms into an apartment and I learned how to cook. And this was the beginning of better eating and my adult relationship with food.
Cooking for myself – I can cook?
Despite cooking setbacks like when I burned rice (uh, what kind of Asian burns rice?) or when I mistook salt for sugar for my chocolate chip cookies (we were high), I actually enjoy cooking for myself and others. I learned a little from watching my mom, but not as much as I should have because when I was younger I’d rather be reading a book rather than learning how to cook. So, in college, I learned how to do some basic Mexican and Italian cooking from my roommate. Then, I started to get into cookbooks like Betty Crocker, finding and trying recipes and eventually subscribing to food magazines.
Baking became a novelty because I didn’t grow up in a household that used the oven, except for Thanksgiving turkey or storing pots and pans. And because I still have that serious sweet tooth, baking became a way to feed my need for sugar in a variety of confectionary ways. At my worst (best?), I was baking cookies every night.
I was also saving money and controlling the food I ate. Eating out in the US is expensive and the portion sizes are waist-ful. I think cooking at home makes you very conscientious of what you buy at the grocers, how much this or that costs and it’s much easier to reuse leftovers than reheating takeout that may or may not have retained its taste.
Eating overseas – Where’s the beef?
My best friend who also resides in Thailand occasionally braves eating like the local, which means plopping himself down and ordering something new. So, on fine afternoon, he ordered “Yen ta fo”, and was soon awarded with a hot bowl of cubes of blood, octopus tentacles, fish balls, noodles and anomalous bitter vegetables. And since he does not like food to go to waste, he gulped down as much as he could.
Eating overseas (especially someplace like SE Asia) can truly be a gut-twisting experience because the food is so foreign. Yes, I had the advantage of recognizing some of the food from my mom’s kitchen, but there were plenty of surprises in store for me. I also had the experience of dating a person who hadn’t been exposed to Thai food and his “food culture shock” reactions were interesting.
He started to eat at McDonalds and stick to one or two Thai dishes that he liked. He lost weight and has yet to gain weight back despite learning to eat a variety of Thai foods. But when he was first acclimating, I don’t think he acted differently than other expats who are not used to the food here. The smells, sanitation (or lack thereof), salt to sweet ratio with main dishes versus desserts and so on, hit you like a tide you didn’t expect.
We started to look at the food back home differently. American food is calorie dense. Portion sizes in Thailand are tiny in comparison. Quality beef is rare, expensive and usually tough, overcooked or buffalo meat. Diarrhea and food poisoning are commonplace. Frogs, snakes, critters and other creatures are writhing and twitching at the market for you to stare at.
It feels like you are on another planet and so you reach back for what you recognize and know. I can’t begrudge tourists or expats for eating Western food. I certainly crave pizza, pasta, sandwiches and things I can’t even remember anymore. I love this quote, “We travel to find something new, only to seek out the comforts of home” because it’s so true.
I think food (not unlike friends) make us feel at home, welcomed, and connected. So when we don’t like the food, an integral part of the expat or travel experience falls flat-footed. When I lived in Ecuador, I did not enjoy the food very much. It seemed bland. Often, I felt gassy, bloated and unhealthy despite walking quite a bit.
Living abroad has definitely open larder horizons that never would have occurred had I stayed in America. So in that sense, I feel my connection and appreciation for food has grown. Food is incredibly personal and cultural and it’s fascinating what we eat. I’m not as picky as I was when I was a child, but I definitely have a tongue for: salty, sour, bitter, sweet and savory.
I consider myself lucky because even though I enjoy eating – I don’t count calories and generally eat whatever I want – I’ve never had a weight problem. And even though my mom constantly asked me, “Are you fat?” after I left the nest, I never let that bother me. I just laughed and said, “No.” (She also asked if I was brushing my teeth. Yes, mom.)
When I think about the culture surrounding food, the haves versus the have-nots, and how much food has changed (profits over people), I’m grateful that I have never experienced real hunger, I have healthy food choices and my relationship with food has been, overall, a balanced one.
What about you? What is your relationship with food like?
When I was 12, I lived in a townhouse on Anania Circle in the town of Mililani, situated in the center of the island of Oahu. Our neighbor was a grumpy old man who would bang his fists against the wall whenever I practiced the piano. Soon we figured out that I could not, should not play during the evening news.
Left alone hungry
We make a pizza
In the oven it goes
Out the kitchen I leap
Age 8 and 5
Stuck to the TV
We enjoy Clint Eastwood’s
Every Which Way But Loose
The alarm screams
Thick smoke goes up out
The wall is black
I can’t clean it off
The pizza is black
We play WWWIII in the living room
Shooting through the smoke
Jumping couch to couch
Back to capture rapture TV
When mom returns
She is curiously