Jessica Ma

Journalist. Poet. Hopefully, city-bound.


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You Are What You Eat

I’ve been told that I’m “not really Asian.” Sure, I have monolid eyes and black hair and both my parents and all my grandparents were born in China to Chinese parents — but, like, I’m “basically white.” The only thing Chinese about me, apparently, is my appetite for “exotic” cuts of meat: chicken feet, jellyfish, shark (yes, I know about the ecological devastation this causes; no, I don’t eat shark anymore).20161213_170131

So following that logic, of course I would visit MoCA’s exhibit on Chinese food in America (“Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America“). That was last month; it’s taken me a while to write this post, despite having already written two essays on food, because I’m still trying to figure out how to creatively write yet another think-piece on food and identity. So here’s me, trying yet again.


I grew up with a complicated connection to my culture. I spoke pidgin Cantonese with my parents and nanny. I attended Chinese school every Saturday morning for four years, learning to speak, read, and write my mother tongue. I wound up dropping out after third grade to play rec soccer (I lasted one season — a girl on the opposing team pushed me, I fell dangerously close to a pile of goose poop, and that was the end of my budding sports career).

We exchange lai see and feast on Chinese New Year but don’t eat mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival or visit our relatives’ resting places for Tomb-Sweeping Day.

I don’t know how to speak Chinese.

So when I watched the interviews with all those Chinese and Asian-American chefs — when I listened to Grace Young, who wrote the cookbook I immediately recognized from my childhood; and Danny Bowien, who connected to a culture lost to him through food — in the heart of Chinatown, where I so often keep my typically too-loud mouth shut so no one knows I can’t speak Chinese… I felt like I understood for once.20161213_160107


This is a wannabe think-piece, so of course it’s not just about food. It never is. It’s about who you make food with and eat food with and experience food with. I can’t necessarily speak with my grandma, but I can watch her make jook and lo bak go. I don’t know if I have jade jewelry to inherit, but I will get my grandfather’s pure cast-iron wok.

I read a post once which noted that Chinese people don’t really have recipes — not in the traditional sense. You don’t use a teaspoon of soy sauce or a tablespoon of white pepper powder. You do it all to taste. My mom makes her steamed egg with a top coat of soy sauce for color and a bit of salt; my aunt throws in browned meat and scallions for texture and substance. To cook Chinese food is to know a person, to adapt their tastes with your own.

So I’m cooking a love letter to my parents, my grandmother, my family; folding in curiosity and good intentions into the rice along with lap cheung and scrambled egg; saying, “Here, try this. Did I get it right? Am I learning the forgotten parts of myself correctly?”

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The Calm Before the Storm

My almost-useless skill for Tetris came in handy today. With only two days (!) left until I leave for Paris, I have finally managed to finish packing. My entire life for the next four months fits neatly into two suitcases (one large, one small), a backpack, and a purse. Not too shabby, considering this is what I had to work with — and that’s not even everything!

 

(Everyone says I’m overpacked. I know, but I also change outfits like my siblings change the family mini-van’s radio station, so you see my problem.)

Of course, when you’re faced with the daunting task of packing up two seasons’ worth of clothes, you’re faced with the question, “What do I NEED?” And when you’re a certified procrastinator like I am, you wind up side-tracked, excavating crammed closets and messy drawers. The sudden need to rank my possessions by their usefulness, combined with my bad habit of making New Year’s resolutions, led to me sifting through a box of movie ticket stubs and old birthday cards for an hour. I was determined: clean up your room, clean up your life. Do I really need to hang on to this ticket stub? Of course I do, this is from the special screening of The Wolf of Wall Street! I saw Leo DiCaprio! Yes, but you saw it with your ex. Okay, but Leo DiCaprio!

My problem is, I’m a sentimentalist. I save doodles on Post-Its from my sister, gifts from old relationships, Christmas cards from relatives whose names and faces I can never match. I collect junk and never display it. I have half-finished scrapbooks that have more stickers and fancy paper than photos.

But this time, when I sorted through and unceremoniously threw out all of the crap in my room, it didn’t feel like another stage in a cycle. The packing made me realize that I’ll survive in France without my favorite book from when I was 10 and my mish-mosh collection of pin badges. I’m sure I’ll be fine without them when I return.