Feed your body, feed your soul

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http://www.wheninmanila.com/petition-seeks-to-ban-balut-in-filipino-restaurant-in-new-york/

My first year in college I casually read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals  and subsequently the famous Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. They bombarded me with enough rhetoric, hard statistics, and philosophy on the value of an animal’s life that I decided to declare myself a vegetarian to my Vietnamese family. They shrugged, thinking this was another one of my antics and forgot about it until dinner that night. I purposefully served myself a meatless portion while my brother rolled his eyes across the table at me and said, “What are you, a rabbit?” I enthusiastically engaged him in a full-blown argument while my aunt ate in quiet amusement.

I started to become really obnoxious about it. I made it the focus of my English 1A research paper, my Public Speaking class’s persuasive speech, and my Argumentation class’s debate brief in order to weave my new lifestyle into my formal studies. I made a show of turning my nose at meaty dishes at family functions and picking out beef, pork, and chicken from my plate.

One night I went a little too far and made a scene of creating a quivering mass of stacked pieces of pork that I picked out of one of my favorite eggplant tofu dishes at the dinner table. My aunt snapped at me, “Look, I’m not going to make completely separate dishes to accommodate you. I feel bad for the animals but family comes first. You’ll eat the food I make or eat nothing.”

I begrudgingly complied, eventually finding other worthwhile causes to get angry about that wouldn’t annoy my family as much.

These days I eat very little meat. I still fervently believe that eating meat is both economically and ecologically inefficient and contributes to the horrendous factory farming industry. I’ve lost a taste for red meat in general, and tend to choose the vegetarian option when available.

However, I will eat meat when it is served to me. While it’s a lucky coincidence that a lot of Vietnamese food happens to be vegan and/or vegetarian in nature, many dishes aren’t. I’ll still eat it because I decide to take part in my culture. As with most families, when we get together the festivities revolve around the food my aunts have painstakingly made. Unadorned hands pick fresh Thai basil, peel the shells off shrimp, shape fat lumps of rice noodles in colorful plastic baskets, and season the meat with countless spices I can’t pronounce.

My family literally gave up their lives and worked absurdly hard to give my generation a chance at a better life. As I’m maturing into a more self-aware and respectful perspective of my cultural identity, I am understanding just how ungrateful it would be for me to refuse food carefully and lovingly prepared by my family. I can’t quite hold a conversation in Vietnamese, but as my best friend says, “You make restaurant menus sound beautiful.” There is little to no defense for eating meat and supporting a very inherently flawed food industry. For me personally however, there is little to no defense for childishly refusing to take part in an integral part of my culture when I have so little other ties to it.

There has always been something very uncomfortable to me about the way a certain group of people enforce their eating habits on others. Veganism in particular obviously comes from a good place with good intentions, but again and again it has struck me as somehow elitist, classist, and ethnocentric. It’s the accusatory, usually white, finger shaming me for indulging in beef pho that makes me feel like I am home.

I was really saddened when I saw that the petition to ban balut from a NYC Filipino restaurant was trending because I have seen my family eat the delicacy before in times of joy and togetherness. While I always personally abstained from participating, I learned to respect how deeply ingrained the act of eating is with the act of loving in Vietnamese culture.

I love food. I am starting to really love cooking. For years I scoffed at how much time my aunts spent in the kitchen just to prepare a single night’s meal while I worked on what I called art. I observed them moving purposefully around a kitchen where golden pots simmered and bright green herbs changed hands as swiftly as in a relay race. They worked their magic as they clucked at me dumbly clutching my pen to tell me that there was no real “recipe” that they could give me, the steps all came naturally. I figured out that cooking is their art that they pour so much love into, and I am learning to do the same.

 

They used to say I had beautiful hands

[CW: Blood mention, some graphic details about scars and wounds]

Of the few childhood photos I have access to and from what my relatives tell me, I was once a baby with beautiful lily-white skin. Summer after summer of romping around in the dirt under the hot California sun, however, significantly darkened my complexion into my adolescence. I started to get mistaken for different ethnicities. Being outside so much without supervision often triggered my hay allergies and my arms and legs broke out in ugly rashes. It didn’t help that my face was also riddled with scars from roughhousing with the neighborhood kids and getting into very physical fights with my brother. Never one to think ahead or have much patience, I would always pick at and peel off the scabs on my face and come home with dirty, bloody fingernails and a rebellious grin.

My mother, not amused and decidedly concerned about my prospects as a presentable human being, went straight for the traditional beauty products. She came home with one of the most expensive things you could buy in an Asian supermarket: edible bird’s nest. It’s a rare delicacy that is known for its medicinal properties.

A quick Google search says that a case of these can be priced to upwards of $100, which goes to show how desperately my family wanted me to have a perfect complexion. 8-year-old me wasn’t into it.

Around the same time I started my first onset of pubescent insecurities, my Vietnamese family started to bemoan my deteriorating beauty as well. Their moisturized hands poked and examined my face and limbs like they were assessing fine china and clucked, “You’re pretty enough to get by. Once you’re older you can pay for surgery for that face.” It was the first time I learned that my face was something that needed fixing.

I’ve always loved wearing light pastel colors, but my family discouraged me from doing so (“They make your face look dirty, dark, unclean”). As I got older and gained some curves from puberty I was teased by my family for indulging in eating more than what was considered a ladylike serving. I learned to hate my thighs and my cheeks, and eventually started to pick at those too. Eventually over the course of high school I outgrew this and was able to focus my energies elsewhere until just recently.

I’m 20 now and my eczema came back full force when I moved into my current apartment. My hands started to become scaly and irritated. What started out as minor bug bites devolved into nasty wounds because when I scratch a bad itch, I scratch until I bleed. Sometimes I’ll scratch even further into the raw flesh. The skin on the back of my legs was the worst. They were two huge open wounds and for weeks it hurt to walk or use the stairs. I felt self-conscious about exposing my legs for the first time in years.

My skin is the ugliest it’s been in a long time.

In the midst of my dermatological troubles I got my second tattoo a couple of weeks ago after months of working with an artist to create the design. It felt good. It helps me feel like I actually am in control of my impulses and have the power to choose what permanently stays on my skin.

me and my tattclose up

I went to a dermatologist on campus for a consultation and he said that I needed to be gentler with my skin. Cooler showers, shorter baths, soothing lotion, protective sunscreen, and, as always, hydration. It’s easy to forget that our bodies are vessels that need to be taken care of before they start to revolt against us. I asked him if there were products I could use to lighten the hyperpigmentation of my darkest-looking scars and he shrugged and said, “You can’t quite undo the damage, but you can stop the habit and prevent it from getting worse.” Strangely, this was good enough for me.

Once, a lifetime ago, I complained to my aunt about how insecure I felt about the countless gruesome dark marks that disfigured me. She pointed to her face and said, “Look, I have them too. These are all battle scars. Each one has a story.” My aunt was looking pointedly at my then torn-up knees from a particularly embarrassing scooter accident. “When people look at you they won’t just see another girl. They’re going to see a warrior, a survivor. That’s something, right?”

A smile

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What It Feels Like #3

The first instance I can remember was when I was walking home from school. I was just in 7th grade, when my body was just beginning to undergo all its strange changes. A large truck honked at me and I jumped, wheeling around to see if the driver was someone I knew and instead was met with ugly hands formed in a lewd gesture that I only understood years later.

Fast forward to when I have recently graduated high school. I was sitting on a bench outside work for an opening shift but my manager had yet come to open up the doors. A man was walking by when he spotted me.

He said, “Good morning. How are you?” I looked up and said, “Fine thank you”

“Why don’t you smile for me”

Without thinking I smiled on command. “That’s better. Beautiful.” He walked away. With a stupid, joyless smile still plastered on my face, I felt nauseated for reasons I couldn’t place.

It happened when I was asking my boyfriend for directions over the phone on a windy afternoon, my hair flying all over my face. I heard two brief honks as if to say “hey, you!” followed by the howling laughter shooting out the mouths at least two young men. I start to shout back “Fuck you” until I realize I’m still on the phone and silently give them the finger instead.

A reaction, a smile, attention.  It’s easy to give them what they want without even trying.

It’s hard to talk about these sorts of things with the males in my life. This is because, in their words, it’s largely invisible to them. For them it seems street harassment is almost mythical, something you only read about or see on television. It’s not like I can ask them for much anyway, as I can’t always be holding a man’s hand to ensure safety from harassment. I shouldn’t have to.

I could go at length about how my own family has reiterated that women are predestined to suffer at the expense of men, and how a woman’s primary goal in life is to exhibit grace under pressure. I know that if I were to ever bring this up to them they’d tell me to cover up, as if my existence is a sign that already says “Asking For Trouble”. There’s something profoundly twisted and wrong about the idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility to accept this and play the game.

I’m tired of inadvertently taking on the role of public plaything for male passersby. I’m tired of having to tug my shorts down and my shirts up so I can avoid leering glances on public transportation. I have to make myself small, I have to keep my eyes down, and I have to become nearly imperceptible so I might walk outside the house free from harassment. After spending upwards of a half hour getting ready in front of a mirror, I intentionally put on a wrinkled shirt or mess up my hair or smudge my makeup hoping the imperfections might deter strangers from taking interest in me. I thought that getting glasses and wearing them regularly would be an extra shield between myself and the outside world. Instead, at the bus stop again a man whistles at me like he would a dog. On my way to donate items to the nearest thrift shop a man whistles at me long and low from his car window, slowing down so he can see the reaction on my face I cannot hide before screeching off with an audible laugh.

Passively casting my eyes down is not enough now, though. Doing my best to refuse men the satisfaction of visibly upsetting me by ignoring their advances is not enough. Erasing my features, dimming my presence, folding into myself to take up less space is not enough.

I’m trying to do the opposite. Giving in to the social controls forced upon me by slimy men on the street is no longer for me. I’m not exactly busting out the low-cut shirts and lifting my head defiantly as men on the BART indulge themselves, but I am keeping my eyes forward. I know I don’t deserve to feel shame for being a girl and having a girl’s body. I know I’m entitled to my voice much more than these men are entitled to lob their unwanted attention at me.

No more stewing in resentment of city scum and the general patriarchy for me, though. Now I believe in something a little more powerful than that: self-love. I’m learning not to let the noise of harassment get to me and force me to diminish myself. Self-love says, I deserve to dress how I want and feel good about it without having to compromise for anything or anyone else. I think that is more dangerous to the patriarchy than shabby clothes and a deep frown could ever be. Men on the street don’t deserve my full smile, but I need to remember that I always do.

 

I feel itchy in my own skin

What it Feels Like #2

What it Feels Like #2

I like to be as transparent as possible when I’m on social media and have since let go of anything that may inhibit me from self-promoting my blog or asking candidly for help.

It never ceases to amaze me just how responsive people have been to my need and how encouraging people have been. I don’t consider myself a very good friend when physical distance is involved. In fact I find long-distance friendships very difficult to maintain, with few exceptions, if there’s little to no promise of meeting up in person in the near future. Still, people I have not seen since high school or literally in over 5 years are always the first ones to lend a supporting hand. I’m so grateful. It inspires me, really, to spread that amount of sheer kindness around.

My mother taught me to depend on kindness. My aunt taught me to be wary of kindness. While I understand now that they used kindness as a crutch or a red flag as a means of survival, I’ve found that exuding kindness is necessary for my own.

I’ve always strived to be self-reliant and have been infamously stubborn about demonstrating that ability to look after myself. At the same time I’ve also always held on to the idea that people are inherently good, and only relatively recently recognized that they will typically be responsive when asked for help. So far this ideology has taken me much farther than I could ever hoped.

Every so often I still feel selfish. Sometimes I’ll spend days on end fixating on my physical flaws and punishing my body until I realize that my worst flaws are most likely the ones I can’t see. Then I’ll work myself into a frenzy mass-messaging friends I haven’t heard from in months or years or lavish them with praise and encouragement I somehow cannot bring to give myself. It’s a strange tension that I’m working to even out.

When I still lived with my aunt sometimes I would be so engrossed with something, whether an assignment or a book, that I would work well past sundown. My room already was not well lit and it wouldn’t be until I heard her presence in the room and she tugged the pull chain of my nightstand lamp that I would realize it was nearly pitch-dark in the room.

I have so many people gently illuminating the space around me when I’m too preoccupied with busy nothings to know how long I’ve been sitting in the dark.

Tiny Stitches

 

 

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What it Feels Like #1

I treat writer’s block much like the way I treat depression: I don’t. I don’t discuss either very often because, I think, I have been conditioned throughout my life to believe that neither exists.

The past several weeks have been brutal. I took on too many ambitious obligations than I could handle in a summer and I became stuck. I couldn’t bring myself to perform the simplest tasks. I made elaborate to-do lists. I organized all the necessary tools I needed to do all my jobs efficiently. Somehow all my attempts to facilitate my own sudden lack of motivation proved futile. I outwitted my own preemptive measures to get myself on track. I felt I was letting the people who were depending on me down, and consequently I felt I was letting myself down.

I spent uncomfortably long moments staring blankly at my laptop screen, or laying still facedown on my bed, reading and rereading passages from my favorite books without comprehending the text. All food became unappetizing. I spent long walks aiming nowhere and ending up nowhere. Running on a treadmill didn’t feel any more productive or appealing than sitting on my bedroom floor trying to figure out what I even wanted.

I’ve written extensively about how significant writing is to me in order to recalibrate my system and find my center. This time, however, I couldn’t put anything down except mundane recordings of the day’s events or half-hearted, bland descriptions of how I was feeling. I was unable to make connections like I used to, and I showed no signs of feeling strongly about anything. I didn’t express astonishment or wonder. I didn’t express deep sorrow or spitting rage. It was as if everything I was feeling or experiencing was trapped within my shell of a body. They couldn’t come out.

I felt without a voice, and I felt scared.

I didn’t know how to manage the confusion and hurt and muted frustration I was feeling in a constructive manner. Any structure I had to my daily life fell apart and each day blended nauseatingly into the next. Without writing or any means of expression I started to lose track of what I even wanted out of life anymore. Waking up in the mornings became increasingly difficult because I couldn’t find reasons to get out of bed. Everything I did was based purely off my various whims and I became prone to binging as  well as long stretches of inactivity.  I knew that something needed to change or else I would succumb to complacency.

On one such whim I found myself at Michaels where I, without planning to, bought fabric, thread, and a few embroidery hoops to try something new. This was my first attempt:

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Something about this clicked, and now I’m completely hooked.

I’ve always been one to gravitate toward detailed work with my hands. Embroidery requires a certain eye and a definite focus that I’ve been lacking these past several weeks. It takes its fair share of time and attention I haven’t been able to give anything else until now.

Lately I’ve been especially drawn to embroidering phrases and quotes, a new physical manifestation of my often repetitive thoughts. It reminds me a lot about what my 8th grade core teacher said about the significance of his requiring us to write in cursive. He said, cursive demands that you think in words and ideas rather than individual letters. You need to have the entire picture in mind before you can even think to out pen to paper. I haven’t stopped incorporating cursive into my writing ever since.

Embroidery is very similar. It takes a general plan and detailed structure before beginning or the final product will be messy and unpresentable. Spending upwards of 20 tiny stitches on a short word forces me to think long and hard about my work and what I’m trying to say or convey.

Thus, I’m beginning a joint writing-embroidery project of a series of themed embroideries with related pieces on what I got out of the process. The first series: What it Feels Like. 

Jackfruit

I admit I was feeling unnecessarily exasperated when my aunt asked me to help in the kitchen when I was in the middle of wasting my time on the internet. Today we sat on the kitchen floor on scattered newspapers cutting open the jackfruit that’s been ripening in the back of the car for the past week. Its rind is a rainforest green with conical spines that make it nice enough to touch but cumbersome to hold. I watched my aunt oil the knife as she tells me to put on plastic gloves. As its pungent aroma, not unlike the notorious durian’s, fills the kitchen my aunt tells me a story I’ve heard before.

“Once my friends and I brought jackfruit into the office to share with the others. We’d worked hard to pick enough of the fruit for everyone to taste because it’s rare that any one person has the time to do so. It smelled so sweet and ripe to us, but… the Americans complained to the boss about the smell. We were never allowed to bring it in again.”

She paused to pop a piece of jackfruit in her mouth. “This is one of the good ones.”

I have always been bewildered at the way fruit hides its bounty behind thorns and bitterness and layers of inedible parts. My aunt hands me a large cross section that looks like an alien planet to start off with. I fumbled for the golden flesh of the fruit between the folds of their white walls. The fruit secretes a white, gluey substance that sticks my gloved fingers together, making the fumbling even harder to do. Each yellow bulb has a chestnut-like seed that easily slides out with a small, gentle pinch. Bracing the rind, I peeled off the bulbs and placed them in the large ceramic bowl in the center of the floor. I work as diligently and as quickly as my hands let me.

Time passes slowly with the tedious work. My aunt asks me about my schoolwork, my siblings, my mother, my boyfriend, how I’m handling all the paperwork of adulthood. My answers are stunted and almost insufficient because I’m not used to anyone else but me caring about these things. I work faster.

We are nearly done excavating the fruit. Many of the folds of my gloves are stuck together as I sift through the ruins and remains of rind, broken yellow flesh, and round seeds to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I finally pop a bulb of jackfruit in my own mouth and taste something close to home.

2

My wordpress turned two this week, incredibly.

It’s been a very rich year, albeit inconsistent in terms of my writing and posting. I wrote only 12 posts between today and my last anniversary post.

However, in light of the very dramatic events of 2013 and my transition period into 2014, I acknowledge how emotionally packed some of my posts were. I want to say that I have been growing as a writer, but to be honest I can’t tell. I am often told that the more I tap into the intense emotions I experience (“You sound so…angry! I love it!” is a comment on my writing I will never forget from a former friend), the better the results. And so I have been trying to do just that, trying to capture feelings of guilt, the rush of adrenaline in the midst of disorder, confusion, self-love, and hope.

This time around it seemed like I was doing less observing and elucidating on some flash of realization I had while walking to class, but rather being completely immersed in the events that were happening around me and reflecting every so often in my progress of rebuilding my life. With life being much harsher to deal with upon leaving the nest (toxic as it was), more unpredictable, and being forced to think critically I think my ideas are becoming more concrete and less abstract, more genuine and less melodramatic, and generally more focused.

That’s a really long way of saying I’ve been somewhat lax about exercising my writing ability if I can even call it that at this point. It’s another way of saying I’ve been too caught up in the whirlwind of all the terrifying and painful and exciting things that have been happening to read, to broaden my intellectual scope, or to pause and have my quiet time. Alone time has been something I have deprived myself of most notably this past summer and fall because, I think, I was so frightened of being alone when I was living someplace other than what used to be home. I wrote those 12 posts in 4 different houses and as kind and welcoming and accommodating my benefactors were I never felt I belonged and I felt unsure about myself all around.

I’m resolving to do better and be attentive to my streams of thinking. I feel like I am coming closer and closer to a feeling of security balanced out with my drive to push for self-improvement in multiple areas. With this comes more confidence in my grasp of the complexities of my personal growth and all the forces that influence it.

Four of my personal favorite posts of this March 2013-March 2014 period in terms of how emotionally invested I am in them, as opposed to general objective quality, are the following:

I cannot stress enough how much every comment on my posts, private or otherwise, means the world to me. This blog is a means of personal expression but it also very much a means of connecting with others. I have reconnected with a lovely handful of old high school friends because something I wrote rang true to them as well, and I have forged new connections with people I would have never thought I could relate to because something I wrote moved them in some way. These are the kinds of things I live for, and it’s a major part of why I love doing it.