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.

 

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.

What it means

I do not say “I love you” very often.

1. When I say I love you, I mean that you are literally the primary reason I live and my entire existence consists of trying to thank you. It means you’re the only person I would die for, and that you form the better half of me. It means that no matter how many times, or how deeply, we hurt each other, I will always be there for you. It means I will call you out, and I will encourage you. I will lift you up the best I can even if it means my arms will shatter. It means I value your opinion above anyone else’s. My heart bruises when yours does and my entire body sings when you accomplish what you set out to do. I am constantly torn between wrapping you up in affection and strangling your throat in fury. When I say I love you it means that I can’t even think of not ever being able to hold you either way. I love you because it’s not even about the thickness of blood at this point. Instead it’s about the choices we check each other on. It’s about clasped hands in most absolute senseless situations, and navigating the insanity together. It means I am forever grateful to you for saving my life, even though you never had to do a thing. It means everything I do, I do for you.

2. When I say I love you, I mean that I flourish in your light. It means I will always defend you, even if, and especially if, the assailant is your own self. It means I’ll share anything and everything with you. It means you inspire me to challenge myself and be better. It means I’ll send you dumb questions just to have an excuse to bask in the brilliance of your perspectives and experiences. It means I’m moved by your stories. It means you’re who I trust most in times of crises, and it means you’re who I trust most in times of joy. It means that even if I do not understand what you say, I will wholeheartedly listen. It means I am secure in knowing you would do the same.

3. When I say I love you, it means I will do the little things. I will pick up the details and weave them into the best design of understanding and periodically hold it up to show you. This is because when I love you, I love all of you. I will persist in futile attempts to know you better than you know yourself. It means I thrive on the electricity you trigger in the space behind my eyes. It means I will bloom and bloom for you like a drop of dye in a cup of water. It means I will be the first to offer you water when it’s hot out, and offer water again and again as if I hope to be the source that fills all the empty parts of you. It means I will try to be everything for you: nagging, indulgent, adventurous, trustworthy. It means I feel like the jagged pieces of you fit so nicely into the jagged pieces of me. It means I’ll put your needs before my own, and it means I’ll be the biggest fan of your life.

I would like to think

I would like to think that my mom thinks of me from time to time. I would like to think she still talks about me to all her friends. I would like to think everything would be okay if I could just fall into her arms.

I would like to think that someday I would drive up to her apartment and she’d ask me to make myself comfortable. I would smile and look at the porcelain knick-knacks she would still collect. I would like to think she would tell me, “You are everything I hoped you would become.” She would say, “I’m proud of you,” and, “You did the right thing.” She would brush my hair and tell me not to worry about what the boys and girls think. She would tell me what she’s learned, loved, and lost. She’d move through the room like a planet in orbit, with grace and purpose, as she shows me how to make my favorite dishes. I would like to think I would forgive her, and in turn lay down my burden for her to examine. She’d pick through my pieces and nod to herself. I would like to think that her heart would bruise a little every time mine took a blow. Then she’d look at me and give me the sort of loving advice you remember forever. I would like to think that she would believe in my half-baked ambitions.

But I know none of this could be real. She would avert her gaze and tell me she’s sorry. She would tell me not to ever bring myself to hate anyone, if I can help it. She would thank me for looking out for my brother. She’d then ask if I smoked, and I would say no as she takes a long drag on her own cigarette. In the bittersweet cloud she’d breathe, “A lot of times, we have to make sacrifices for the ones we love.” She’d tell me not to cry, tell me everything is going to be okay. She’d pull my hand into hers and tell me, “Don’t ever get yourself into a situation where you must depend entirely on someone else.”

She’d be amused at the person I’ve become, I think. I think she’d be a little afraid. She’d ask without accusation, “Do you think you’re too good for me now?” And no matter my reply, she would understand, because we are the same in that neither of us have ever believed we were deserving of much love. Her eyes would be wistful because she’d realize we were now poles apart. She would not make the same mistake my dad made and try to draw me into her like a child. No, she’d ask why I was so sad, I’d tell her, and she’d hold me without saying a word.

I would like to think that the last thing we told each other was, “I love you.” I would like to think I remember her well.

I would like to think I am a normal sassy teenager with normal problems, or that I have recovered well. In all honesty, this is a gaping, aching hole I have so desperately tried to fill. Emptiness cannot satisfy emptiness.

I would like to think whenever I told friends to tell their moms they loved them, they heeded my advice.

I would like to think I could honor my mom in ways other than long-winded scribblings transcribed and drafted at odd hours. I would like to think I had reasons to honor my mom, other than the fact that she’s my mom.

I do know that she respected that I wrote a lot, even as a child, about fleeting nothings, and I do know that today’s her birthday. This is the only way I knew how to link these two things I know for sure.

On faith

My brother was baptized on Sunday.

It was completely unplanned. When he stood up to get in line after the sermon my family exchanged surprised looks. My cousin Michelle asked me what I thought. I simply said, “It’s something he would do.”

Some background: I was not raised with any concrete religious ideology. My mom was  a Roman Catholic, my dad was a Buddhist (further tensions that may have contributed to their eventual separation: she was a Raiders fan, he a 49ers). I was taught to burn incense before the image of Buddha and pray to my ancestors for protection and fortune. I was also taught to turn to God in times of trouble, and to fear damnation in hell. You might say I was confused.

With middle school, religion of any kind faded from my life. I still to this day, though, burn incense for my ancestors on special occasions out of respect for tradition.

In high school I found that my friends fell into 3 categories with regards to faith:  the indifferent, the atheists, and the devout. All were typically passionate about what they believed, but I never really was because I just didn’t know what I knew even though I still cared about the questions and answers. I labeled myself an agnostic as a sophisticated name for my confusion.

There was a period in my life when I had wanted so much for God to look out for me and perhaps stop my life from spiraling out of control. He didn’t pull through in the magical divine intervention way I thought He would, so I withdrew from earnest prayer into a wary cynicism.

However, I reconciled with the fact that if God exists, it’s not to solve my problems for me. I’m not bitter.

The existence question was never the problem for me. I believe God can coexist with science. The whole resurrection thing is sort of weird, but I guess a lot of things in the universe are weird, too. There are also plenty of clever proofs of His existence that are quite convincing, albeit headache-inducing. The fact that He doesn’t explicitly assert His presence does not bother me in slightest. I’d feel uncomfortable praising a visible god of any kind anyways. The fact that He does not intervene when people do horrendous things to each other across the globe or that evil exists does not undermine God’s existence. Frankly if He exists, it’s not His job to make sure we all get along.

I won’t argue whether or not He exists, but I don’t think the question is an exclusive reason to reject religion altogether.

My personal reason not to follow Christ/God/Supreme Anonymous Being, then, really boils down to my stubbornness. I can’t deal with the idea that someone else is in control of my life or wants to do something with it, true or not. I can cognitively take in the teachings of  “Do good unto others” and “Love they enemies,” but I could never give my whole self away like that. It scares me. I’ve chosen to bumble down the search for meaning and truth alone, not because I don’t believe a higher being could come with me, because I just don’t want one to. I am not willing to surrender myself like that, and that has been my personal decision.

My brother, of course, was brought up like I was. As he entered middle school during which skepticism is at its peak popularity, I remembered him coming home one day declaring himself an atheist. I have listened to him scoff at the old men handing out orange New Testaments outside schools and rant on about the hypocrisy of Christians throughout history.

My family started attending a hip nontraditional Christian church in San Jose at Michelle’s insistence. I did not resist, partly to not make a fuss, partly because I saw the sermons as mini philosophy lectures, partly because of free tea.

One day my brother said after Sunday morning: “What a load of bull. You don’t believe this, do you?”

I responded ambiguously, “Keep an open mind. Jesus was a good guy.”

Then he started going to a youth group, mainly because my aunt believed it would be good for him in a moral sense. It was an experiment at first but he soon began to really engage. Once I asked why. He said, looking me in the eye, “I just need something stable in my life for once.”

A week ago, about 6 months after we began going to church, I’d relapsed into a spiral of self-hate. This time my brother said, as he was trying to convince me that I was loved, “That’s what God’s love is for.”

He said, “But I know you don’t give a shit about God.”

He said, “It’s like you’re afraid of happiness.”

Yes, he’s growing up. So perhaps the baptism was not so unprecedented.

As with most things that people around me do, I took his decision personally. I took it as a sign he was through with my contagious cynicism and doubt.

I remember this past September at La Jolla Beach walking alongside the ocean lost in busy thoughts. I turned around at one point to see my brother determinedly walking in my footsteps, literally, leaping from one indentation in the sand to another.

As I watched my brother stand in line next to the pool and he gave a little wave, I was afraid he’d never want to walk in my footsteps again. I thought selfishly that in a way Jesus was taking my little brother from me. This was why I wasn’t sure if I teared up out of pride or out of fear when he was plunged into the water.

The first thing he did once he was toweled dry and changed was come to hug me. Neither of us said anything this time. In that moment my anxieties melted away and I ran my hand through his hair. I just hoped maybe someday I’ll have something I believe in as strongly as he does.