A few years ago, I stood in the afternoon shadows of my family’s kitchen, peering over my mother’s head as she—gripping a knife in her small, sun-spot-covered hands—reached into a paper bag in the sink, pulled out a large, newly-dead fish, grasped it by its tail, rinsed it. With quick, sure, sweeping movements, she showed me how to remove its scales with the back of the knife. I tried not to flinch as scales and flesh juices and residual saltwater sprayed across our clothes and faces, splattering the window and walls. She cut into its belly from anus to gills, and there was blood and egg, and the softness of intestines and stomach and heart. These innards of another creature felt both intimate and alien. “Don’t ever cut this one,” she said, her accent tilting the English as she prodded with her long fingernail some innocuous-looking organ. “You cut this, you ruin it.”
She sheared away the gills with kitchen scissors, dressed the fish with the fresh garlic and scapes and onion and ginger and salt, some green herbs from the Veranda Asian market (a dirty place, smelling faintly of bamboo and sweat, filled with hundred-pound bags of rice and piles of odd animal parts—beef tongue, chicken feet, pig ears wrapped in cellophane), and put it on a baking sheet. When the fish emerged from the oven, we tore into its smooth white flesh—I with bare fingers, she with chopsticks. Salt and ginger and the savor of meat. The pile of picked-over bones on the table grew, and when it was almost gone, I watched her pop each fish eye into her mouth, one at a time.
* * *
I spent much of the first five years of my life in the presence of my mother. I don’t remember much about her from that time; I cannot picture her face or her words or the way she moved. I don’t remember feeling like something was missing, the way I did when I got older.
During those days, when my father was at the office and my brothers at school, she brought me along with her on errands to the supermarket or the pharmacy. She bought me workbooks and coloring books, and in the afternoons I peeled my crayons and rubbed at the pages while she watched soap operas. She taught me how to read when I was very young—I remember puzzling over the words with her until I could get them all right. From then on, we visited the library every week, for hours at a time, and I always left with a tote bag full. She never read, herself. I knew that she barely could, that she didn’t like it. I don’t know what she did during those long hours while I curled on faded library couches, book in hand.
When I was a teenager, and she slipped into her unpredictable stormy moods—when her actions and her face and her words exploded and ripped at our family’s reality, in those moments that shook me, when I was angriest and awful—I would sometimes remember that she gifted me the world of books, and something inside me would soften.
* * *
My mother is a hard woman. It is difficult for me to untangle my feelings and our history in order to create some sort of summation of her. Much of this I’ve never put into words; it doesn’t translate well onto a page. What I can say is that she is unstable, explosive, irrational, intensely critical—prone to stress, anxiety, panic, depressive states. She yells, suddenly furious and confused when things are not working, and when she does, the whole world grinds to a halt. Her voice pierces everything, triggers within me a physical reaction. During her fits, we either hide or desperately try to alleviate her problems. Sometimes it’s that she’s lost her headphones. Sometimes it’s that the dishes are dirty. Sometimes it’s that “nobody helps.” She does not know how to explain herself. She tears through the house, leaving messes that I clean up. To avoid her fits, we lie and conceal: my brother’s parking tickets, how much we spend on groceries, where I went as a teenager almost every time I left the house. To this day, I hate the phrase “why can’t you,” because it’s one of her favorites: “why can’t you listen?” “why can’t you do it right?” She says things, even in calm interludes, that don’t quite fit—once she told me that I should just give up and focus on finding a rich man to marry. I never knew what combination of cultural difference, mental and emotional instability, and actual lucid opinions these statements were.
I have spent most of my life hating her. I don’t think she has ever asked about my day; I don’t think we have ever had a conversation about feelings. I don’t think she knows how. She did not teach me about boys or periods or confidence or sex—we have never giggled together. She was utterly absent, cold, impenetrable. In middle school, I realized that she was very possibly stunted—that most of the time it felt as if she had the emotional maturity of a child. I pitied her for it until I began enduring my own bouts of deep depression. Then I resented her even more for either not being there for me or not being able to be there for me. I hated that I didn’t know whether it was her choice or not. I grew angrier.
It didn’t help that stoicism and emotional repression were two of the few general rules in the extended Glover family. My father was a huge proponent of never talking about feelings, just as his father was, and just as a good WASPy New Englander should be. Even on my darkest days, I kept silent, somehow determined to appear totally fine. There was no money for professional help—it wasn’t even an option—and no willingness to acknowledge the toxicity permeating our household. I think we all knew, especially my father, that admitting there was a problem, and that the problem was mostly my mother, would be to open up a can of worms that would then proceed to explode and burn the whole house down, obliterating our life as we knew it.
And our life was acceptable enough, in a world where feelings didn’t matter. We all stewed, simmering in our frustration at each other, in our fear and hatred and in this hardened and profound sadness, never resolving any of it. My mother, who was already so unstable, must have felt suffocated by all the pretense, and lashed out accordingly, though I’m sure she was unaware of what was actually going on.
Trying to make sense of the context of the situation didn’t ever really make a difference. Musings about, explanations of, and excuses for her behavior could only go so far. In the end, the most present part of her in my life was the one that regularly ruptured what little peace there was, tried my father’s patience until they were both hurling things across rooms, and made me feel like complete shit.
The only time I can ever remember hugging her was in the airport before I left for college, when I was eighteen and had some perspective. I initiated it. I don’t remember feeling her arms around me. My dad cried, for the first time that I’d ever seen, as I went through security and disappeared around the corner—I think because he knew there was a very real chance that I might never come back.
* * *
She was in her late teens when she was all but forced to seek safety from the violence and tumult of her country. I did not know much growing up about the circumstances which led to her arrival in the US, or the context of her fleeing, and I didn’t ask until very recently. Time and distance from the difficulties of our relationship had continued to soften me, and I thought I might reach out.
I sat on the kitchen counter, legs dangling, as she stirred a pot of broth and recounted in her stilted English memories that I knew she hadn’t unearthed in years. They were memories repressed and rusted and choked with a profundity of emotion that I will not attempt to understand, because it would be impossible and pointless. I won’t ever experience her hurt. I listened quietly—uncertainly—as she shared a part of herself with me for the first time in my life. Her narrative was broken and confused, scattered the way her brain has been as long as I can remember.
Her grandparents were Chinese, and for a short time growing up, before she was forced to spend the majority of her time taking care of her six younger siblings, she was educated in an ethnically Chinese school—to be Chinese in Laos was to be automatically welcomed into the business class, and her family wanted her to take advantage of her roots. She loved school. She talked of tests on Chinese characters, the pride of the clean uniform. Every morning she passed her grandfather, silently smoking his opium-pipe, as she hauled a bucket of steaming water across the yard and into a makeshift stall, where she poured it over her skin. She remembered her grandmother rubbing turpentine in her hair every few weeks to get rid of the lice. Then the Communists came, and chaos ensued.
She mentioned people crowding into the streets, watching a military parade. She mentioned gunshots, and screaming, and running, and people dead on the ground. They walked, for a long time, away from the city, on dirt roads and through forest and field and she held a younger sibling in each of her hands.
Soon, her uncle was paying human traffickers to smuggle her across the river from Laos to Cambodia. En route, Communists found her and imprisoned her in a makeshift jail. When she finally made it to Cambodia, she eked out an existence for herself and her siblings for three years in a refugee camp. She ended up lucky. She arrived on US soil as a refugee sponsored by some church group, and they, remarkably, agreed to sponsor her brother and sister along with her. Her plane landed on a snowy mid-January night in Portland, Maine—she huddled in her seat wearing flip flops and holding a small woven bag. She knew no English. She knew no notion of America other than that of a place at peace. I cannot imagine what she felt that night as she stepped off the plane and into the cold. I doubt she even knows herself.
It has been thirty years since my mother moved to America, and all that time she has lived a relatively unexceptional life—she married a man, became a U.S. citizen, earned her GED, had three children, and moved into a house on a quiet street. She works when she can, if she can—serving food at a Chinese restaurant, sewing clothes, cashiering at the Dollar Store. She sits, she knits, she cooks.
* * *
The secret to stir fry, she would say, in her usual clipped tones, is all in the timing. You prepare each ingredient before, get it ready to throw into the pot. Cut all ingredients depending on how quickly you want them to cook. Cut onion last so your tears don’t get in the way. Float broccolis, carrots, snow peas, wilted vegetables, mushrooms in cold water. Onion and garlic go in first—turn the fire on, high heat, stir them, don’t let them jump. Dried mushroom spice, Golden Mountain soy sauce, fish sauce, grate the ginger directly in. Big chunks first, leafy greens at the very end. Add spices in rounds, never measure, use your eyes. Keep a cup of water here for when the pan gets too hot. Don’t overcook, don’t undercook, keep the broccolis and peas snappy. You want enough sauce at the end to pour over your rice.
* * *
My mother is not fluent in English—a surprising fact considering the years she’s spent in America. This used to irritate me to no end, but lately I have begun to consider it an amazing act of stubbornness and resilience. She cannot spell basic words, mixes them, mixes tenses, incorrectly places punctuation. She often forgets what certain letters look like. She can’t type. I have to clarify what she says for strangers, and translate her text messages for my father, who, in his own stubborn way, won’t admit that he can decipher them.
I don’t know the story of how they ended up married, and I absolutely hate thinking about it. I know that they met because they both worked on the line at a chicken processing plant. Most of the time, I can’t imagine what in the world brought them together. Maybe they fell in love while purchasing ten-pound bags of frozen chicken bits with their employee discounts. Maybe she brought him home and sautéed those chicken bits for him in ginger and he never looked back. Or maybe, just maybe, they found each other’s obstinacy charming.
* * *
I grew up in the whitest state in the nation, and I realized early on that I was different. I didn’t quite look like the people on TV, or any of my classmates. My mother especially didn’t, with her short stature and flat nose and small, dark eyes. I became hyperaware of this difference, and the effect it had on those who couldn’t hide it—I knew it was better to be white. So too did my parents. When it came time to decide whether I would be enrolled in an afterschool Chinese program, I vehemently refused, rejecting to my mother’s face the only substantial experience of her culture she had to offer. She didn’t argue, and though I didn’t notice at the time, I now imagine how this must have infused her with a specific, pervasive sadness. This first decision marked a lifetime of Americanization—I didn’t learn my mother’s customs, religion, language, or even the names of her family members—my family members—back in Laos. I determinedly ignored my classmates when, laughing, they pulled the corners of their eyes downwards, making them almost disappear. I never invited friends over, cringing at the thought of them seeing my mother squatting in the driveway in a wrapped skirt, shifting trays and turning sliced pieces of raw seasoned beef so they dried evenly in the sunlight. I chose to ignore any thoughts about her past. I told myself it was because she didn’t tell me about it. The truth was that I was afraid of the whole idea of it. I knew from a young age that whatever place she had come from had been difficult, dirtier, poorer, and that it complicated everything. My brothers were the same. In this way, I think, we silenced her.
Now, when she talks on the phone with her friends or her sister, I listen quietly to the peculiar ways her voice moves, to the harsh sounds, and I marvel at the fact that she’s speaking words, comfortably, fluently, that I can’t understand. I notice the way the tone that makes her English sting suits the structure of this strange language. I notice her visible relief. I wonder if everything that I feel about her, all the ways I judge her, are unfairly clouded by my American influence, or my anger—I wonder what has been lost in translation. Every once in a while, during these long phone conversations, she says my name in English, and I get a small thrill wondering what she tells them about me—those strangers she cares for who live a world away.
* * *
Between the cultural confusion and the navigation of her hysteria, in that little sliver of space that offers some form of reason, there is food. Southeast Asian food is too good to give up, too good to stand between a mother and daughter, even when there are miles and mountains and worlds between. So food is what we had. What little time we spent together centered upon it, and though she was always snappish and brusque and brutal, her tone and words around food seemed to bite a little less than normal. There were some small, delicious moments.
She taught me the wonder of soft-boiled peanuts, how to crack open a young coconut and spoon out its flesh. From her I learned the necessity of planting seeds, simmering chili paste, saving bones to make broth. She broadened my food horizons when she ate animals with faces on them—I have distinct memories of her picking edible bits off a chicken head—and when she sucked marrow and chewed the cartilage from bones. We rolled egg rolls and fried them in the garage, sealed shrimp dumplings with flour paste, sliced long noodles from flattened rice-and-tapioca-flour dough. To this day, I cannot help but watch her cut a whole pineapple, mesmerized as she relinquishes its spiky armor and reveals its golden spiral glory.
She was never, ever happier than when she cooked at an Asian party, and when I was young, before I learned to refuse, she would take me along with her. Walking through the kitchen at a Cambodian or Thai or Laotian shindig was a bit like swimming through a sardine baitball, replete with myriad attacking predators—a sort of perfectly timed concurrence, involving women of different shapes and sizes inhabiting all available spaces, a cacophony of widely varying sounds—slicing and pounding and rolling and sizzling and clanging and boiling and brisk tonal language. At these parties, as I shyly piled slices of roast duck onto sticky rice and hid in the corner, I would look up at my mother, at the way she smiled at her fellow cooks, and feel with a sense of childish certainty that this food meant something. That it was some sort of home.
* * *
I think my brothers latched on to the importance of food, too, in their own ways. Justin spent his young life in restaurants and on farms, and I distinctly remember the year he spent poring over artisanal baking books until he could make the perfect baguette. I helped him knead and watched him shape the dough and learned that baking a good loaf is both science and magic. Now, he’s a carpenter in love with an orchardist, and they’ve got a five-year plan that culminates in the opening of their very own farm and cidery. Jay has a culinary arts and business management degree, holds the position of sous chef at the finest restaurant in Boston, and has his sights set on even more prestigious kitchens, in California, New York, and beyond. Whenever he comes back to my parents’ house—though I’ll admit this isn’t often—he’ll make a meal worth melting for, swaggering around getting every pot and pan dirty and dumping his scraps on the floor as if he were still in a professional setting, while my mother scurries after him sweeping up the mess, her usual complaining and criticism tinged with a rare bit of pride.
* * *
I moved across the country, to a place with a big sky and seemingly unending fields of wheat, liberating myself from the life that I knew, determined to release myself from my mother’s complications.
Our physical separation means that we no longer grate—I no longer have to endure feeling rubbed raw by her presence. I suppose that’s nice. Now the ache is dull, and I realize that there is void where there once was colossal anger. I just don’t know which is worse.
* * *
Sometimes, here in my new big-skied place, a person or a moment will remind me of my immigrant mother, and I will feel small.
About a week into school one year, my lovely, hungry roommate spied my Ziploc bag full of rice from home—I’d driven it 3,000 miles from Maine—and asked me, sheepishly, how to cook it. I tensed at her simple request, feeling trapped, and reluctantly agreed to help, lifting myself off the couch and going to pour my rice into a bowl. Self-consciously, and intensely aware of how the instructions on her box of rice might differ, I showed her how to rinse and swirl the grains, how to lay her hand flat on them and fill the bowl with water to her second knuckle, like my mother had once taught me. “But you don’t have to do it this way, it’s just something weird my mom does,” I remember saying, unable to help qualifying my actions, afraid of her judgment about even this smallest of things, afraid of memories of home—afraid even though she had asked, even though I knew I was right. My mother makes the best rice of anyone I know.
As I finished showing her the technique, I saw a hint of confusion on her face. I offered an apologetic smile. “Sorry, really, I know it’s weird. I’m sure you could find better instructions online.”
There is no way that I have found to translate or explain the shame. It emerges at the strangest of times, infecting the most inconsequential of things. The snaking, disconnected feeling of difference, the embarrassment of diverging ways of life. These are the things I learned when I was five years old that allowed me to spurn Chinese school—things like the abnormalcy of measuring with knuckles instead of cups. I cannot fully explain my compulsion to retreat, to invalidate myself and the little pieces of my silenced heritage that could not remain quiet, the pieces that managed to pass through the filter of my mother’s pain and into my existence. These small knuckles that I have and the rice that I held—they are reminders of biting childhood cracks about slanted eyes and yellow skin, woven into my identity. I hate them and I love them. I think of her.
* * *
I haven’t called her a single time since I’ve been at college. We don’t speak, we don’t text. She knows almost nothing about my life. Every once in a while, though, without explanation or word, she will send me a random video she finds on Facebook. I never respond. Our Facebook conversation is just a comically long one-sided display of strange internet clips. Mostly the videos are poorly shot and edited, feature exclusively people from various parts of Southeast Asia or China, and use subtitles in languages I can’t even name. Some of them depict beautiful places in Laos or household cleaning tips and tricks explained by peppy, immaculately dressed young Asian women. Mostly, they are about food. In the past few months I’ve received one about foraging wild edible plants, one about farming bamboo, and one about some kind of Japanese omelet. One offered a bizarre infomercial about edible spoons.
One time, I received a grainy video of a white-haired woman standing in a dirt yard fringed with leafy vegetation, the corner of a living structure made of some fibrous plant material and wood—held together by rope and footed by concrete blocks—visible in the background. The woman wore a grimy orange t-shirt, a scarf over her head, a long, striped wrap skirt tied around her waist, and no shoes—her brown feet squished flat on the caked earth. She was incredibly hunched and twisted, folded in half in a painful way, as if she’d spent decades of her life laden and bent over her work. Her back was to the camera. In her gnarled hands, she held what I could only describe as a circular-flattened-woven-basket-thing about three feet across, and on it was a large pile of some sort of grain. With sure, even motions, she flicked the whole rig up and back, throwing the grains up and catching them again, like sautéing onions in a pan. Small clouds of dust flew into the air. The gentle chuk chuk of the movement was the only discernible sound.
I had no idea what was happening in the video when I first began watching it. Lucky for me, my mother chose to accompany it with a message, and the message happened to be actually comprehensible: She was trying to get the outer shell out of the rice watch it ,I used to do that. Some day we should go back to Loas so you cold see how they do it.
Juxtaposed with my life, in which I was then huddled in my comfy bed, scrolling leisurely on the internet after having just spent the afternoon on the quad of my private liberal arts college intermittently napping in the sunshine, laughing with friends, and snacking on watermelon and Doritos, the whole thing was absurd. The video ended, and a wave of nausea washed over me, along with that piercing mix of shame and guilt and curiosity that accompanies realizations about my mother’s past; these are the feelings I have so long tried to avoid. She used to do that. She used to do that. I imagined her hunched alone in a dirt yard. I imagined her imagining herself hunched alone in a dirt yard. Would she be happier? I replayed it over and over again. Chuk chuk chuk.
* * *
When I’m feeling down, I get food at a Thai restaurant—the only one in this place that does it right. I sit alone in a booth against the wall with my laptop out, pretending I’m doing important work. Really I’m just craving something that feels solid in my belly. When the huge bowl of soup comes, there is a rush. I dive into ritual: squeeze the lime in, swirl dried chili powder, break the thick knot of rice noodles. I lament the missing fried garlic bits, ignore the minimal cilantro and the uninspiring level of five-spice—Mom does it better. My chopsticks seize the first bite. I slurp. I sip. It feels good.
* * *
Last summer, on a lake in Northern Maine, while I lounged with a novel on the porch, my brother caught a forearm-long fish as the light faded out of a cloudless sky. It thrashed in his uncertain grip, but he deposited it dutifully into the plastic bucket on the muddy bottom of the boat. In the kitchen of the camp, the whole family and group of friends watched as my mother held it against a cutting board and coolly killed it with two well-aimed whacks from her cleaver—we cringed as we watched the life slip from its once-writhing body. Most of us had never seen an animal die before. When she scooped its quarter-sized heart out, it was still beating, throbbing and balanced on her long fingernail. I gaped at its phantom rhythm. ▩
Rachel Glover lives in Walla Walla, Washington.
Illustration by Eric Rannestad.