Dim Sum, Pizza Pops, and Second Hand Memories

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Defining home between old and new worlds

My dad used to occasionally cook dinner for me in the break room at the back of his store where there was a microwave, sink, and mini-fridge. He had just enough materials to create an instant noodle concoction in a tupperware container, often served with bok choy zapped to softness in the microwave, and a few slices of spam. Other times, it was a can of instant chili sprinkled on top of the gong zai meen, an amalgam of our new and old identities. I would stand or sit on a stool in the small room, holding the hot bowl up to my face, shovelling noodles down my mouth at a rapid-fire rate.  Ho ho mai ah! I would tell him: very delicious.

Years later, books, movies, and peers would herald instant noodles as the ultimate symbol of college frugality, a staple for degenerates. To me, it was simply the taste of home.

Home was other things too. It was my mother’s clear soup, deliciously sweet with chunks of green turnips, pork bones, and softened carrots, that she brewed as an antidote to my canker sores. I didn’t know its real name if it had a real name, or if actually cured canker sores, but we called it fai zee tong: canker sore soup.  I suffered from fai zees frequently in my childhood—they would flare up during bouts of anxiety—and each time I wondered if these pinkish-white lesions were things only Chinese kids got, since the kids at school never complained about painful nuisances at the perimeters of their mouths. I’d flip my bottom lip inside out with my fingers, displaying the sore to my mother. How big is it? She’d lean over and peer down, Ai ya! So big! and ladle fai zee tong into a bowl and I’d tip the bowl against my mouth and let the warm and sweet and savoury broth slide down my throat. The fai zee would still be there, but I would feel safe and cared for.

Home was also the smell of McCain mini pizzas in the toaster-oven, a meal my mother would wake up early to prepare on weekdays for us to take to school for lunch. For some reason, we rarely brought leftovers—the few times I did bring noodles, I was accused of eating “worms”. Looking back, it was as if my parents had implicitly understood that included in their decision to migrate for a more stable life, was a contract of assimilation: a public relinquishing of our selves, of home, and of everything familiar in exchange for being perceived as a little more human. She insisted on toasting the pizzas, a 20 minute process, they’re crispier this way! and would place one mini pizza on top of another in a square tupperware container. I never had the heart to tell her that by the time lunch hour rolled around, both pizzas would be rendered to soggy balls of tomato, cheese, and dough.

* * *

A few months ago, my dad pulled up a huge cityscape and projected it onto our TV screen.  Do you recognize what city this is, Lorraine? I stared lazily at the TV, looking at the tall buildings from a bird’s eye view, annoyed with my lack of geographical knowledge, but more peeved that my dad was quizzing his 25 year old daughter.  I shrugged, Chicago? He scrunched his eyebrows but chuckled, ashamed and amused at his daughter’s stupidity. It’s Hong Kong! he yelled exasperatedly in Cantonese. He waved his hands slowly over the TV screen, gradually entering a game of show and tell: that’s the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank—and this over here, the big ferris wheel, and over here (with a wave of his index finger), that’s City Hall. Oh yes, I remember. He kept going, landmark by landmark. After a while, he forgot I was there, lost in an old cognitive map of an older home.

For my parents, home is concrete, spatial. It can be rooted in knowledge, street names, buildings, events, moments they recall happily over morning coffee on weekends, and memories that hurt—that they rarely speak of. But I, child of my parents—raised on equal parts dim sum and pizza pops—grasp at the artefacts: the feelings, smells and tastes they brought to their new world. I stitch together broken Cantonese, secondhand memories of family I never knew, and recipes passed on by my mother but distorted by blogs authored by people who look nothing like us. I cobble together some semblance of what I believe home might be.

Home has always been something uncertain. Even now, I can easily conjure up feelings from childhood: a sweaty seven-year old insomniac child lying in bed in the dark, overcome with dread, trying to define an uncomfortable, nebulous feeling I described back then as feeling homesick while at home. I am a child and do not yet know the words diaspora, or migration or even something as simple as loneliness, but in many ways, I am already acutely aware that displacement was built into who I am; of there being some other home that I could long for and not know all at once.

* * *

These days, I am quick to react when I smell, taste, hear or see a glimpse of home.  It could be a set of orange plastic chopsticks, a warm tea egg, a bowl of congee, a T&T plastic grocery bag. Often, it’s my mother tongue coming from the mouths of strangers. The reaction is visceral.  I feel a tug at my insides, sometimes slight, sometimes violent, depending on the day. Each time, it’s as if my body is grieving for something I haven’t yet lost.  

Maybe it’s simply the fear of floating further from something that was always far away.

I think I am terrified of losing home. I fear forgetting flavours, customs, dates and holidays I could never remember in the first place. I fear losing words and phrases. I fear losing a language that’s already rusty.  Most of all, I fear losing the people I practice it with.

I am trying to hold home close in this new world that tries to erase it.

I find myself at the corner of Spadina and Dundas, sitting on the benches inside Dragon City Mall. I eat a 1 dollar tea egg out of a styrofoam cup, sit amongst people with grey hair and kind eyes who remind me of my grandparents: alive, dead, and unknown (ma ma, yai yai, poh poh, gong gong).

I am cooking again. Last week, soy sauce chicken; next week, pork chops in tomato sauce on fried rice. I am surrounding myself with the smells and tastes of my childhood, training my body to not forget where I came from.

In the city, I am able to make friends with other kids of the diaspora, others who feel here and there and nowhere all at once. We meet each other for early morning noodles or congee, exchange recipes, recount memories. We hold each other’s anxieties, finally giving them space: Who will we speak Chinese to once our parents are gone? How do we love ourselves and our Asianness in a world that tells us not to? How do we navigate being our whole selves when we’ve been trained to code switch between identities our entire lives?

Maybe I am doing okay at holding home close.  Or at least, I am doing my best.

I think about the instant chili on ramen that my father used to make me—how that is home as much as the clear soups and noisy dim sum lunches. I realize that for me, home will always be blurred around the edges. That there is only so much that I can hold close. That perhaps, we can get by simply through building a new home where the old one isn’t erased.

This piece was originally published in LooseLeaf Magazine in October 2017.  You can purchase a print copy of Volume 4 here

Lorraine Chuen