How my immigrant mom says “I love you”

My mom doesn’t say “I love you.” Instead, she cooks.

Sizzling oil in a wok, fresh mint leaves and glistening gold egg rolls against white vermicelli noodles, and the salty tanginess of nuoc mam — these are the sounds, sights, and flavors of my mom’s love.

Growing up, my family didn’t express love in traditional ways. There were no hugs, I love you’s or other affirmations. There was just a lot of silence. We would often eat dinner in silence, the only sounds being chopsticks hitting ceramic bowls filled with rice. Evenings in the house were quiet, the only noise coming from the TV in the background or me and my sister playing in our room.

While other families might have shown their love in loud and sometimes obnoxious ways, my parents showed their love in quieter, humbler ways. My mom in particular showed her love through food.

When I was in first grade and too shy to line up with my classmates in the lunch line, my mom would walk the fifteen minutes to my elementary school and drop off a warm lunch for me. Every day at noon, the lunch bell would ring. And every day at noon, my mom would be there with a lunch box for me.

Inside of the lunch box, I would find jasmine rice with soy sauce and lap cheong, fried rice with ham, egg, and peas, or my favorite — macaroni noodles with ketchup, egg, and slices of hot dogs, my mom’s Chinese twist on a classically American dish.

Her warm lunches were the highlight of my lonely school days. I was painfully shy, and I had trouble making friends at school. Her home cooked meals helped soothe some of my social anxiety as a kid and even as a young adult. When I was homesick in college, my mom would visit and stock my freezer with tupperwares of food that seemed to last the entire semester.

My relationship with my mom, like most second generation children, is not perfect. As a kid, I yearned for some of that extroverted affection and openness that I saw in other families. I wanted a mom that I could talk to about how lonely I felt at school, about the girls that made fun of my food, clothes, and everything else about me — I wanted a mom that could say “I love you” to me more often than not.

Instead, I got an immigrant mom who is fierce in quiet ways. Who came to this country 28 years ago and built a humble, but fulfilling life for herself and her family. Who loves me so much that words cannot give voice to it.

Words cannot give voice to her love, but food can. When my mom takes out her wok and fries up homemade egg rolls for me, I know that she is saying “I love you.”

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