On food, home, and growing up

I looked at the curry packet my mother had given me. I was planning to make her Malaysian curry. It was my way of remembering home, reproducing the dishes that were once a mundane part of my everyday life but that now evolved into carrying spices and foods from 7000 miles away in a suitcase and phone calls to mom with, “How do you make this again?”

I was craving a piece of home that day (or maybe chicken drumsticks were just on sale, and I didn’t know what else to do with them), but the curry packet expired a year ago. Is this safe to use? I frantically googled the answers, wishing my mother was beside me, reassuring me what to do. She always knows what to do.

I often think about what my mother was like at my age. I wonder if she called her own mother while she went to school in Scotland. I wonder if she too, like me, wanted to maintain a piece of her home through the food she made and ate. I wonder how she stood up to the challenges of growing up, of applying to her first job, of becoming a college-student-turned-working-adult.

There have been many moments since leaving Hong Kong and coming to the States where I’ve taken a step back and thought, “Wow, I’m growing up.” They include the obvious ones like graduating from college and getting my first job.

But there are a few subtle moments that have highlighted not just my experiences of having to navigate life independently, but of having to be an adult in a different country and culture from what I grew up in.

I remember feeling this way when I shopped at Trader Joe’s for the first time. The pretty aisles of polite shoppers with American produce in measurements like pounds and packaged neatly in English had me slightly confused on what to do there. Growing up, my mom always took me grocery shopping with her. It often included styrofoam boxes laid out in the wet market with Chinese-named vegetables and fruits in metrics like kati. My mom would always bargain the price down, often successfully with the brazen look of a woman who was raising 5 kids on a missionary salary. I knew what a good price was for most food in Hong Kong, but come to America, and I was lost on whether $6 was a bad price for a pound of potatoes. (Yes, it’s a terrible price.)

People often ask me if moving here was hard. I tell them it’s not. I grew up with an American father, went to an American high school, and attended an international church. Adjusting here, in the grand scheme of things, was not difficult. I know how to grocery shop in America. It’s not rocket science. Yet, it’s the subtleties in the experiences like what I described, experiences that are often so small, experiences that I do not easily come up with words to describe — yet experiences that do not inhibit me from assimilating — that make coming here hard.

It’s learning what it means to be a neighbor in America, without greeting the old uncles and aunties in my village back home and asking them in Cantonese, “Have you eaten yet?” It’s missing out on family gatherings and the years both my brothers met and got engaged to their significant others. It’s getting frustrated over American health insurance and spending an absurd amount of money at the Chinese bakery in Argyle, especially compared to what I would pay for it in Hong Kong. It’s having to learn American small talk and popular culture, and figuring out that people like it when you talk confidently and loudly.

Yet, I remember my mom telling me how she would ask our neighbors how to make certain dishes when she came to Hong Kong, dishes that became a staple in my home. In many ways, she recreated her own life as an adult, piecing together parts of her childhood and the new cultures and experiences she encountered. And in many ways, I too am creating my own version of home here in America.