How I Learned To Hunger

My family moved to suburban America from urban Japan in the year 2000, when I was seven years old. One of the first things I noticed about the American children my age is that they only ate one vegetable: carrots. Even then, there were only two ways they ate those carrots: stewed till shapeless in clumps of sugar, or drowned in Hidden Valley ranch dressing. Their meals seemed to regularly consist of bright orange cheese powdered and mixed into overcooked macaroni, or bright pink cylinders of hot dogs cut into offensively small pieces. A quick survey of hands in my first-grade class revealed that Domino’s cheese pizza was nearly everyone’s favorite food. (My hand, a vote for watermelon, conspicuously limp beneath my desk.)

I was confused. Where were the mandatory school lunches of rice, small broiled fish, lightly boiled sea weed? Why did these children not enjoy cucumbers, split open and liberally salted as a summer snack? What was the point of eating spaghetti if it had been boiled to limpness, cut into hay stacks, drowned in sauce that might as well have been ketchup swilled in corn starch?

And why were they so spiteful? In the first weeks of bringing school lunch, the white American children of my cafeteria quickly became convinced that I ate lice wrapped in hair for lunch. My onigiri, fresh rice enclosing a single brilliant pickled plum, wrapped in flaky green nori my mother had warmed over an open flame that morning, quickly transcended ‘normal lunch food’ to ‘inexplicable source of ridicule’. I ate while hiding, my head bowed, one arm crooked as defensive wall around my bento box. Shame roiled in my chest, as palpable as heartburn. Eventually, I implored my mother for sandwiches, crackers, even money for the unrecognizable trays of starch and fat that passed as school lunch in this country.

Lunch time, many years later, I hide to eat again.

Though we have long since moved into a diverse city where rice balls are just one in a range of many ethnic leftover lunches, I am scrunched in the farthest stall from the door in the first-floor girl’s bathroom in my high school. This bathroom is deserted most hours of the day, with the exception of the last half hour before school ends, at which point it is flooded by freshman girls reapplying make up and checking their hair in the slightly askew mirror. The lunch hour is so quiet the silence seems to reverberate against the teal flecked linoleum. As I sit cross-legged on the toilet holding a Tupperware container of rice in my hands, I feel that this time is something akin to a sanctuary, and I relish the cool sheen of a secret kept with myself.

I put a forkful of the rice, seasoned with salt and black sesame, into my mouth. I allow myself to chew one, two, three times. I then spit the rice into my palm, slippery and unrecognizable, shove it into the sanitary napkin disposal to my right, and wipe my palm on my jeans. I say a silent prayer of apology to whoever will clean this bathroom stall and come across the evidence of my once-was-meal. I repeat this ritualistic half-regurgitation over and over until my lunch is finished. I have conducted my lunch this way for nearly a year now, leaving my circle of friends for the last ten minutes of our thirty-minute lunch period, to dispose of my food in peace.

I am not unique. My senior year of high school presents a sudden rash of girls with odd eating habits. They smile cheerily, talk quickly, all the while cutting a leaf of iceberg lettuce into minuscule pieces to eat without salt, oil, vinegar, flavor of any kind. Others develop a religious zeal for exercise, a hazardous glitter entering their eyes as they pedal furiously on stationary bicycles.

In my circle of friends, I can count at least four other girls who have displayed some disordered something or another. Sometimes they disappear into the bathroom after lunch together, the unspoken fervor of devotees humming between them. No one talks about it, but we share an unspoken frequency, a collective clean, smoldering seam of hunger wavering between us.

While some of these girls will lose weight in the gaunt and gaping way so easily chased by the “concerned” whispers of diagnoses, most of us, myself included, just have what someone once called a garden variety eating disorder. You can’t really see our anxieties come out in our bodies.

We are high functioning, high achieving individuals. We go out to dinner. We eat junk food at parties. To you, we look completely utterly normal, perhaps even slightly piggish as we inhale the pizza offered to us at social functions. The accompanying terror, after all, is an intensely closeted matter. The rows of meticulously kept calorie counts, the self-flagellating act of running mile after mile until your shoes wear down, the silent agony of a holiday season with its laden banquet tables around the corner — these are quiet, muffled implosions of self.

Foods that scared me:

1. Bread

2. Cow’s milk

3. Cheese

4. White rice

5. Pasta, especially with butter

6. Mayonnaise

7. Whole bagels

8. Fried anything

9. Meat

In college, after spending one too many nights wallowing in old dread and stale guilt, staring despondently at a rapidly emptying container of moose tracks ice cream, I go to the student counseling services. After filling in some forms, a middle aged man ushers me into a makeshift waiting room where an uncomfortable number of students I recognize refuse to meet my gaze over Styrofoam cups of bad herbal tea. When my name is called, I rush off, glad to be out of the stifling room with its familiar students and cottony silence.

The counselor I see is nondescript. We sit across from each other in her second floor office room, surrounded by framed diplomas and accolades. She asks me a roster of rapid fire Yes-or-No questions, frowning at her clipboard as I tell her that yes, I eat breakfast, no, I’ve never been diagnosed, and so on. The ‘patient chair’ in her office is an overstuffed burgundy arm chair which I find impossible to get comfortable in. I fidget as the questions continue, eventually resigning myself to sinking into the cushions, disappearing in the scratchy upholstery. Eventually, the counselor exhales loudly, tapping the point of her pen against her clipboard, and lifts her eyes over her reading glasses. It seems the questions have come to an end, and I relax a bit. She is smiling widely, as if a Cheshire cat who has solved a riddle. I realize this is the first time she has looked at me. She inhales, and declares,

“So. How badly do you think your Japanese upbringing has contributed to this?”

I do not remember the rest of that session. I do not remember the rest of her assumptions or my stunned mumbling answers. I do not remember trying to evade her leading questions as she suggested I come back again next week. I do not remember running down the stairs from her office, pulling my coat off the coat rack, confused and indignant, but at the same time wanting to laugh at her conclusions all the same.

What I do remember is opening the door, and walking out into the cold mid-morning. Wan light cast pale slats on snow banks, the winter air flooding my flushed cheeks. Outside, people were walking to and from class, their heads bent together in conversation. Life continued, trudging forward, regardless of what happened in the closeted offices of pseudo-psychology, or even the unforgiving dimness of a high school bathroom stall. I began to laugh to myself, and realized I was hungry.

When I first learned how to drive, my father would chant from the passenger seat to “Drive defensively”. To this day, I am not entirely sure what that means, but his voice from those first driving days comes into my mind now, not when I am on the road but when I go to the grocery store. It has been years since those miserable high school hungers, and that cloying over-knowledgeable woman in the college counseling offices. Now, standing in front of the supermarket dairy display, I feel defiant while grabbing the paper carton of whole milk. I slam whole boxes of farfalle and fusilli next to wax paper wrapped cheeses and cured meats. I buy two kinds of bread at once as armor, sacks of thick pita and loaves of sourdough studded with sunflower seeds. I am insistent.

I feel just as defensive in the kitchen. Omelets made in bubbling browned butter double as self-imposed political statements. I am fiercely proud of the honey pooling in my full fat yogurt. Eating a sandwich made with two thick, soft slices of toasted bread, spread with Kewpie mayonnaise and seedy Dijon, sandwiching avocado, prosciutto, curling bitter leaves of escarole lettuce — I am brimming with pride at just how damn brave that feels. Like a woman who realizes she has loved someone all along, I pursue my affection for food doggedly, tirelessly. I woo myself in the kitchen, in restaurants, fanning a flame I had long ago stamped out.

There are so many other episodes I want to write here. I want to write about using vegetarianism as a shield with which to deflect food offered to me, and how that was struck down by my grandparents who used hard-won money to serve meat that was normally out of their budget. I want to write about my sister, who held my hand as I confessed one evening to having bought an entire bag of bread from the neighborhood bakery, only to gnaw at it like a hungry animal, unable to swallow any of it. I want to write about my mother who sends me text messages, even today, saying “Yes, put cream in coffee,” and my father, who always noticed, but gently.

I want to write about the farmers I worked for one summer, and the weeks I spent picking tomatoes that turned my hands an earthy mysterious black. I want to write about my friends who brought bottles of wine, dessert, who made rituals of our meals together. I want to write about the man who has loved me as he fed me, dripping pancake batter over all available surfaces in the process.

I want to write about me, the whole me, the half Japanese and half American me who has broken bread with picky first graders and amateur gourmands alike. I want to write all of these experiences and more, but I am utterly convinced that these plated love letters are nowhere near close to ending. It feels futile to pick and choose, to harvest them now, still green as they are.

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