An American Story of the Asian Squat
Memorializing the power of the glute
Sitting on a stepping stool, I submerged my feet into the warm bath that my Po Po prepared for me. I gently tapped my feet creating ripples across the dishpan full of water. My Po Po took the kettle from the stove and lowered herself to the floor. Bending at her hips, knees, and ankles, she lowered herself into a perfect squat to pour water into the dishpan to bring it back to a heat. My feet wriggled in delight as the warm water gushed through my toes.
As a child, winters in New York City felt cold and joyless. With fickle heat and intermittent hot water in our tenement, the ritual of feet soaking in lieu of a hot shower brought warmth and comfort to many frigid nights. Poised in her squat stance, with heels firmly planted on the ground, my Po Po rubbed my feet and patted them dry. I stepped onto the towel laid out next to the dishpan and pattered off to see what mischief I could unearth before bed.
Rising seamlessly from her squat, my Po Po lifted the dishpan and emptied it into the sink. Like many Chinese immigrants, my Po Po represented the backbone of households built on unrewarded perseverance and the unassuming power of the glute.
The Asian squat is a deep squat performed by people in Asia. For practical and cultural reasons, people from Asian countries are raised to sit and do work in a squat position. As if always carrying your own locus of rest, squatting is a functional substitute to standing and when chairs are unavailable. Nowadays, although toilets are more common in households, public restrooms are still dominated by squat pans. For the Chinese, squatting is viewed as more sanitary due to the “lack of thigh-and-toilet-seat contact.”
Growing up, squatting was a way to perform various household activities — hand washing clothes, folding laundry, washing vegetables, and preparing food. Often, squatting was done conducting all aforementioned activities while adroitly perching a phone between the shoulder and a tilted head, with the phone chord coiled around the feet.
Never an idle minute in our household, watching television offered a perfect time to improve mobility, posture and lower body strength. One uncle used to stop in and squat through entire episodes of Hong Kong soap operas while munching on a bowl of sunflower seeds. As if his legs were made of springs, he would pop up and dart out the door, reinvigorated to return to work.
Requiring balance and strength, the Asian squat represents the resilience and routine of immigrant life in the United States.
Growing into my adolescence, I became conscious that the Asian squat may seem uncouth outside the Chinese household and community. When I brought two high school friends home to visit, a pang of embarrassment hit me when I saw my mother perched in a squat gilling a fish over a sea of newspapers sprawled on the floor. I hastened her to finish preparing the fish, hoisted her up, and hurried her to the kitchen counter.
Just when I thought that I had to explain to my friends why we host a fish market at home, they asked curiously — What’s for dinner?
Realizing that my fear of being seen as foreign was only in my head, I led them to the kitchen to check out what was cooking. Their watering mouths signaled my mom to invite them to stay for dinner, which they happily accepted. As I steered my friends to the living room, my mom plopped into a squat and unfurled more newspapers on the floor. From the corner of my eyes, I saw my mother washing the leafy green vegetables that were essential to every meal.
While my friends and I laughed and bantered, the sight of my mom crouching down to prepare us a meal seemed to blend into the mosaic backdrop of American life.
Stitching together the mural of my childhood memories, I walk by people in perfect squat pose in Chinatown. I see people squatting while reading newspapers and gossiping outside store fronts, taking a break, and waiting for their work commute. As I approach my tenement building on East Broadway, I see my Po Po waiting for me in a poised squat posture. She stands up, takes my book bag off my shoulders, and opens the door for me. I run into the dim hallway and dash up the stairs to catch Duck Tales.
As natural and effortless as breathing, the Asian squat has enriched this country as a driving force for balance and strength in immigrant families.
As if some Chinese archetypal spirit resides latently within me, I often find myself morphing into the silhouette of my mother and grandmother when I play with my son.
Whether I am playing car crash on the living room rug, piecing together a floor puzzle, or giving him a bath, I naturally descend into a squat as the optimal position that gives me strength and comfort. By remembering to align my hips, knees, and torso, the Asian squat enables me to center gravity so that I have better awareness and control over my mind and body.
Like a magnetic thread that bonds people across generations and oceans, the Asian squat remains a hallmark of building the American story, from behind the scenes.