Have You Eaten?
I didn’t like plain, white rice as a child.
It really wouldn’t be any kind of a deal, if not for the fact that I’m an Asian person. Being a first generation Asian Australian, rice, like most other Asians growing up in diaspora, was a staple food in my childhood. It’s hard to overstate the importance of rice to an Asian person in diaspora as a symbol of culture, food, language and all those other Immigrant Family Buzzwords but, when I was a child, rice was also the key to the parts of my Asian self I desperately wanted to cut out of me.
Rice was there in childhood dinner table conversations about familial disapproval of my clothes, my choices, my grades and my discomfort with Respecting Elders. My grandparents would insist that I finish the rice in my bowl every night at dinner, saying things like “your future husband is going to have as many moles on his face as the grains of rice you leave in your bowl”. Rice was pushed on me in the middle of words about my weight and my worth, spoken without malice but landing in ways that cut me nonetheless.
As an adult, I've come to realise that it is all too common for families like my own to only ever open up the possibility of conversation over a dinner table. It’s taken many years to even begin to understand how and why the adults in my childhood couldn’t reach out emotionally beyond the shroud of their own understandings of what I needed from them, in the haze of immigrant survival mode.
Some family dinners would be eaten in silence, uncomfortably. Everything would be delicious. Everything would taste like cardboard. Rice was there for that, too.
When I first moved to live away from my grandparents, I spent years choosing noodles over rice. Noodles were safe, somehow. Noodles were for celebrations, for birthdays and new years, for when my grandparents and I got along and I could request different foods for dinner, for happiness at the dinner table. When I first moved out of my grandparents’ apartment, they would call often.
In Chinese, asking How Are You? translates quite literally to Have You Eaten Rice Yet?, which irritated the petty 18 year old version of me in the midst of that rice rebellion. I started each phone call with my grandparents irritably, unable to escape the clutches of the rice I spent my childhood hating.
8 years on, with at least 2 years of active attempts to understand my childhood and immigrant family dynamics, I’ve come to understand and slowly accept that Have You Eaten Rice Yet? is a subtle and indirect way of saying all kinds of things. Sometimes people with similar childhood experiences as me get together and talk about those subtleties online, and in these discussions we’ve worked out that Have You Eaten Rice Yet? is a family member’s way of telling us, first generation Asian Australians, that
I Love You
I Hope You’re Doing Well
I Care About You
Please Take Care Of Yourself
There’s no way to truly bridge the gap between the discomforts of age, culture and tangible topics like philosophy and politics in families for us third culture kids, but we can always strive to better understand what it is that we are resisting, and whether or not it’s useful for our own emotional wellbeing, sense of self and sense of belonging.
The journey of my personal rice rebellion lasted about 8 years. I will always have more to work and think through, but I can at least enjoy eating rice again.