coming home for dinner

This piece was originally published in Migrant Zine Collective’s “Recipes for Resistance” in 2021. It has been republished here with the author’s permission. You can learn more about Migrant Zine Collective on their website https://migrantzinecollective.com/.

like most asian parents, mine expected me to stay at home for university. i did get a couple of scholarship offers in other cities, but they would’ve meant missing out on leftover claypot rice or hor fun for lunch every day, so i stayed. 

i was keeping a secret, though. at first, i was leaving the house just for classes and church; by the end of my first semester, i was “studying late” every evening on the couches at rainbow youth or the university’s queerspace, a six-striped flag (which i’d told my mom represented the rainbow over noah’s ark) sewn to the kmart leather jacket i basically never took off.

i kept a bag packed and ready to run. passed off my boxers and the occasional binder as sports gear for some inexplicable club, somehow knew that nobody at church who noticed my facebook name change would tell my parents about it. 

ultimately, my mistake was doing something they couldn’t ignore. i walked 4 km in the dark to meet the girl i would later marry, and snuck back in with my phone pressed to my ear. 

“you’re the best girlfriend,” i’d told her, thinking my parents were asleep. “i love you.”

the next day, mom pressed a thermos of bee hoon into my hands. “get in the car,” she said. “maybe your therapist can fix you.”

my therapist told me not to go back home. i never returned the container.

i could write a lot of things about the next few years, but none of them really matter. i was homeless for a bit, living off white bread and orange juice and trading my laptop for a place to crash; then, signing the lease on a derelict house not far from my parents’ with the girl i’d left them for, i thought about texting them. instead, i traded white bread for big ben pies from the dairy around the corner, and bought crates of expired indomie which made me desperately homesick for better food i used to know. 

the third time the hot water cylinder cut out, i picked up my phone. we brokered a deal, newly cautious around each other: i’d come over for dinner once a week, and i could have a proper shower.

we’ve kept that schedule for years. there’s been pauses here and there: my doctor putting me on a FODMAP diet, until my mom could figure out what that meant; the weeks surrounding my parents getting the invite to my wedding which they, as far as I know, discarded immediately; the week or two around my wife and I settling into our new shoebox of a flat (which had a much better shower). they still call her my flatmate.

since then, ADHD diagnosis and IBS and two separate precancer scares by 21 and PCOS with the accompanying insulin resistance, i wondered how much of my body’s malfunctions were my own fault and how many were flaws i’d inherited as surely as i’d gotten my father’s stubbornness. i dreamed and i felt my back bowing under the weight of the lies i’d let my family believe. FODMAP meant going to my parents’ and sitting at the table unable to eat onions or garlic or any of the basic, basic things we put in even the simplest midnight stir-fry, and that was a heavy weight, too. it sat between us at the table like all the things we were leaving unsaid.

it was my doctor who suggested the next change, too. “with everything you have going on,” she said carefully, “you should consider cutting sugar out, just for a while. gluten stays out. maybe go low-carb.” 

with all the dedication of the asian straight-a student i no longer was, i threw myself into research. this one, at least, seemed like it would be easier on my family, too.

predictably, all the stuff out there was by white people for white people. white americans, more specifically, who seemed to be inseparably devoted to “you can eat all the steak you want and lose weight” as the sole reason one might want to make such a fundamental dietary change. with no other starting point, that’s where i began, and where mum started with sharing me videos of pepperoni on melted cheese on nothing that looked like anything she’d ever made.

in some ways, though, the weekly dinners were my savior. as the years kept rolling, mum stopped borrowing keto cookbooks from the library; raiding the fridge every week, she’d see me polish off mapo tofu or rendang and realize i could have it, too. i’d finish up the tupperware container, put it in the dishwasher, and have new ideas for what i could do at home. 

we started sharing meals again, proper chopstick-swiping even if i had cauliflower instead of rice; eating out here and there with the ability to pass plates around like we used to. dad, hitting the maximum dose of metformin rapidly enough to scare himself out of complacency, learned moderation for the first time in his life. “the endocrinologist wanted to put me on it too,” i told him, and watched him watch me more thoughtfully at the next meal.

we reworked our weekly dinners, even if sometimes i did have to use yu yee oil afterward to help with cramps from more chili than my delicate gut could handle, and i reworked the rest of my life back around tofu and msg and black bean sauce and cooking sake and curry paste.

after all, the biggest draw of switching from FODMAP was that i could have onions and garlic back. getting the rest of my aromats back was a thrill. learning that i could replicate the glossy viscosity of an ah-pek shop stir-fry with konjac powder and the sweetness of teriyaki with erythritol made me the boldest i’ve ever been in the kitchen. the victories of finicky, perfected-to-the-half-gram low-carb baking paled in comparison to the joy of doing something i’ve known how to do for a long time: eyeball a dish, or my freezer, and throw together something profoundly delicious, that tastes like home.

my paatti still asks, the moment i’m passed the phone, if i’m “still not eating rice”. it’s a running joke, funny until i inevitably remember the last time she visited, when my thatha was still alive. dad had taken me aside, then.

“you cannot mention . . . anything to them,” he’d said. “when your uncle got divorced, your grandfather had a stroke. you’ll kill him.”

“no, still not eating rice.” i say, and she laughs, and dad, watching me tilt his phone for the best lighting, watches me with softness playing across his face. “what did you all have for dinner, then?” she always asks next, and we switch to the back-facing camera to show her. 

“indian and chinese and you don’t eat rice,” she muses. “hopefully you can still find a nice indian man to marry.”

from the corner of my eye, i can see my siblings tense.

“yeah,” i say. “indian and chinese and our family still makes the best food in the world,” i say. “work is busy,” i say, and don’t mention the sex work i still do on the side to pay my rent. “i don’t have the time to meet nice men,” i say. 

i wore a kurta in my wedding. watched my wife’s father walk her up the aisle. baby blue and silver trim, bought off trademe from a white woman who’d gotten it in india. when i’d stopped into the local sari shop to find bangles, every last attendant had straightened in horror when i’d said i was getting married the next day, and hadn’t thought about jewellery yet. surrounded by a flurry of sudden activity, hands being lotioned up for bangles and ears examined for the best of my six piercings to hold heavy, gilded drop earrings, i missed my paatti. wished so hard for jasmine wreathing my neck, like my little chinese mum had been gifted at her own wedding twenty years prior. smiled at my white in-laws and friends who had all protectively stepped in to help my siblings attend, to have my parent’s dance in their stead, to fill ang pao with little notes and spare change at the table we’d set up in lieu of asking for gifts. turned to my singaporean friend and their white partner, who we shared our humble double gay ceremony with, and saw the joy in their mother’s eyes. 

we went to yum cha, afterward. i thought about my little cousin, who i’d last seen five years prior, around a similarly rickety lazy-susan just out of kuala lumpur. “girls can like-like girls too?” she’d whispered, already aware her mother shouldn’t hear. 

“yeah, they can,” i’d murmured, and my mother had looked at me suspiciously from across the table and cleared her throat, and the moment was gone.

Featured photo courtesy of author.


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