I spent a majority of my life thinking that eating fish would make me smarter. That’s what my parents told me. We’d sit around the dinner table, a whole fish – only the scales were removed – in the center, its tail hanging over the edge of the plate limply. I hated eating fish that way, having to dig into the carcass with my chopsticks, and mincing it around with my tongue to make sure I wouldn’t choke on a bone. I didn’t understand it, why we had to make food a war zone, as if we were technicians in The Hurt Locker. White people don’t eat fish like this, why do we?
My parents were the best at the mincing, spitting the bones out left and right while I sat there mashing it into a paste in my mouth. By the end of the meal, the only thing left would be the spine, and my mom would drag it back to her plate to ‘finish’. She’d even poke out the eyes and suck them clean. You know those cultures you hear about where they don’t waste any part of the animal? I suppose my mom must’ve been raised like that.
One time a bone did get caught in my throat, poking the opposites sides just above my Adam’s apple. For those who don’t know the feeling, and I have no doubt that most Americans don’t, it’s exactly how you’d imagine it. It hurt to swallow as it would poke even harder. My parents had solutions that were supposedly tried and true. The first was to drink vinegar. Straight up. The acidity would dissolve enough of the bone to dislodge it, they told me. So there I sat at the table, drinking black vinegar.
Solution #2 was to eat plain white rice by the handful, as much as I could, the idea being the sheer amount would fill my throat and push the bone down. So there I sat at the dinner table, glass of Asian vinegar in one hand, bowl of rice in the other, alternating one then the other. Only thinking back on it now can I see how ridiculous that must’ve looked. Eventually it dislodged, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Things must’ve been different back when my parents were growing up. Food must’ve been different. They don’t mind working for it, from home, at the grocery store, behind the stove. Cracking open crab legs, peeling shrimp, maneuvering through fish bones. They can both crack open sunflower seeds like it’s nobody’s business; my mom even has a chip in her tooth from where she’s bitten them all open. For me, I won’t even go near Buffalo wings since they’re too much work; the drumsticks, I’ll consider.
My dad grew up on a farm in rural China, and during his childhood he never had enough meat to eat. Now he’s quite successful, to a point where I know middle-America hates us, and he can eat whatever he wants. But three years ago my sister and I went vegetarian. So even though he can provide as much chicken, beef, and pork as he wants, we won’t eat it. A true ‘back in my day’ story. That’s irony, something I have to take in pill form to get my daily value nowadays.
An odd thing my dad used to do was to humidify our rooms himself. When the weather would turn dry, he’d tuck us into bed, and then step into the bathroom and fill a mug with water. Then he’d take a sip and spit it into the air, like a whale blowhole. I don’t understand why he did this, or how effective it was. When I’d go into the bathroom and step on the carpet where he’d ‘humidified’, it would be damp. But hey, maybe it worked, I don’t remember. But I do remember him, the human sprinkler, a 40-year-old man who believed he could breathe water vapor. My sister has an actual humidifier in her dorm room at USC now.
The thing is, I love all the weird things they do. And even though it makes no sense, I want to be spitting in my kids’ rooms in the future and when they leave for college, only then will they realize how much of a weirdo I am. But those are just the traditions I’m aware of, what kind of unintentional ones will I pass on? I heard a story once of a woman who would drink water from her cup until just a bit was left, and then pour the rest down the drain. One day, her daughter asked her why she did this, and she realized didn’t know, but that her mom always did this as well. So she asked her mom why, and it turns out that it’s because when her grandma would drink tap water, there would always be some sediment that would settle on the bottom, which she’d then pour out at the end.
What would the equivalent be for people of my generation who don’t live in Flint, MI?
Daddy, why do you always shine your camera light on the food when it comes to the table? Well, sweetie, that’s because your dad used to have a very basic ex-girlfriend who needed to take ‘Insta-worthy’ pictures to share with all her friends, even if it was just an ice cream cone from Cold Stone Creamery.
Daddy, why do you always hesitate before going to the bathroom? Well, son, back in my day we only had two genders, not the six that you guys have now.
Daddy, why don’t you eat fish?
I would like to say that my sister Renee and I were equally loved by my parents. We shared a bedroom with a curtain drawn down the center until an embarrassing age, and we proved to provide the same amount of grief for my mother. We both destroyed the same amount of the house – two holes through the drywall, one for the each of us, and one joint Go-Gurt explosion– and so it goes to reason that we were just about treated the same in every way. It wasn't until my mother, age 45, began her mid-life crisis that resulted in a massive home renovation project, that I seriously began to question where the two of us stood.
A couple years back, when we first moved into the house we live in now, we had hired an illegal immigrant named Mario who did most of the interior work. The wood paneling, truly marvelous. When he was brought back this time around, my mother gushed, “Look! Your handiwork, you remember?” and swept her hand in a grand gesture as if introducing the president. A dark, squat Mexican man, Mario was best distinguished by his ponytail and navy baseball cap splattered in paint. He didn’t talk much, never asked for help, and for around 10 hours a day, worked relentlessly. He had nodded in affirmation, barely glancing at the polished floor that my mother had maintained meticulously, and waited for instructions for the job which Mom had brought him here for.
For about a month and half, Mario came in bright and early and started working while my sister and I were still sleeping, a daily reminder of how lazy and spoiled we were. He'd be lead around by mother who pointed at whatever she felt needed touching up or altering, stop only for a brief lunch, and then continue until the evening. I think my mother felt as though God had answered her home renovation prayers, the way they'd traipse off to The Home Depot or Lowe's with the two of us watching forlornly from the garage as they drove away in the Sienna. Occasionally she'd ask either of us what color we'd think this wall should be, or whether that towel rack should be higher or lower, only to dismiss us when she asked Mario for his opinion.
He became the child my mother always wanted but had never achieved in raising. Though she never said it, both Renee and I could hear her think, ‘Why can't you be more like Mario?’ We laughed about it together for the initial couple of days, but the threat of Mario taking over the position of most valuable child became serious soon enough. For about an hour after he left, she would stand around and admire the work he had completed: she'd stroke a baseboard, then stand back, hands akimbo, and stare at the immaculate paint job. In Mandarin, she'd jabber away after she had finished her daily admiration, ‘His work is so detailed. He pays so much attention to the small things.’
To make matters worse, his work was truly incontestable. He could paint a room in a day without covering the floor with newspaper, lift hulking boards of drywall, and caulk a bathroom like no other. The way Mom would talk about him you’d think he had scored 2400 on his SATs with a 4.0 GPA, gotten into Harvard, and then cured cancer. And if his home renovation prowess wasn’t enough, Mom also routinely brought up his appetite, how for all his work and his exertion, he didn’t eat much. ‘A whole workday and he only eats half a Chipotle burrito,’ she’d tell me and my sister, a precursor to the fat-shaming we now have to endure from her.
Mom would tell us stories about him, things that she’d learned while they were conversing at the hardware store or having lunch, and it’d always make him that much more impossible to hate. He hasn’t seen his family in 10 years but he wires money back to Mexico every week and calls them every day. He has a daughter who’s going off to college soon. He takes the bus around town – San Jose, CA, mind you – and bikes the rest. He pays taxes, with few of the benefits. He’s thinking of retiring soon and moving back. How could we hate him or be envious of him, especially after learning these details? It was a life full of hardship, something that my parents never gave me, with no regard for the stories I could’ve gotten out of the experience.
I moved to LA for college before he had finished working on our home, and my sister tells me he's now completed everything to a point worthy of the Playboy Mansion. I can only imagine my mother standing around inside the redone garage, eyes beaming with adoration, and waiting for a natural disaster to come so that she can call Mario again.
My first experience with horror movies was at a wildly inappropriate age, and even worse, at the behest of my mother. She had recently finished watching The Sixth Sense and urged me to watch it with her because she wanted to spread the wealth, I suppose. I’d tell her I wanted to go to sleep and she’d let me get up and go, but then I’d walk back to the living room, afraid of walking down the unlit hallway to my room alone. I thought she would’ve picked up on this (a mother's instinct?), but she would be so engrossed in the movie that I had to finish it too. I'd cower next to her, maybe grab her arm, and she'd shrug me off, 'I'm trying to watch the movie, stop bothering me!' And then she’d head off straight to bed and without a care in the world, leaving me hiding underneath my covers, afraid of having the lights on lest I see a ghost, and yet also afraid of having the lights off because who knows what creeps around in the dark.
I didn’t watch another horror movie again until freshman year of college. The entire floor in the lounge, playing icebreakers and whatever else the RAs had come up for us to bond. Somehow, beyond my comprehension, the activity of choice on the floor settled into horror movies, and it became a weekly event: a dozen of us sprawled in the lounge with the lights off, nervous and twitching. Looking back on it now, I can’t believe I was so desperate to fit in that I put myself through that. Thank goodness they didn’t all do cocaine in front of me, I can imagine the little white lines on the lounge table while everyone looks at me expectantly, ‘no peer pressure, Myles’.
I hated those horror movies, but I hated showering after watching them even more. I dreaded the walk in the dimly lit hall to the communal bathroom, and inside was worse as the building would turn off half the lights at night to save electricity. Sometimes this would happen while I was in the shower, spiking my heart rate to numbers that would set off Life Alert. As if the obligatory college vomit in the sink wasn't traumatizing enough. Once inside the shower stall, I'd strip down with the fervor of a nudist and press my back and ass cheeks against the icy tile wall as the water sprayed over me, defending myself from any attacks from behind. I also didn’t dare to close my eyes for longer than I needed to blink, should the girl from The Grudge should decide to drop in from the ceiling or crawl up from the gutter and strangle me. I'd shampoo with one hand, praying that the foam wouldn't get into my eyes, and the other would hold back the curtain to keep a lookout.
Years later, I know what's good for me and my blood pressure, thank you very much. I am done with horror – movies, books, whatever – not because I'm too mature for them, but because I know better, and isn't that really the same thing?