My mom is a wonderful chef. Being a Chinese living in Malaysia, she had a quite a diverse repertoire. When she craved something from Indonesia, the country of her birth, she would replicate it in her own kitchen. Rendang and tempe and baso were our common meals. She even made Western fares like yogurt and pizza — from scratch. She raised us with feasts from around the world. We were not deprived of options.
Yet, in the quiet stillness of my home, when all my children are asleep, I crave my mother's humblest dish — rice and (Chinese) Spam.
The year I turned 10, my parents brought all of us to Iowa to pursue their education. Friends and relatives in Malaysia thought they were insane. How would they manage such a financial feat (among other challenges)? But they did. They were certain that if something was worth pursuing, we would pursue it together as a family.
During the summer between his first and second year, my father was offered a job as a interim pastor in San Francisco. My parents packed all of us into the backseats of an old Buick (that they bought for $650), and took us on a five-day journey across America. Crammed together like a can of sardines, there was no wiggle room to scratch the chicken pox that covered us from head to toe.
My mom brought her tiny rice cooker with her. Each night, after we checked ourselves into a motel room, she plugged in the rice cooker, threw in some rice, water, and canned meat, and let the magic happen. As she bathed us and turned us into four spotted monsters dotted with anti-itch lotion, we would smell the fatty and familiar aroma of meat and rice.
We gathered around the rice cooker as my mother lifted its lid. Steam rose and filled the motel room. I can still feel my sisters wiggling next to me, our voices chattering with excitement as we watched our mother's steady hand scooping out the feast that was about to come. In that moment, there was very little else in the world that I desired more than my very own bowl of sticky rice, and a piece of that glistening, salty meat.
Just the other day, one of my boys burst into tears when he realized that his brother was no longer in the room with him. We do not allow unreasonable outbursts in our home. Yet, I understood his grief.
This Christmas, there is too much room, too much land, too many oceans between me and my sisters and my parents. If I could burst into tears at the distance that separates us, I would. So, I hold on all the more to my flesh and bones that I do have with me.
I guess I am not craving rice and Chinese Spam after all. I think I am just missing my people. I miss being pressed together, watching steam rising from the feast that is to come. I miss having no room between us.
Merry Christmas, world.