Snails in Little Saigon

*Hey Friends: This is not a restaurant or food review at all. I love that it gave me an experience that was fun to write about! The authentic snail meal, ăn ốc, sounds delicious.

Last week we had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in our city’s Little Saigon known for its snails and shellfish. This great blogpost tells me that it’s a nationally beloved social meal in Vietnam. The restaurant’s Yelp photos boasted greasy shimmery shells, fleshy clams and generous toppings of chili, garlic, cilantro, peanuts and green onion, and we got excited for our foodie adventure.

It’s okay for the real thing to look slightly less appealing than the photos; that happens to all of us. But the blood clams arrived in a grayish hue that made me think of nothing better than a dead vampire’s skin, which is not quite a color I find appetizing. I kind of looked away and slurped one into my mouth. Then I tried a second to be sure: Each one suggested hope but ended in regret. Instead of evoking the ocean, I thought of wet mud (which to my dismay may be the snails’ true and rightful place of origin). Even the peanuts in the topping tasted like old Tupperware.

I don’t think our party of five had ever been this quiet during a meal. I think we were all baffled by the divide between ours and other diners’ merry experience. My mother-in-law didn’t even complain much. Though if she did, we wouldn’t argue with her this time.

That night I missed my mom. Not because she cooks great seafood, or any food for that matter. But for many years she worked near the source of all the freshest seafood in Hong Kong: Sai Kung. Funnily enough, Sai Kung in Cantonese sounds just like Saigon. And I just learned that it is written with the same Chinese characters (西貢)used by the Vietnamese in their former writing system.

short story: once upon an anger

Foreword:
In February I visited the Big Island of Hawaii and was awestruck by the volcanoes and lava fields. A few weeks ago I spent a few days reinventing the story of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcano, as an exercise to reinterpret my story and relationship with my mother-in-law. When I finished writing, I was told the Kilauea volcano, legendary home to Pele, had been erupting that whole week!

 

Once Upon an Anger

When Pele became her family, Namaka lost her home as she knew it. Pele, young goddess of fire who was unaware of her own power, flung a spark that landed on Namaka’s face. Namaka, goddess of water, was the older, most powerful, most respected and feared in the family. Insulted, she almost drowned Pele in her fury.

That was how Pele too lost her home, the one she dreamed of having.

The rest of the family coaxed Pele to calm down and learn from her mistake. Alone, wounded and hopeless, it seemed that if Pele was to live happily at all, there was only one way: Namaka’s way. Strong-willed and guilt-ridden Pele took a bucket of the ocean and poured it over her head. Whenever she felt feisty, she’d drench herself with another bucket.

But it didn’t work for long. Pele started to notice smoke escaping her nostrils. She felt lava behind her eyes. She feared what might happen if she opened her mouth.

One day finally Pele slipped. She gave her true opinion on something. If this was a happy and a healthy family, she should be allowed to express herself too. Namaka, though kind and generous in her ways, could not stand being challenged. When Pele’s little flame snaked its way towards her, she met it with a wave. Not a gentle wave of her hand, but an ocean’s wave. Pele shook in her anger and burst into flame. She pushed right up against Namaka’s water wall. Namaka sweated in Pele’s heat. Pele pulled away, frightened by her own uncontrollable temper.

Pele ran to a small cliff. She stood there, shaking. How odd for the world to seem so quiet while on the inside she burned like a planet on fire. The rocks began to melt under her feet. Lava trickled down the cliff like the blood from her forehead. She closed her eyes to go inside. She had tried so hard to kill her fire, and now she was more powerful than she knew. She didn’t know that every effort to put out her fire was energy that fed her fire. All the anger, hurt and self-denial was energy that fed her fire.

For the first time ever, Pele was glad that she still had the fire in her. She had never felt safer and freer to learn that nobody, least of all herself, had the power to extinguish her.

Instead of returning to her family, Pele walked. When she came upon a clearing, she melted the ground into a large crater and climbed in. Family can come as they wish. She can go to them as she wishes. But this will be her home within the home. Inside the Kilauea volcano, Pele can be as powerful as she wants.

sushi that saved my anniversary

A rock sat on my chest for days leading up to the 7th anniversary of my marriage. I was in no mood to celebrate it and was half afraid he’d find out. As with a couple of Valentine’s Day ago, I might use it as a chance to discuss what’s going on, or what’s not going on, in our marriage.

He took my hand as we walked towards the restaurant. “Are you excited?” he asked. We were going to Shiro’s, the best sushi place in town, allegedly founded by an apprentice of Japan’s most renowned sushi chef, Jiro Ono, the one featured in the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”.

“Are you excited?” he asked.
I pursed my lips.
“You’re not happy, are you?”
I shrugged, and we crossed the street.

We asked for Omakase, the “chef’s selection” style where we sit at the bar in front of the chef, who will serve you whatever they make. Shiro’s Omakase is “open ended”, which meant that instead of having a fixed number of sushi, you may ask to stop whenever you’re full. Or, in our case, keep going until you’ve finally had enough. It’s not an “all you can eat”, mind you. You’re charged for every piece.

Out of a sense of respect I didn’t take any pictures of the two albacore nigiris that started our meal. But the next sushi was a translucent fish that resembled a piece of white jade. The desire to capture that beauty overcame my shyness with the camera.

“Happy anniversary!” husband said.
“Yes,” I smiled and nodded.
“As you were saying, you’re not happy?”
I was surprised he’d follow up. But yes that was something I wanted to get into.

“Well, you know, we don’t really talk to each other any more. When we do it’s always practical and functional. We barely talked to each other over the weekend even though we were together.”
“And because of our little one too,” he added.
“Yes. We don’t have anything in common, we want our alone time and then we don’t have time for each other. We don’t do anything together.”

That was as far as I got. As it turned out, you can’t complain about your marriage when you’re grinning from ear to ear, because you’re tasting sushi that’s unlike anything you’ve ever dreamed of. Fish gently draped over rice that melt in your mouth. Blue fin tuna that looks familiar enough, but makes you question if all the tuna you’ve had before had been injected with gelatin. I am ready to never eat sushi anywhere else ever again.

As husband’s eyes beamed yet again with surprise and wonder at the I don’t know what fish, and I’m involuntarily swaying left and right like a flower being visited by fairies, I realized that we were doing something together right now. We were having a first-in-a-lifetime experience together. There’s something to be said about that.

your door, my door

Just like a lot of you, I live with people, and I find living with people is hard. One day I was really brooding over a certain bedroom door, wishing it was a wall, and blaming it for just about every problem I have. Because when you get upset over people, you tend to think the people are causing you upset.

And then the door talked back,

“There’s no way you can keep me closed, because I serve only the people who live behind me. We are of no real threat to you but you think we’re an intruder. And sadly, when you keep your eyes fixed on me, you nail your heart with fear.

But look, and remember, I have a twin just across the hall. Her name is Your Door. You are free to open and close it whenever you need, whenever you want. That’s the boundary that you can control.

We all live together, I know you wish things were different. But you’re OK, because you have a door. You don’t have to let anyone or anything in that you didn’t want, even if they ask. And you are free to let anyone or anything out. You didn’t know you could, did you? You thought it would be rude, and that’s kind of why you thought you have intruders in the house.

So now I’d like to ask you to stop giving me your evil look and angry vibes, and just see and trust that you have a door, your own boundary, and it’s been here all along for you to use and control.”

And then.

A few days after that door talked to me, I’m standing at its threshold. I’m being greeted at the door to hand over something I’m bringing. When I did, I had a flashback. I saw myself barging in very self-righteously. I can understand it but I am sorry now to recall that I had stood in the middle of that room that isn’t mine, and thought that being asked to leave my thing at the door, as opposed to bringing it into the room, was a violation of my boundaries.

life in a cupboard

My daughter points to the corner of an apron trapped by the closed door. The apron is one of the few items that belong to me in that pantry cupboard that is packed from ceiling to floor. This cupboard is the magic on the fingertips of my mother-in-law. Mysterious and potent herbs casually filling up jars with their now lying mayonnaise or mustard labels. Jars of calories that I had bought, I noted, now seem to mock me with their bellyful of healthful ingredients that I’ll never know the names and uses of. They stand there unassumingly as a symbol of a traditional Chinese mother’s cooking, a feminine power far superior than my tinned tomatoes, brownie mixes and that still-brand-new, full-color hardback Chinese cookbook written by a Chinese-American I bought a couple years back, which I’d started to pretend isn’t even mine.

The other half of the cupboard is the hospice for empty jars and boxes. My father-in-law likes clear surfaces, but won’t leave storage spaces as spaces. For him, filling spaces with something, anything with an illusion of being useful such as the worry that we’ll need a seventeenth plastic yoghurt tub, is better. As if junk is harmless.

I thought this was the battleground I lost because I neither have a lot of cooking ingredients, nor a habit to hoard. When I open the door to tuck the apron back, my daughter goes in and start moving things to the floor, doing whatever pleases her toddler’s heart. She is the person with no cooking skill and who takes up the least physical space. Yet, she is at home and I’m not. Now I see that even though none of the jars, cans, boxes or cookbooks belong to her, and maybe because none of the values, habits and traditions are weighing on her, she’s having fun. That fun is hers. That freedom is hers. Now I know that I’ve had my head stuck in a narrow cupboard that has little to do with me, and now I can stop trying to squeeze myself inside it. Because there’s a whole lot more space and a whole lot other things that I can get myself into. Or not. It will be my choice. It will be how I make myself at home.

like it came from nowhere

Coconut cream body wash splattered over her palm ungracefully like it dropped from a bird. She added some peach shower gel and rubbed the mixture over her body as quickly as she could. The goal was to leave as little time as possible for it to stay on her skin and for her mind to be skeptical and feel disturbed by the act. As soon as she realizes her mind already does both and this is a daily occurrence, she found it absurd to perpetuate. She thought, what if someone is using this for the first time? Someone who has never used a body wash. Someone who has not bathed for days and weeks. The peach gel works up a great lather and covers her body with bubbles. Just in that moment she felt like a young woman taking a hot shower in a nice house with a foaming, fragrant body wash for the first time, and she was overcame with joy for the luxury.

xxx

Right at her desk, leaned back in her chair, she slipped into the music in her ears. The half-written email can wait. Music circulates her body, waking up her muscles, which she used to enliven her joints. Right there in her chair, she lifted her knees, circled her head, arched her back, and took long breaths. That was easier to do with the music concealing her breathing sound from herself. Take another few seconds, and another few, because she felt such relaxation and joy, with not a care in the world. In the middle of a work day in the middle of an email, the music, the moving and the breathing carried her to her home within herself.