When You Don’t Have An Appetite

I don’t have an appetite today and I don’t know why. Is it because of the melatonin pills I’ve taken these past two weeks for my insomnia? It could be. It is said online that melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in our body and taking a little won’t have any side effect on the body. Probably I just have some rare reaction to it–loss of appetite. I dislike any medicine or chemicals, like a typical Asian. I know many women who refuse even to take pain killer tablets for their menstruation pain. I am not going to such an extreme though.

So what can one eat when one doesn’t have an appetite. I can eat the grass jelly I bought from the store. I can’t remember which Asian grocery store I got it from. Am I losing my mind? I used to be able to remember which store I got which, but not anymore. The grass jelly will be the best if mixed with canned lychee, but I’m out of canned lychee.

I can make a tofu jelly with the agar powder I have, but that’s too complicated. I can’t believe how lazy I’ve become nowadays as far as cooking is concerned. My grandmother was practically living in the kitchen most of her life. Several years ago I went to a party at a friend’s friend house. She’s living with her husband and two sons at Bucks County, right at the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. When we arrived, she just pulled out a tray of baked chicken legs and wings out of the oven. By the way, she’s one of very few among Asian immigrants I know to utilize the oven. Most of us just use it as an extra storage space. Her sons and two or three other kids came over. She insisted that each put food on a paper plate. Minutes later, the tray was almost empty. And the kids ran away. Suddenly the hostess said to us out of blue, “I cook all the time, but still not enough. Look the tray is empty again.” We stared at her and my friend W said, “What do you expect? Your two boys. They can finish everything in sight.” Somehow I sensed that the hostess and W were talking about different things. The hostess was talking about herself. There’s ennui in her tone. Obviously she doesn’t really enjoy cooking but found herself spending so much time on it. W was talking about the healthiness and the activeness of the boys. W’s tone really means she’s trying to praise the boys and hiding her praise behind a faint complaint. However W’s compliment missed the point. Sometimes we lose real chance of communication, just like this one.

I poured a big glass of soy milk and toasted a slice of cinnamon raisin bread. Now I can’t help dreaming of all those delicious things my grandmother cooked–bamboo shoots braised with pork belly, dried fish simmered in a pot of soup with mutton and potatoes. I am going to write a story of an immigrant who’s dying for a childhood dish her mother had cooked, but couldn’t reproduce it.

A Mini Love Story

G is my distant cousin and he is always considered, by my parents and my relatives, to be the most intelligent and most unfortunate among all my cousins. His life started well–a cute kid, indulged by his parents, growing up to be a handsome teenager. He’s half Mongolian, just like me, but he looks more Mongolian than anybody else in my family, the very handsome kind of Mongolian. Actually Mongolians are not as homogeneous as we tend to think. They come from many different tribes scattered among a vast area and people have quite diverse physical features–some are short and some very tall, some with thick black hair and some with soft thin kind. G is the best looking boy. He’s also talkative and gregarious. Everybody loves him. If he’s not my cousin and if he’s my age group, I would have fallen in love with him.

When he’s about 15 years old, due to political reasons, he was sent to a remote area at the border of China, Russia, and North Korea. Nobody could save him from his fate. He went and stayed there for 20 years. Actually among the same group of young men who were sent to the region, he’s the last to leave. I don’t really know the particulars, but I suspect that G refused to bribe the officials, either on moral ground or economic ground. From my observation, he is rather high minded and also very stingy, both working against him for the purpose of an early return. My parents always insisted that G is too intelligent for his own good. He doesn’t go with the flow as others do, and he ends up making himself conspicuous, usually in a bad way.

When G came back to the big city, he was so unskilled and so uneducated that he couldn’t get a job. His mother had to quit her job so that G could replace her. It’s a low level clerk job, but it is a good job in a convenient location. If G could keep his mouth shut and behave well, promotion was very possible.

Now everybody started to introduce girls to him. His parents–my aunt and uncle–were very anxious to see their only son settle down as soon as possible. They saved for him for decades. He also had his own savings. The only thing lacking was a wife. But he’s difficult. My parents said again he’s just too intelligent and his aim too high. His intelligence obviously works against him again–especially in the marriage market. He’s 35, with no marketable skills. What could he expect? Just like what my parents said, G rejected all the girls people introduced to him.

Then one day he came home with a girl, X, who’s almost as tall as him, almost as old as him. She’s quite nice and elegant, working in a place very close to G. On closer inspection through a deliberately prolonged dinner, my aunt and uncle found that X is actually from a different ethnic group. I won’t name this ethnic group since my relatives have strong prejudice against this group and often criticize this group. Now I realize how prejudiced my relatives were. At the time I followed their example as if that’s the only valid opinion in the world. Everybody was against this marriage. My parents were called upon to denounce this girl and they did.

The wedding eventually happened despite all the objections. I think the reason G likes X is that X loves theater as much as G. They like plays, movies, operas of various kinds. Not that they had so much money to spend on these, but in those days everything was broadcast on TV and they watched everything and discussed it endlessly afterwards. It’s a Mongolian tradition to love theater. I guess everybody living in the far north with long winters would eventually develop a penchant for theater. There’s no entertainment available in winter except watching people dressing up and posing as fictional characters.

Soon after the wedding, their married life became a common topic circulated among the relatives. My parents couldn’t go visit them since they were not welcomed anymore due to their strong objection to the marriage. However, my parents talked with my uncle and my aunt to get all the details. The newly weds were waiting to get their own place, but while waiting, they lived with my uncle and aunt.

First X had a bad eating habit. My uncle and aunt whispered to my father, who related it to my mother at our dinner table. X didn’t eat formal meals, only snacking here and there throughout the whole day. My cousin G didn’t mind this at all since his mother always cooked. G had his meal with his parents while his wife X was either coming home late or finding some excuses to go talk with neighbors. My uncle and aunt considered this as a serious breach of long-held tradition. Also X didn’t cook and had no intention of cooking for the family as a good daughter-in-law should have done. My parents discussed this piece of information and attributed X’s habit and her non-filial attitude to his ethnic background. She’s just not as civilized as us, which was the reason she couldn’t get herself married until she’s 35 when my unfortunate cousin came calling. My parents concluded.

My uncle and aunt wanted to exert their authority and train their daughter-in-law into a “civilized” being. At this time, both my uncle and aunt had retired. They could have an early dinner themselves without having any food left for G, which they thought could force X to cook for G. They devised this plan. One day, when G came back home and found no food on the table. G asked his wife X to cook something. X just came back from work and was having a cookie. She offered him some. G declined and insisted on some cooked food. “Why don’t you go out to the corner restaurant to get a bowl of noodle?” X said. G agreed and went out. This went on for three days and eventually my cousin G threw a tantrum. X treated him as if he’s an incorrigible teenager and brushed him aside. She stepped out to go talk with the neighbors–it’s part of her indispensable entertainment that she talked with neighbors.

My cousin G and his wife X end up having a better relationship than my own parents, or my uncle and aunt. G’s macho outbursts usually have no effect on X, probably because of the cultural difference between the two. I always wanted to tell my parents that I like X, but I never dared.

A Mild Heartbreak

I am not really nursing a broken heart, but I am trying to use the word “heart” and “break” in the title, like Shaw’s “Hearbreak House” or Wallace’s essay on a tennis star who broke his heart–I can’t remember the exact title or the star’s name. Too lazy to look it up.

My heartbreak is very minor, probably just a little crack at the edge of the heart muscle on my failed attempt to make my own tofu. Another attempt and another failure. I am a victim of videos of unbelievably capable women who pour their artistic talent and limitless energy on things traditional women like my grandmother would do–tidying up, cooking etc., like Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, Dianxi Xiaoge, Liziqi.

Last year, I spent a week to completely reorganize my closet, learn new way of folding shirts and pants, throw away clothes, draw diagrams of new furniture arrangement, take down books from the shelf which I thought would never be read. It’s all because of the Netflix documentary of the Japanese tidying expert. After that crazy week, my life slowly crept back to what it had been before. I am by nature not a messy person. The only thing I ever hoard is my own writing–no matter how bad it is, I never have the heart to throw it away. However I also don’t have the passion for cleanness or tidiness or a life of aesthetic surroundings. Marie Kondo is an ideal I can’t live up to. Same with beauty standard and many other acknowledged virtues, which all women aspire to.

After watching several videos of homemade tofu from the pretty ladies living in Sichuan and Yunnan, I want to make tofu again. To lazy to do it from scratch, I start with soy powder. After getting the water boiled, I have a difficult time with the soy powder since they are all clogged up together. And it’s in boiling water and my hands can’t go in unless I am a heat resistant robot. Finally with the help of a mesh strainer, I manage to coax all the flower into the pot without chunks floating. By this time, my enthusiasm has waned. I start to think why I am doing what I am doing. What’s the point? Isn’t it a waste of time? If I had not wasted my life away with useless activities, I could have become … If Margaret Atwood is too much to wish for, at least I can write better than Somerset Maugham. Am I too shameless to say that? I can write about Asian people more authentically than Maugham. That’s for sure.

Finally, in a fit of self doubts and frustration, I throw some agar into the boiling soy milk. Making soy jelly is so much easier than making tofu.

Well, be careful of what we aspire to.