Mother is trying to starve me for not inheriting her skinny genes. I know it. The way she stays in the kitchen after our early dinners to block off the snacks in the kitchen. The way she has replaced the chocolates in the tin box with tea. I’m not quite that big, but in comparison to her breadstick qualities, I am a block of butter. When Mother and Father picked me up after the lottery, I didn’t know what to expect.
Life before the lottery was not anything special; in fact, I don’t remember much of it. It was like waiting for a meal. When it finally showed up, I was too excited for words; that is, until I actually had a meal with them.
I was in knots with my luck when I first met them. When I arrive in their home, I am in even more shock. Their home is large and full of squeaky furniture. We go to the kitchen, and I shake in my chair, causing wailing sounds that emulate the cries of my stomach.
“What is this?” are the first words that came out of my mouth. No hello. No my name is. In front of me now is a dark green soup with tinges of violet filled with black eyed peas. I pull harder than I expected to separate the green strands from each other, each reminding me of the wet spitballs the children used to blow at me.
“It’s soup, mui. It’s good for you” Mother’s smile is tight and shows no teeth. She looks at me for a moment too long. Father at this point has already started eating, if you can call it that. He really is just slurping and swallowing loudly, hardly making that up and down motion teeth oh so often do.
I hold onto the spoon, but make no effort to ingest this concoction.
We stare at each other for a while until she says, “You can’t go until you finish.” She starts eating and tilts her head down to look back at the bowl.
“No” I whisper.
“Then I guess you’re staying here the whole night.”
“You’re not my mother” The slurping noises stop for a moment. Mother drops her spoon and stares not quite at my face. She picks up her bowl and walks off to the kitchen.
“Elena, please don’t talk to her like that” Father finishes eating.
“But it’s true. She’s not my mother and you’re not my father.”
“Yes, that may be true, but it’s rude to say that when all she wanted for you was to eat something she made. Ok?” He’s looking for my eyes, but I can’t stare at him straight.
“Ok” I push away all the different textures to one side of the bowl and pick it up. The first sip is still warm and slides down into my stomach smoothly. Each sip adding onto a warmth I want to keep in my body.
I wanted to ask how long the lottery had been in place while I was staying at the kids’ home. But there were hardly any adults. One came to announce meals that were set on tables in the next room. One came to announce a wake-up call or curfew. But we were never really alone because on the corners of each large room were the cameras to ensure order. What could have been chaotic when we had no toys? Only each other and books.
There was only one instance in all my thirteen years there. A new boy arrived. He must have been about my age, maybe a little younger. He started ripping off pages of books and throwing them around. One came to try to calm him down, but he threw a whole book at her. It took three of them to successfully take him away.
A couple days go by and it becomes obvious Mother and I are going to have a hard time. Mother keeps making unappealing looking food. After the night of the weird soup, she makes pig feet stew. It’s unnaturally brown and there’s hardly any meat. Father and Mother make the same slurping sounds, while sucking on the bone. Again, I try to avoid eating it and Mother does not say anything. After she leaves, Father sneaks into the kitchen and comes out with pizza rolls.
During my stay in the home, the rules were repeated to us and we repeated them back like the pledge of allegiance every morning. It was a pledge to be the child our new parents want in return for their love and protection.
Father let me sit in front for our first road trip. I put the window down all the way, blowing not only my hair everywhere, but also Mother’s. She sat in the back with her big black sunglasses. I’d like to believe that each time my hair whipped around wildly, the wind blew my dandruff at her face. The little particles causing some sort of small unforeseen hit on her body.
The first place we go to is Chinatown. Small red lanterns hang beneath the telephone poles. It is crowded; people are walking at my left and right bumping shoulders with me each step I take towards the markets. Every couple of moments, there’s that throaty sound of someone trying to summon up whatever waste their mouth had produced and bring it out to the streets for everyone to see. Mother stops at different stores even though it looks like every store has the same produce. She picks up items I’ve never seen before: pink fruits with tentacle-like leaves sticking in all sorts of directions, a silent, live chicken in a brown paper bag, different stalks of leaves, and wrinkly green melons.
The meals I had at the home were simple and plain: cheerios, oatmeal, fruit salads, PB&J sandwiches, chicken Caesar salads, spaghetti and meatballs, grilled cheeses, and meatloaves. Nothing was salted. Everything ended up tasting the same after staying there for two weeks. Holidays were a treat and the only times we deviated from the weekly menu. This simple diet was supposed to make us appreciate the foods we would eat in our new homes, but seeing what Mother bought made me want to go back.
After we buy the groceries, we go to Grandmother’s house. She lives in a more residential area of the city. There are two gates to go inside and after the first gate, a bunch of incense sits in a cup that is lit up in front of a picture of a man who I presumed to be her husband. Two rotting oranges are sitting in front of the picture. Grandmother greets me with caution; she comes up to me as if she’s about to give me a hug, but stops herself and decides to pat my arm instead.
“Wow, she needs to be fed Diana. The lottery gave you a skinny girl” Grandmother gives me a look over.
“No, Ma. She hasn’t been eating anything. We found her all plumped up from the home, but she refuses to eat anything I make. If it weren’t for Jay here feeding her frozen snacks” She glances over at her husband. He’s wandering around the living room looking at all the plants.
“Well, maybe I need to teach you how to make food again.” Grandmother is smiling, but Mother rolls her eyes. Grandmother looks at me straight in the eyes as she’s speaking to Mother, “Don’t worry. Tonight, she’ll be eating”
Grandmother kicks Mother out of the kitchen and tells me to come watch her. She works fast. I’ll never forget the way she prepared the chicken. She let the chicken out of the paper bag to walk around the kitchen while she worked. She cuts open the wrinkly melon and slices it almost as thin as a page of a book. She picks out the leaves one by one from the long stalks, examining the front and back of each one before thoroughly washing them. She peels back all the pink tentacles of a fruit to reveal a smooth violet ball and cuts it into smaller chunks. She puts the fruit in the fridge.
“You’ll like this. It’s really expensive,” she says.
“What is it?” I’m staring at the chicken.
“It’s called fo lung gwo. Dragon fruit. Very good for you.” She picks up the chicken, grabbing both legs and hanging it upside down. “This next part, you might not want to see.”
My body freezes, but I can’t look away. She takes the chicken over to the sink where she grabs her knife. As the chicken thrashes upside down in her hands, she calls for Mother to come quick.
“Hold her down for me,” Mother holds onto the body to keep it still. Grandmother makes a cut below the neck and red liquid spews out like a water fountain. Mother moves to the stove to lift the lid off a pot of boiling water. After the blood stops coming out, grandmother dips the chicken into the pot and turns off the stove. She leaves it there for a long minute before taking the whole pot towards the sink to dump out the water. With nimble hands, Grandmother and Mother work to pluck out the feathers, not wavering even once at the steam blowing at their faces. There were all sort of smells, all of which caused me to hold the neck of my shirt over my face. Grandmother takes out all the guts and stuffs green onions and ginger into the chicken. It wasn’t safe to breathe until the whole chicken was placed to steam inside a large wok.
My only job is to set up the dinner table. Grandmother insists on using the dining room instead of the small table in the kitchen, saying that it was a special occasion. I set out four napkins, three pairs of chopsticks and one fork. Different dishes are placed in the center of the table, the steamed chicken accompanied by a sauce bowl of a soy sauce ginger mixture, fried vegetables with garlic, and fried pieces of the wrinkly melon with eggs. I’m about to reach for the chicken, but Mother gives me a look.
“In our family, all the children have to call the elders first. You can either say everybody eat or call each member according to the age. I’ll show you.” Mother looks over at Grandmother, “Mami sik.”
“Sik means to eat,” Father says.
There’s a pause and all eyes are on me.
“Grandmother sick,” I say.
“It’s not ‘sick’ like being ill. It’s sik. Do you hear the difference?” Mother asks.
“It’s ok. You’ll get it later, mui,” Father says.
We start to eat. I take a piece of the chicken. It is moist and the meat easily comes off the bone. I see everyone dip the chicken into the sauce and I imitate. The sauce is my new favorite thing. It makes the chicken taste so much better; it’s on the verge of being salty but the subtle taste of ginger balances everything out. I rotate between eating the chicken and rice, but it is hard picking up the rice with my fork. Mother grabs the different vegetables and puts it in my bowl. They don’t really tastes like vegetables until I eat a large piece of the melon. My mouth puckers from the bitterness and it breaks my eating rhythm.
“That’s bitter melon” Go figure.
I eat until I’m about to burst. After everyone has finished eating, Grandmother goes back towards the fridge and takes out the pink fruit. Everyone is eating it except for me and Mother notices.
“Mui, don’t you want to try it? Grandmother worked so hard to prepare everything.”
“I’m just so full” I look around, anywhere and everywhere but at the dinner table.
“Come on, try a piece or two. It’s really good for you” Grandmother pushes the bowl closer to me.
I give a tight smile back at them. If Grandmother wasn’t here, it’d be a repeat of the previous meals and I wouldn’t even think to eat it. I reach for a piece with a toothpick stuck on it. I look at it as carefully as Grandmother had with the vegetables. The deep pink violet chunks look diseased with chicken pox. Small black seeds mark up the fruit. I close my eyes and I chew on it as if I had something too hot in my mouth. My mouth is wide open as I chew and the food is barely touching any part of my mouth. I feel saliva I was unable to hold back droop slowly down my chin. The drop lands on my napkin, staining it violet. I try to smile, but my cheeks feel really hot. Everyone has stopped eating and is staring at me. I probably look like a child with a bloody mouth. It probably would have been easier for someone to punch me in the face than to watch me eat how I did.
“Where did you learn how to eat like that mui?” Father asks.
Mother’s eyes are wide open and her posture is stiff.
There’s a moment of silence before Grandmother starts laughing loudly. “I know” She looks over at Mother then back at me. “Your mother used to eat like that whenever I told her to eat something she didn’t like. Are you sure she’s from the lottery?” Grandmother is still laughing.
Emily Hoang is currently a graduate student, pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing, at the University of San Francisco.