Hunger is Inherited

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By Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon

I love cooking, but cooking with my grandmother is terrifying.

I’ve crossed the world to sit with her,
hoping that she’ll spill kitchen secrets of
black-beans, cornstarch, soy sauce
brought to a boil, and thickened.

But instead I learn to be thick-skinned
how to thicken my skin so that her words will not hurt me.

Her skin now is paper-thin, blue veins raised like remnants
of the Great Wall, and I wonder if the great wall of her
stubborness will ever fall.
She falls more often now, has broken both hips, hit
her head, the arches of feet that once squatted
in the streets
selling vegetables,
bok choy, gai lan, choy sum,
her feet no longer hold her.

But she is stubborn. And fear of falling is nothing
compared to the fear of failing to feed one’s family.
See, she still remembers hunger.

Now, she gets up to go into the kitchen, and I follow
hoping I’ll find kumquats preserved in salt after the new year
hoping I’ll find secret maps
tattooed onto the backs
of my hands that will let me criss-cross checkpoints and bypass borders
trading secrets for spices and spices for seeds…

But the kitchen is small, and I’m too tall.
I don’t know how to hold a knife, or how much
rice to cook for two. I don’t know the names of vegetables.
So she tells me to, “Get out of the way!”

And from the sidelines, I watch her
rinse rice
slice wintermelon
heat peanut oil in wok
criss-cross green onions and ginger
across fish belly.

My belly has never known hunger.
Yet, I am afraid that when the last Saskatchewan farmer yields
to Monsanto, we won’t know how to feed the cities.
I am afraid that when the grandparents are gone
our tongues will long for food that
we no longer know how to name
that the food we eat will feed us
but our taste buds will not flower.

But I can’t say:
Grandmother, I’m hungry.

I can’t say I’m hungry for recipes for survival
to help me hold out against the day-to-day doubts that come from
not knowing the words to name this hunger.
I can’t say I’m hungry for the wisdom of women who carried the weight
of the world on their hips.
I can’t say I’m searching because
if I have a daughter, I don’t know
what colour her skin will be
or what language she’ll dream in
but I need to be able to teach her to
trust her gut,
to find the food that makes her heart and stomach fly.

But I can’t say this in Cantonese.

Luckily, I love eating.

Now it’s 6 o’clock. The news is on, the neighbours are home,
the fish is steamed.
So, I fill our bowls, pour the tea,
the two of us take our seats.
Now, I say the only thing I can say,
“Paupau sik fan”
Eat rice grandmother
and we eat.

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