I come home on a Tuesday night to a cornucopia of Taiwanese dishes. Fried tomato and egg with shallots, garlic spinach in peanut oil, diced pork and capsicum in tamari sauce, corn and radish stock soup, shredded Asian cabbage soaked with shitake mushrooms, sweet and sour chicken’s legs and a whole fish fried with basil and soy sauce. Any one else would have found themselves in heaven. But I know this spells my mother’s state of mind. The number of dishes on the dinner table is exponentially consistent with her level of stress. Something is on her mind tonight.
I come home to my mother’s passive aggressive mood. I become anxious myself. I wonder what is in store of us tonight. I wonder what crime we have committed.
‘Is everything alright?’
I ask my sister because she arrives home an hour earlier than me- which is lucky- I am not the first soldier to be fired upon when my mother begins her war. She responds with a timid shrug.
I take out four medium bowls and place them in front of our respective seats- my father at the end, my mother beside him, my sister beside her, and I- opposite my father. My brother is rarely home for dinner these days. I grab a handful of plastic chopsticks and carefully assemble pairs beside each bowl, making sure each pair rests neatly against the bowls in the same distance (about 2 inches or so) at the right. My mother used to be a leftie as a child, but her strict Taiwanese father made her ‘correct herself’ to use her pens and chopsticks in the right hand because it was deemed strange and abhorrent for a girl to be a leftie.
On the bench space between the gas stove and sink, the rice steamer is bubbling with eager anticipation. The silver lid skates around the top unsteadily, nervously. I notice the minor cracks and scars on the black knob handle in the centre. I think for a moment how many meals this appliance has shared with us in these past twenty years. Since I was born, rice has been the staple dish that encompasses all other dishes each dinner time. I have never missed a day without rice in my twenty two years. Although it seemed strange growing up Taiwanese in Sydney, Australia- my mother has made it clear and assured that my descent into ‘Aussie-ness’ would never completely occur. She made this happen by feeding me rice every day of my life.
I think it has worked. For now.
I hear her bamboo slippers KLOP KLOP KLOP with anxious speediness as she emerges from the smoky frying pans outside, carrying a dish of bok choy tossed in garlic sauce and sliced seaweed. Her eyes are locked on the dish, and she says nothing to no one.
My sister and I glance at each other.
‘Need anything else mum?’ my sister asks in mandarin.
My mother cannot speak English. She does not have any friends.
She shakes her head and the silk scarf wrapped around her head slips off. She sighs as she takes a quick step back and surveys the banquet of food before her. She wipes her hands on her apron.
‘Call your father and ask when he is coming home.’
It is the same each night. My father arrives home between the hours of 7:30- 8:45pm. My mother begins her preparation at around 4:30pm. In the past when I had decided to cut a lecture, I would arrive home at around 5pm and she would already be slicing vegetables and boiling lamb loins.
Father arrives home just as NCIS begins, and we sit around the table with closed mouths. We say very little.
‘Hold your bowl in your hand.’ My mother says to me without looking at me.
I pick it up.
Dragon’s head. I remember her nagging me when I had Kate McMillian over for dinner in Year 3 about holding my bowl in the shape of a dragon’s head. I was mocked the next day at school for having ‘weird parents’.
My chopstick etiquette was not that flash either. Apparently, I had the bad habit of squeezing the two sticks too closely together.
‘Like this…’ my mother would say…showing me the correct distance in which to hold them. About one inch. ‘Then you can bring happiness and content inside your body.’
By then, I had become a fully fledged vegetarian, and I told her that her body was a graveyard of cows and sheep and pigs.
She ignored my ‘silly nonsense.’
As always, she has cooked too much and we have chinese take away containers to fill. It is a crime to cook too little. When there is four people home, she cooks for six. When there is two people home, she cooks for four. It is just manners, she says. Homes should always be abundant with food. It symbolizes joy and prosperity.
Each of us begin pouring the left overs into containers in silence. Nothing is said. NSIC is quiet in the background. Father rips a piece of foil to wrap the fish. The sound explodes amidst our quiet silence. The fish is still whole.
My sister and I collect the bowls and plates and chopsticks and spoons and begin rinsing the brown goo and fish sauce from each piece, using warm water. She uses gloved. I use my bare hands so that I can feel where the lumps of crust and food are and remove them.
I am given the role of scrubbing, and she is given the rinsing and piling. I have not been assigned that job in a long time, because everyone knows by now how poorly I stack the dishes.
‘There is an art to stacking them so that they dry most efficiently’ my father used to say. Plates are to lean on their stomachs, and bowls, beside each other on their rims.
I never saw the importance of this ‘art’ – so never felt the need to practice it.
I have left that for my sister to worry about.
It is quiet. I hear Agent Gibbs in the background. I wonder if eating this meal has made us more joyous.