I watched my mom welcome a hug from my brother's six-year-old son, William. It was a step forward seeing more affection in my family as a result of the grandchildren but I longed for the same affection from my parents. I never saw my parents kiss. I rarely heard “I love you” or “I’m proud of you” or any statement that might expand my ego. I don’t remember hugs or kisses when we were younger but I grew not to expect it, perhaps because it was not part of the equation of love in our household.
The absence of physical affection was not for lack of love though. “Have you eaten yet?” was practically an “I love you,” showing care and concern. I felt love in the ways my parents took care of us: food on the table, clothes on our backs, a roof over our heads. We received gifts for Christmas, sometimes in the form of lai see, red envelopes filled with crisp green bills tucked into a Christmas card. We traveled. We laughed. What more should we have asked for?
I was feeling sick and craved watercress and rice porridge to fend off my scratchy throat. I drove to Happy Family, a vegetarian restaurant in Monterey Park, and decided to sit down for my meal.
Yeet hay, translated to “hot air,” is a Chinese concept of imbalance in one’s body. This imbalance of qi, or energy, in the body was a symptom of illness. I felt yeet hay whenever I ate too many fried foods, or snacked on an abundance of sweets, or, as my coworkers believed, I caught the average cold. To combat it, I consumed foods that had a cooling effect, like cucumbers and watercress—bitter melon was best—and foods high in water content.
“Nay yew mut cha, ah?” the waiter asked. What kind of tea do you want? He spoke in Cantonese. My parents, who grew up in Hong Kong, spoke the same language.
“What kind do you have?” I replied in English immediately, to squash the advance of the inevitable onslaught of words I couldn’t understand and reveal that I was one of those ABC’s, American-born Chinese that can’t speak her mother tongue. The waiter paused as if slowly registering I wasn’t what I seemed. I translated the tilt of his head and the slight pull-back in his step. What is she? She looks Chinese but doesn’t understand? Of course, I was Chinese and I looked Chinese—straight, black hair, almond-shaped brown eyes, pale, smooth skin that betrayed my actual age of 35. I felt bad because the waiter had a false sense of security that he could fire off in his native language.