Eating while immigrant
(This story was presented by the author at Printers Row Lit Fest this June, during a session of Between Bites, the Chicago-based storytelling group.)
Ashley T. handed me a pink cloud wrapped in a wrinkly, silver piece of paper. On top, a shower of red and white hearts. The thing smelled suspiciously sweet, almost sickly so, but tantalizing nonetheless. What was this thing?
It was 1990, and my family had just moved to Orange County, California, from the Philippines. I was experiencing my first kindergarten birthday party, and I didn’t understand this ritual, as I was attending school for the first time. I was new to the country, new to English. Was this freckled girl with mouse-brown hair trying to poison me? The thing she put in front of me seemed innocuous enough — the pink swirl on top matched her pink gingham dress — and the other kids seemed to be enjoying it. Except for one kid covered in crumbs and the pink stuff — was he crying because he wanted another one or because he was dying?
Slowly, I took a bite of the pretty thing in my hands, and my eyes practically exploded out of their sockets. I too was dying, but from joy. The interior was a cake — I knew what that was — but denser than what I was used to. The creamy pink swirl was a revelation in texture and sweetness, a shock to the system, while the hearts crumbled with each crunch. This cupcake was my first taste of America, and I was in love.
A taste of home: Before my mom became a nurse, she spent her days keeping our home in order, that is, keeping her husband and four boys in line. Dinner would often be on the stove by noon, on the table by 5 p.m. Her food — edible postcards from Olongapo City on Luzon, the largest island in an archipelago of 7,000 — was comforting, reminding me of a home I haven’t had much contact with since I was 9.
We didn’t grow up with grilled cheese sandwiches or chicken nuggets. Fast food was a hard-fried egg, sandwiched in a squishy bun of warm pan de sal with a shock of neon red banana ketchup. Snacks consisted of siapao, a Filipino adaptation of Chinese pork buns, or leftover lumpia Shanghai, tightly rolled deep-fried cigarettes of finely chopped carrots, onion, celery leaves and pork. My brothers loved sinigang the most, that pungent sour tamarind soup of gray pork hunks floating alongside roughly quartered tomatoes, chunky eggplant and soft spinach. I loved salty pancit palabok, with translucent bihon rice noodles and deeply savory shrimp gravy made from shrimp heads and bouillon, topped with hard-boiled eggs and a showering of green onions.
My mother’s daily ritual of washing rice with her tiny, strong hands, two-three times under running filtered water was her — and my — connection to her 11 siblings, my dozens of cousins, my frail grandfather.
Food was how I experienced the world, both old and new. Food was how I knew I was loved.
“That smells weird,” said the pudgy pale boy in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt, pointing to my plastic container of tender rice, vinegar-scented sinigang and funky saw-sawan, a salsalike mix of tomato and fish sauce.
‘Stinky food’: I went home crying, telling my mom I didn’t want to bring “stinky food” to school anymore. The next day, and for years after that, my school lunch consisted of peanut butter sandwiches, Lunchables, cups of diced peaches drowning in high-fructose corn syrup.
If I think back to that day, I can see the hurt in my mother’s eyes as I disavowed the bright, savory, varied cuisine of my Filipino upbringing. Thanks a lot, Travis.
My story is one of many an immigrant child coming to the U.S. and reckoning with schoolyard taunting over our “weird” food, lovingly made by mothers, grandmothers, parents who don’t feel shame for cuisine, who don’t understand the passive violence of this schoolyard, lunchtime judgment.
And yet, in 2018, Filipino cuisine — and Korean, and Sichuan, and Thai — is trendy. Restaurants around the country, run by white chefs, have “elevated” the foods of my mother and my people, of other immigrants, having profited off stacks of lumpia, bowls of pancit, jars of kimchi and bottles of house-made fermented vinegars, without so much as a nod to the brown kitchens and people from which these foods originated.
There’s a bittersweet hurt to see my people’s food celebrated now as the new “it” girl of cuisine. To know that for years, I and countless others needlessly felt embarrassment and shame for loving the food of our elders, our mothers. To know that my mom just wanted us to fit in, as much as our brown skin stood out. There’s also the simultaneous joy in sharing, in the invitation of a meal — “come, get to know me, to know us, to know our food. There’s plenty of knowledge (and rice) to go around.”
Losses: As I went through school, I lost other parts of my Filipino-ness. I lost my mother tongue. I erased my accent. My name was stripped down for parts, and I was dubbed “Joe.” At home, I’d still eat my mother’s meals with abandon, a dirty secret from kids at school. When I got ready in the morning, I scrubbed and scrubbed my skin in scalding hot water, in case I smelled like dried fish or, worse, pork blood. Being American meant looking, acting, talking and, yes, eating like an American. My pride in my culture and upbringing was undercut by the shame of otherness, specifically the outside world dictating that otherness — it took years to process these two realities, but ultimately, my pride won out.
One day, still in kindergarten, it was my own birthday. I didn’t think much of it — my mom never baked and thought cupcakes were too sweet for kids, so she never bought them either. I’ve never been one for birthdays, even back then. I never called attention to it, and I thought I’d get by, just like any other day.
Unbeknownst to me, my teacher had called my mom to tell her that kids normally brought a treat for their classmates on their birthdays. Would she like to bring something for a small class party?
Is it possible for a heart to float and drop at the same time? When I saw my mom walk into my classroom, I was excited to see her — until I saw what she had in her hands. Lumpia, essential party food for Pinoys, a giant bowl of rice and an array of sauces, peppery, garlicky, funky.
“These aren’t cupcakes. Where are the cupcakes?” (“Shut up, Travis,” I thought.) But too late: The jig was up. My months of work at fitting in was for naught, and all of my strangeness, my foreignness, was about to be served up fried and crunchy to a room of exacting palates.
I sat in terror, my plate of golden lumpia and pearled rice untouched in front of me. I stared and stared, wanting to disappear. But then — I heard eager crunching, the sound of papery egg rolls a chaotic chorus. Ashley T., who became one of my first friends, shot me a thumbs-up. All over the classroom, kids were trying each of my mother’s sauces, from red to green to brown to red again. My teacher and mom were huddled, and it looked as if the former was writing down the recipe.
Then Travis, that little jerk, came over to me with his heaping plate. Oh, no.
“Hey, this is good. Can you tell me about it?” Happily.
Wrapped lumpia can be frozen in the freezer, making it a perfect dish to cook in batches for dinner tonight and at a later date in the week. Enjoy lumpia with a sauce of your choice: Thai chile sauce, banana ketchup, Sriracha and even tomato ketchup are all favorites in my home.
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: 30-40 pieces (11/2- to 2-inch servings)
11/2 pounds lean ground pork (or ground turkey)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled, finely diced
1 rib celery, finely diced
1/2 cup celery leaves, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon soy sauce, optional
1 package (25 count) rice paper egg roll wrappers
Water (or egg wash) to seal wrappers
2 cups vegetable oil
Dipping sauce: Thai chile sauce, banana ketchup, Sriracha or tomato ketchup
Mix pork or turkey, onion, garlic, carrots, celery and celery leaves together in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste and soy sauce (if desired).
Place a wrapper on your work surface. Place 2 heaping tablespoons of the filling diagonally near one corner of the wrapper, leaving a 11/2-inch space at both ends. Fold in the ends of the wrapper, then fold the side along the length of the filling. Roll wrapper tightly along this length. Once near the end of the roll, moisten the exposed end of the wrapper with water or egg wash, and seal the edge. Cover the roll with a moist paper towel or dish towel to retain moisture. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling. Once all lumpia are wrapped, use kitchen shears or a sharp chef’s knife to cut rolls into 2- to 3-inch long pieces.
Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat; add oil to 1/2-inch depth. Heat to 350 degrees. Slide 3 or 4 lumpia into the oil. Fry the rolls until all sides are golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate or baking sheet. Repeat with remaining rolls. Serve immediately with dipping sauce.
Nutrition information per serving: 120 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 14 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 6 g protein, 37 mg sodium, 0 g fiber