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I Find More Than Food In My Groceries

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

Sitting cross legged, cold from the opened fridge, my chest tightens from the shelf and cubby bulging from groceries. I stare at the bright produce—Napa, daikon, celery. They haunt me now.

My beau starts a Google document to help me take inventory to break the problem into tangible bits, “I do not understand why you are stressed. Think of all the good food we will make!”

Twenty packages of Instant ramen. A hefty bag of mantou. Three giant bags of pork patties in the freezer. As a plant-based flexitarian, I choose to eat meat in moderation once a week but everything, especially these pork patties, place this heavy responsibility of consumption on my shoulders.

All these foods were gifts from my visiting mom and her current boyfriend, Shūshu. Mostly him. My dad, who is indifferent about staying in quarantine with her divorced green card wife and her boyfriend, is receiving Social Security benefits. My mom’s era of odd jobs has slowed. My sisters have paid internships and I work at my school’s gym, using Calfresh. Shūshu pays some of the bills and some food in the fridge, but I would not call him, a silent shadow of my mom we barely know over these years, the family’s breadwinner.

Don’t get me wrong. I love free food. I am not ashamed to say pre-COVID, I sat in on a few of my friends’ club meetings for free food. However, as there is more and more food, the quality of consumption goes down. Too much food threatens waste. Too much food is overwhelming, turning more hair strands gray.

I tried to tell this to my mom when she and Shūshu visited yesterday night. My mom often does not tell me when she visits until she is an hour away from Isla Vista. My beau and our friend barely finished their laundry when the familiar family van peaked around the corner. My beau had to shove his laundry into a pick up truck and drove away—a mad dash my housemates cackled about later. My beau does not have a laundry machine in his apartment, so they use ours.

My mom encourages me to censor my first boyfriend for Shūshu.

When I bring stories to Facetimes with her or my sisters, she sneers, “Talk in English!”

She says, “He wants you to get good grades in dàxué. He is paying for everything. Break up with boyfriend. No distractions.”

If he is paying for everything, why did he not give me ten thousand dollars to take loans out for university housing?

Shūshu is a Ningde man who inhales instant ramen and binge watches Chinese variety shows on his day offs from his driving job in the master bedroom we rent to family acquaintances to make ends meet. I did not suspect anything of their relationship even after my mom moved from sleeping on the living room floor mats to sleeping on the same bed as him. Just like past renters, I barely bat a word in his direction. Why would I ask this strange man for money? For groceries?

Still, whenever my mom asks to visit, I push meetings back. I want to be present during their visits. I want them to visit. Despite everything, they remind me that I have a cheering squad back home.

Sometimes before my mom drives up to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles, she stops by Ranch 99, Hawaiian, or Golden Well Supermarket. She asks for a groceries list, she calls several times. If I do not pick up the call, she spams our Wechat with voice messages. Her voice is a glistening cleaver, piercing through my day. She knows the Asian ingredients in Santa Barbara are overpriced—for example, Samyang spicy noodles are ten dollars here but six dollars in Los Angeles. She wants to save me money even though I receive funding from the state-allocated Calfresh.

Growing up with the kind of family that takes generous portions of food after parties for future meals, I feel obligated to stop my life to take advantage of this opportunity. I am the kind of person to go window shopping at grocery stores as a destressing activity. My fingers taste online Asian supermarkets catalogs.

I text my mom ingredients my household are running low on: kimchi, instant ramen, dumpling sauce. I text her food I want to try: Chinese chives, Hot Green Peas, sweet potatoes.

She brings those and more. As my housemates and Shūshu bring the tote bags of grocery gifts inside our apartment, my mom tells me in Mandarin, “You are really lucky to have us. Look at your friends. Their parents can not even come to give them groceries because they are in China. Be grateful. Tell Shūshu you love him.”

I do feel wealthy like they are bringing offerings to me, but Shūshu paying groceries does not mean I am obligated to love him. I want to tell her this, but my words scramble away from my tongue when I try to break through our language barrier. Besides, her stay is short. No time for bickering. The thank you rolling out my mouth is hollow of love. I grab my Free People sweater and we head to Target, Nikka Ramen, or the beach.

Groceries were different before I came to UCSB. Throughout my life, my mom allowed us three older daughters to tag along on her grocery trips even though we fought about everything. We played rock, paper, scissors for shotgun, to select who will be cursed to push the shopping cart, and for the red bean bars. She grew emotionally exhausted and permitted us to pick out one snack each. We bounced behind her with the shopping cart. We helped her unload.

However, in high school, when my sisters and I started watching Nerdy Nummies, How to Cook That, and Sorted Food—Youtube channels focusing on food, we explored more than the snack aisle. We placed all purpose flour and baking powder in the cart. The oven that our parents had always used to store pots and pans came out of retirement.

My mom joked, “Nǐmen làng fèi qián.”

These days, my sisters tell me that she goes grocery shopping without telling them. They are tired of the tomato eggs, the pork stir fry, the tilapia steamed in soy sauce and ginger. Their dinner tables look like the food Snaps from my friends quarantining with their Asian parents. The iconic plastic food cover glimmers in every photo. They cover giant pots of phở and chǎofàn. Our Asian immigrant parents wake early to mass produce, leaving out food to eat throughout the day.

However, my sisters turn their noses. They want avocados, McDonald’s, and onion bagels. When I took a pack of avocados back to Santa Barbara, one of my sisters sent me twenty three fat paragraphs of her anger and the reasoning behind her anger. Basically, our mom does not buy her anything she wants because she only shops at Asian supermarkets.

They tell me that our dad offers to walk to the Smart and Final nearby for them. At seventy one years old, looking at the smile wrinkles around his eyes, we cannot tell he escaped the Vietnam War, got a plane mechanic certification and culinary arts certification in Hong Kong, and managed a restaurant inside of Ranch 99 Market for over twenty years.

On his days off, if we ask, our dad drives us to the grocery store. We pushed the shopping cart, looking for ingredients for our next baking expedition. He disappears for a second to find his Carlo Rossi merlot. I noticed how he grabs more fruit now—only the ones on sale—and Roma tomatoes to make his Instant ramen more nutritious. He swipes his card and drives us home.

We always give him a long hug and say, “Xièxiè!”

When we were little, going grocery shopping with him, there was little to no bickering. He let us sneak in a Push Pop or two while our mom would have spanked us with chopsticks for asking for candies.

When I moved to Isla Vista for university, my plant-based meals consisted of colorful salads, corn chowder, and butternut squash lasagna from the school dining commons. Our dorms had communal kitchens but living several stories above the stoves reduced my yearn to cook.

At least once a quarter, my mom shows up anyways. The family van is armed with bags of Asian snacks, ramen, and other college essentials. We hug, her head grazing my chin. She jokes in Mandarin, “Sometimes, I forget I have four daughters. The house seems so quiet without you!”

If you couldn't tell already, the primary caretaker of my family is my mom. My mom has always had a string of odd jobs, whether it was waiting for a buffet, reselling, or babysitting neighbor children, but the money that she used for groceries did not come from our dad, but Calfresh. However, Shūshu has been paying for the groceries, so she does enjoy splurging at grocery stores before she comes to visit. I cannot deny that if someone gives me a grocery gift card, I would inhale it within an hour.

Walking my mom to their van, I give her a hug and look at the wrinkles around her lips, frozen ripples from her smile. She says in Mandarin. “Jì zhù wǒmen méiyǒu hěnduō qián. For you to eat only.”

I want to tell her that the groceries I will unpack later give me stress. The food I plan to meal prep this week, I have to change them. The possibilities for cooking and eating overwhelm me. This feels like an invasion on my independence. I am scared to waste. You are going to make me fat and then call me fat.

But my Mandarin curls and cries. I spit out, “Xièxiè! Wǒ ài nǐ! Zhào gù hǎo!”

She echoes me. Verbal I love yous used to be nonexistent until everyone—even our optometrist—reminded me of her love. Our mom treats us so well, willing to sacrifice anything for us to be comfortable and thrive, including spending a whole day to drive up, to make sure I am doing well.

I thought I was saving ‘I love you’ for moments of importance, but my beau taught me that our abundance for love gives these three words meaning regardless. The value does not diminish after every use. When I facetimed my family, I remember taking these words out of my pocket, for them. At first, they did not know what to do. The awkward pauses. Then, they pulled the words out of the pockets for me.

My mom has always shown love through giving food, but she deserves to hear those three words too. Wǒ ài nǐ.

My ears smile when I hear her say those words back. When I show that I love someone and tell them that I love them, my words resonate stronger with the truth.

She deserves those three words, even though her leaving me these tote bags of groceries and her firm words explaining how we are poor so I should not share with anyone, means I am paying the price emotionally.

I am a worn ball in front of the fridge, waiting for the giant mass of food to swallow me. I feel like I am going against my values of minimalism, values of environmentalism just by having this mass of food in front of me. When I go grocery shopping, I just take what I need. I do not need all this. Additionally, if I cannot share, how can I prevent all this from wasting?

“It’s okay.” My beau says again. He rubs my back, as I stare at the bulging fridge, crinkling the groceries in plastic bags around me.

I believe him. He volunteers to wash the dishes after we eat. He eats leftovers when nobody else can. He bikes a few blocks to empty our households’ food scraps bin into the church compost. He drives us grocery shopping. While I always go for the best monetary value when I choose groceries, he considers the best quality: organic, free range, etc. He convinces me, “A little extra to support these companies we believe in is worth it.”

I do not think his Japanese mom and White dad taught him this. Just like my mom’s visits, they surprise him with visits with Costco hauls he is thankful, but didn’t ask for. So he knows.

I close the fridge door and take inventory from memory.

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