I have never heard my parents say the word, “proud.” My achievements are never enough.
“Hey Mom, I got 99% on my test!”
“Where’s the last 1%, Brian?”
I used to wonder why quite a bit – did other kids have this experience with their parents? How come I’m never celebrated for doing well? Everyone tells me I’m smart but they make me feel otherwise?
I felt good about my marks coming out of school, but the electricity of success often waned by the time I made it home, and reporting my marks feeling almost like punishment at times. Doing well in school wasn’t about learning or striving for success, it became avoidance of disappointing my parents.
But it’s not like I’ve ever felt unloved in any way – I’ve been blessed with a privileged childhood, and despite all the uncertainty in my life, there’s nothing I have more confidence in than my own family. But how did I get this confidence?
A common occurrence at my household growing up, my aunt would often call right around dinnertime, her booming voice cracking through the landline, “食咗飯未呀? (Sik-joh-fan-mei-ah?)”. This literally translates to, “Have you eaten yet?”. 食咗飯未呀 functions exactly like How are you? in English; Chinese culture is extremely food centric, and if you were eating good, you were doing good. And let me tell you, I was eating great.
My parents immigrated here about 40 years ago, sporting wide eyes and even bigger aspirations. Although nearly 10 years removed by the time I came along, my parents initially opened a restaurant, serving local heroes like Jarome Iginla, Mark Messier, or Kevin Lowe. Their expertise only compounded with time, as my childhood can easily be characterized with food.
I used to roll up to elementary with Tupperware containers filled with last night’s dinner; things that were standard for me, blew the minds of my peers. 2 minutes from the microwave later, I’d lift the little blue lid, the steam and scents that emanated from my lunch quickly dominated the classroom.
“Oh, Brian what is that today?”
“Steak and rice! Just leftovers.”
*Greg, in the corner of the classroom, sadly puts down his bologna sandwich*
Being a visible minority in a predominantly Caucasian city (back in 2016, only 9% of the population in my hometown identified as a visible minority, so you can only imagine how it was in the early 2000s), my childhood was always marked with difference. I was always a shy little boy, but when it came to food that my parents made, I was never more proud.
Although I didn’t have an affinity for Cantonese as much as any of us would’ve liked, I inherited my parents’ penchant for food all the same. I constantly indulged in 10 course meals, Sunday Dim-Sum, umami noodles, sweet confections, and barbecue delights. My parents were really good at criticizing me in English (Cantonese was reserved for occasions where I was really bad), but they spoke even more elegantly through food.
As you grow older, you slowly view your parents less as, (or in my case), omnipotent gods whose word is law, and more as people. Progressively, with every trip to the Hong Kong Bakery in Chinatown, with every handmade wonton, or even the mysterious peeled oranges that would appear on my desk as I studied for university, it became less about what I didn’t hear, but what they showed. It’s this reliable, confident, unwavering consistency that’s imbued within me, and with me wherever I go. It’s that same warmth that I resoundingly answer their calls with, asking if they’ve eaten yet.
Although I’ll say I love you to my children more than my parents did, I hope they can appreciate the peeled oranges all the same too.