Skirmish of the Sides (#322)

I did not grow up gourmet.

I grew up excited about McDonald’s. This might have been because my parents’ ideas of cooking meant throwing protein and potatoes in the oven for an hour or two. Sometimes we had rice as a side, but mostly it was baked potatoes. With margarine. (I didn’t discover butter until I was in high school. Whereupon I ranted to my parents, “Why have you been keeping this deliciousness from us and giving us MARGARINE?!”)

My husband Andy is Chinese-American. In his family, rice isn’t a side, it’s necessity. The angriest I’ve ever seen Andy’s Engineering Cousin was when her Quite White husband went on the Atkin’s diet. “It’s ridiculous!” she ranted at Andy on Thanksgiving. “It’s all meat and fat! Not a grain of rice ever! How can you have dinner or holidays without rice?!”

Since I’d never seen rice served at Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter or 4th of July until I met Andy’s extended family, I could easily imagine holidays without rice. There would be mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, or potato salad. Rice had never made an appearance at any Ashbough holiday EVER.

I was fine with that, because rice is boring. Like tofu, it’s great for soaking up the flavor of any sauce, and when it’s fried into crispy rice with some spicy tuna on top? Divine.

But plain rice alone?

“It’s only good for keeping your mouth from burning up after spicy food,” I informed Andy. “Why don’t we have more potatoes? They are healthier than rice, with more vitamins and antioxidants. Plus, you can make a potato into anything: hash browns, home fries, potato skins, scalloped potatoes, potato pancakes, and even French fries! Or you can just have a potato baked with cheese and sour cream.”

“Potatoes are only healthier if you eat the skin,” Andy retorted. “And all the potato dishes you listed are not healthier than plain rice.”

“But way yummier. I miss potatoes. The only time we have potatoes is when I make pot roast.”

With no small amount of side-eye, Andy said, “When you make the food, you can choose the side.”

Not long after that statement, Andy was injured and couldn’t cook for months. Which meant I had to. The only fringe benefit was potatoes. Lots of them. Potatoes went into the oven and the crockpot. (Especially after I burned the rice. In the rice cooker. Yeah, it’s a mystery.)

Our son Baby D was my ally—at first. He liked pot roast potatoes smothered in gravy. He didn’t bat an eye at the little purple potatoes in the chicken rosemary. And Baby D devoured baked potatoes loaded with bacon and cheese.

Andy’s scrumptious eggs Benedict with home fries.

Once he healed, Andy grudgingly added potatoes to the weekly shopping list. He made hash browns and home fries for weekend breakfasts. He would occasionally toss in a potato galette to go with his beef Wellington. He made potato skins for the Superbowl every year.

IT WAS A CLEVER DIVERSION.

At the same time, Andy introduced Baby D to sticky rice and musubi (rice wrapped in seaweed). Baby D would have sticky rice with dinner and then eat a bowl with sugar after dinner if he was still hungry. He’d often beg his father for a quick snack of musubi. Andy would oblige, of course.

All part of his master plan.

Only I was surprised the weekend Baby D glared at his breakfast burrito instead of eating it.

“Not hungry?” I asked.

“It has hash browns in it. Don’t want hash browns.”

“What?!” I practically screeched. “Who doesn’t like hash browns?!”

“I can make it without hash browns,” Andy quickly offered, trying not to smile. “I could even put in—”

“Don’t say it!” I interrupted. “It would be a TRAVESTY.”

“—rice,” Andy finished.

While Baby D declined the rice, opting for an egg, cheese, and bacon breakfast burrito, the hash brown incident heralded the resurgence of rice in our household. With the exception of pot roast potatoes, Baby D had to be reminded to finish any potato dish on his plate. He’d even eat his vegetables first. (Unheard of!) When we had our quarantine/ birthday/ Thanksgiving last year, he was particularly bitter about mashing potatoes.

“Why can’t we have rice?” he whined. Repeatedly.

We might have been physically alone that holiday, but Andy’s family was definitely with us in spirit.

No rice, only mashed potatoes because Baby D’s mother is so mean.

Shoe In, Shoe Out (#317)

When you marry across cultures, there are bound to be a few differences.

Some differences are jarring at first—like my husband’s Chinese-American family openly discussing money. If you’re open-minded, however, you can learn to embrace coupons and brag about how much money you saved.

Other differences seem insurmountable, especially when much vaunted Western autonomy clashes with Asian filial piety. That’s when it’s important to distance yourself from the issue. I found that 3,000 miles proved effective. Mostly.

But every so often, a practice from another culture makes you say, “That’s brilliant! Why don’t we do that?!”

Like shoes.

*****

Most Asian-Americans don’t wear shoes in the house (no matter what you saw in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before). Multicultural blogger Mabel Kwong has a great post on all the reasons why.

My husband grew up in Hawaii, leaving his shoes outside. I grew up on the East Coast, where the only shoes I took off before coming inside were snow boots. (In rural area with lots of winter snow and spring muck, some North American homes have “mud rooms” for outdoor shoes.)

When I moved into my husband’s townhouse, I left my shoes in the front hallway and never looked back. Sometimes my white guests looked at me askance when I told them to take of their shoes. One even commented, “No shoes? Weird.”

I said, “Dude. Weird is allowing people to track all the dirt on their shoes all over your house. As Vacuumer-in-Chief, I endorse the no-shoe rule!”

When we moved into our little house, there wasn’t a convenient indoor space for shoes. We left shoes on the porch by the welcome mat or at our backdoor.

The first things to make me reconsider the no-shoe rule were our rescue dogs. When ninety-pound Woofie stepped on my bare foot, it HURT. Because the giant goofball neither knew (nor cared!) where his massive paws were, Woofie crushed my toes daily. Even seventy-pound Fey, who was far more considerate with her comparatively dainty paws, could draw blood if she made a misstep, thanks to her strong shar-pei claws. Furry leather slippers with suede exteriorI finally bought super sturdy (super expensive!) slippers and wore those even through the hottest summer.

Problem solved.

Then my old, white neighbors very considerately warned me that thieves in California targeted houses with shoes outside the house. Apparently Asian-Americans have a reputation (at least among thieves) for keeping a lot of cash in the house. I pooh-poohed this claim—until some would-be burglars tried to get by Fey the Fierce. (Spoiler alert: Fey was having none of it.) After the attempt, however, I found the perfect welcome mat/ warning sign to surround with shoes:

Welcome mat reading: "We like big mutts and we cannot lie" with silhouette of large dog.

No one has tried to break in since.

My child and his non-Asian friends, running in, out, and around the house with Nerf weaponry, often neglected to put on or take off their shoes. (The heat of battle has that effect.)  Many times I’d have to remind them that “no shoes in the house” was useless if they ran around in socks outside and then wore those same dirty, debris-covered socks inside.

Baby D, impatient child that he is, hated having to take the time to remove his sneakers when he had to go back inside for a single forgotten item. But as the Vacuumer-in-Chief refused to relax her no-shoe policy, he adapted. He skirted the no-shoe rule by hopping back into the house on one unshod foot—while holding his still-sneakered foot up high. The kid would hop through the entire house at least 3 times a week, hunting for his backpack or water bottle.

More than one coach has commented on Baby D’s extraordinary balance and leg strength. Credit the no-shoe policy. (You’d think the kid would eventually learn to do a mental checklist before going outside and putting on his shoes, but YOU’D BE WRONG.)

There’s one final issue with leaving shoes outside: critters. While SoCal lacks the over-abundance of insect life that characterizes the East Coast, we do have crickets, brown and black widow spiders, and lizards. I always warned Baby D to shake out his shoes before putting them on.

Lizard inside an athletic shoe
Lizard in my shoe. Not an uncommon occurrence at our house.

Unfortunately, the kid has to do things the hard way. Baby D returned from soccer practice last week indignant. “Mom! When I got to the field and put my foot in my cleat, there was a lump! So I reached in and grabbed it and it was a lizard!”

“Guess you won’t forget to shake out your cleats before you put them in your soccer bag again, will you?”

Baby D glared and said, “No, because I’m keeping them in my bag from now on! Inside the house!

And so it came to pass that the Vacuumer-in-Chief granted a special dispensation allowing soccer cleats in the house.

Because next time, it might not be a lizard.

Black widow spider
Black widow found in my watering can.

Celebration Mash-Up (#316)

Holidays were huge in my white family. We wore green, pinched each other anyway, and listened to the Irish Rovers on St. Patrick’s Day (despite being Protestant or atheists). Small gifts appeared on Valentine’s Day morning. There were Easter egg hunts and chocolate bunnies. Our birthdays began with presents and towers of doughnuts. Christmas magic (and excesses) went on for days.

Holidays were not big in my Chinese-American husband’s family. Growing up, he got a red envelope with cash, usually from his Popo, on Chinese New Year.

That was it.

Even though some Wong family members were very earnest Christians, there were neither Easter baskets nor Christmas stockings.

Birthdays might involve going out for dim sum. There wasn’t even a cake until Andy turned 18—when his mom told Andy to pick one up for himself at the grocery store. Andy had a job at that point; I suspect he even had to pay for it.

Since holidays were the highlight of my childhood, I was horrified every time I discovered a new one Andy had “missed.”

You never carved a pumpkin?!” I’d screech. “What did you DO on Halloween, then?”

“Went trick-or-treating.”

“Oh, good. At least your parents let you do that.”

“Of course. The candy was free.”

I was sad for all the fun things Andy missed, but, even though he was the child of immigrants, Andy had a more secure childhood than I did. He was the apple of his mother’s—and his grandmother’s—eyes, the first male in two generations. As the much beloved Number One Son, his mother and grandmother constantly pushed him to eat more. When they went out for dim sum, there were always leftovers to bring home.

I had years on free lunch tickets, plus I had to guard my food from my hungry siblings. My parents were terrible cooks. When we went out to Shakey’s Pizza or McDonald’s (a HUGE treat!), there were never leftovers. Probably the reason we loved holidays was in no small part due to the abundance of food, especially sweets.

Andy, in turn, was horrified that a) I grew up without quite enough food, and b) Kraft Mac & Cheese with Hormel Chili was my favorite dinner.

Over the years, I introduced Andy to holiday fun. He showed me that cooking meals from scratch was tasty (and, when it wasn’t beef Wellington, economical).

Andy’s homemade mochi doughnuts.

This year, our child’s birthday, Chinese New Year, and Valentine’s Day fell within days of each other. Piles of candy and gifts accumulated on the dining room table. At that same table, I watched Baby D devour Andy’s homemade mochi doughnuts, Andy’s beef Wellington, carryout from Din Tai Fun, about twenty shrimp dumplings from the local dim sum joint, and Andy’s homemade chili and cornbread.

Baby D’s homemade cake.

Meanwhile, Andy watched me make a six-hour chocolate cake and arrange a surprise birthday COVID car parade for our kid. He laughed as I swapped out birthday balloons for red lanterns and lucky money envelopes for Baby D’s favorite See’s Candies so our kid could fully enjoy each special occasion.

After Valentine’s Day dinner, Andy surveyed the accumulated culinary/ holiday debris and said, “Our kid is spoiled.”

“We’re just giving him everything we wished we’d had,” I countered.

“But it’s so much!”

“Maybe you’re right. But there’s one really important Ashbough tradition left.”

“Even your family cannot possibly do anything for President’s Day.”

“Hahaha, no, we’re not celebrating problematic old white men. It’s something else.” I raised my voice and called, “Baby D! Come here! We have one more thing for you!”

Baby D ran into the kitchen. “Is it a giant gummi worm? More hong bao?”

I placed a towel in his outstretched hands and said,

“It’s the dishes.”

Waiting (#314)

I am not a patient person. I was the kid in the car asking “Are we there yet?” every 10 minutes. My many siblings were equally impatient. Road trips were an endless chorus of questions about how long it was to the bathroom, restaurant, and destination.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t go on many road trips.

My Chinese-American husband is patient (sadly, he grew up on Oahu, which is too small for road trips). I’m not sure if he’s naturally mellow, or if the tropical “hang loose” vibes worked on his personality the opposite way that the intense, political atmosphere of Washington, D.C. affected me.

Perhaps our different levels of patience exemplify the difference in our cultures. My Western mindset insists that I can control my destiny if I work, scheme, and worry enough. At the very least, maybe I can get someone incompetent fired if I document the crap out of his failings. But Andy doesn’t see the point; people are gonna be stupid and other people are gonna cover for them. That’s life, and you have no control over your own fate, let alone anyone else’s. Why exhaust yourself changing nothing?

Much of my experience reinforced my Western views. After all, if I argued long enough and logically enough with my father, he’d come around to my point of view on everything from childrearing to Black Lives Matter (though it usually takes about a year for him to process, do his own research, and then lecture me using my own arguments).

Andy’s parents? You can talk until you are blue in the face. They don’t hear a word you say if it contradicts their ideas.

Maybe that’s how Andy learned to wait. He had to bite his tongue and bide his time until he got a job 3,000 miles away.

I left home at 18 and stayed impatient. Impatient with waiting for guys to ask me out—so I asked them out instead. Impatient with college—so I graduated in 3 years. Impatient with friends, which cost me more than a few relationships. And impatient with waiting for Andy to kiss me, so I kissed him.

It wasn’t until I was pregnant (MISERABLY pregnant) that I learned a modicum of patience. Unless modern science comes up with an artificial uterus, there’s no escaping 10 months of nasty pregnancy side effects. There’s no point in complaining, or crying, and it takes too damned much energy anyway (especially when you’re low on energy because you’re anemic).

I learned to endure nausea, hives, exhaustion, strict bedrest, and then the kid being weeks overdue.

As a reward for surviving pregnancy, I got to endure breastfeeding a growth-spurting giant baby. Welcome, cracked and bleeding nipples.

Followed by an energetic child who didn’t nap.

All the while, I would chant to myself: “Just a few more years until preschool. And then kindergarten.”

Call it patience, or call it endurance, but the ability to hunker down and wait out misery came in handy when Trump was elected. Even as I protested, donated, phone banked, or argued Trump cultists, part of me was simply counting the days, much like Imani Gandy’s thread of GIFs on Twitter:

Then came COVID. Which everyone who didn’t vote for Trump knew was going to be a nightmare, given that man’s ineptitude. There was no way we were going back to normal—and no way my kid was going back to school—until we had a vaccine. A vaccine would take at least a year. We were just going to have to wait out the horror, misery, and death. Which was maddening, because it was avoidable.

But if I thought about how much tragedy could have been averted by a competent, compassionate administration, I would spend my hours enraged. I would fantasize about head-butting Mitch McConnell into oblivion. Or putting up signs with the current COVID body count and the phrase “I’m okay with this!” next to my neighbor’s “TRUMP” flag.

Instead, as I waited, I gradually took heart.

Because we didn’t get COVID (yet).

Because Stacey Abrams created Fair Fight and Wisconsin took advantage of it.

Because Gen Zs is smarter than Fox viewers.

And because Treasonous Trumpers are stupid, and Black Capitol Police officers are smart.

And now?

Tomorrow, the waiting is over.

Fucking finally.

I hate waiting

Gifting East: Christmas Edition (#311)

Shopping for anyone from a different culture is tricky.

Shopping for your in-laws is tough.

Shopping for your Chinese-American in-laws?

You’re fucked worse than The Martian.

I’ve written before about how difficult it was to get gifts for Andy’s parents. The nicer the gift, the more Sunny was likely to return it, insisting that we should save our money. She wouldn’t accept an exchange or a credit, either. Sunny would demand that some poor clerk dig up our original credit card number and return it on our credit card.

And if the beleaguered cashier couldn’t find our credit card number? Sunny would call Andy and ask him for it.

We sent flowers next. Sunny complained that they were expensive and didn’t last.

Andy sent her live plants like orchids.

Those were acceptable. Or so we thought.

Then we found out that Sunny was refusing delivery of the plants.

We gave up on plants. Once Baby D was born, I sent baby pictures, often in pretty frames. Sometimes I added preschool artwork. When he was old enough, I made sure he wrote notes on the most expensive, elaborate cards I could find.

Delivery was never refused on those, at least.

*****

A few weeks ago, I reminded Andy that he needed to send his mother a Christmas gift. “Especially this year. She’s all alone. No one can even visit her because of COVID.”

“Don’t we have any school photos of Dashiell?”

“The kid didn’t have any school, how the hell would we get pictures?!”

“Couldn’t we get a photographer—”

“It’s too late, and a photo shoot is too risky anyway. Maybe a Harry & David basket of pears and apples since she doesn’t like sweets?” I suggested.

“Can’t send fruit to Hawaii.”

“What about a cheese and meat basket?”

“Makes her gassy.”

“Wait! She drinks wine, right? You can send wine through Harry & David now!”

“Yeah, but you can’t send wine to Hawaii, honey.”

“Ugh, you can’t send ANYTHING good to Hawaii. But…what if we got it delivered from a local liquor place? Remember how my brother just sent you that special bourbon through that Drizly on-demand liquor service? Can you do that?!”

Andy whipped out his phone and scrolled for a few tense minutes before shaking his head. “Doesn’t extend to Hawaii.”

“Surely now, with COVID and people quarantining, especially in Hawaii, surely SOMEONE has created an alcohol delivery service for Honolulu at least. Keep searching!”

Andy did. He searched for days, checked reviews, and made phone calls. Eventually he found a service called Kakaako Wine that not only delivered wine, they even added “local delicacies” and prettied the booze up in a gift basket.

Andy placed his order a few days ago. Then he sweated and fretted: “What if she doesn’t like it? What if…she refuses delivery?!”

“Call her,” I told him. “Call her and tell her you are sending a basket and they’ve already charged you!”

I don’t know if he called her or not. But here’s the text I got December 23rd:

 

A Sunny Visit (#309)

After my father-in-law died, my Chinese-American mother-in-law hunkered down at home for more than a year. Her children flew to Hawaii to visit her. Sunny, who had once longed to travel, only left the house for shopping and walks.

Until my brother-in-law needed help with childcare. Sunny decided to bookend her months at Denny’s house in Northern California with visits to our house in Southern California (and a side trip to Vegas with her sister, of course).

Having had my fill of in-law visits, I went to New York City during the first four days of Sunny’s visit. Don’t be thinking it was filled with shows or shopping, though! I cooked, cleaned, and helped my sister adjust to having a newborn.

When I got home, practically the first thing my son did was complain about eating out.

Now, maybe you think it’s normal for husband and son to eat out when the wife is gone. If so, 1) check yourself on the gender stereotyping and 2) you must be new here. Continue reading A Sunny Visit (#309)

Election Night: Then and Now (#305)

Over 70 million Americans have spent the week holding their breath. We remember how confident we were four years ago. How we arrogantly assumed that the rest of the country saw Donald Trump for what he was: a hateful, racist, incompetent, misogynistic narcissist who would run the country into the ground.

I watched the numbers roll in on CNN and compared it with the New York Times website. And by 7 PM PST, it was clear that Clinton did not have the votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It was shocking, but true. Numbers don’t lie. The trend was obvious.

My Chinese-American mother-in-law was visiting. She didn’t understand why I was upset. “It will be fine,” she said.

“It will not be fine,” I told her. “With the Senate also Republican, there will be no checks on that man.” I fled to my bedroom. Continue reading Election Night: Then and Now (#305)

Sunny, with a Chance of Travel (#303)

Many readers have requested more “when the in-laws visit” stories.

I see you, sadists.

The only good thing about my Chinese-American father-in-law’s decline was that he could no longer visit. (This is why I am not in prison.) Instead, Andy flew to Hawaii to help his mom with Jay’s care.

The one time Sunny briefly left her husband for her niece’s wedding, I told her how pleased I was that she had gotten away. (Jay was in the hospital for tests and procedures.)

“I feel terrible,” Sunny told me. “So guilty.”

“Why? You should get a chance to see your sisters and have a break. Jay’s fine, with round-the-clock care.”

“But he always said it was my job to take of him. And now I’m not.”

How was it that a man who could no longer speak was still imprisoning his wife with words? Continue reading Sunny, with a Chance of Travel (#303)

Cousins: East & West Edition (#301)

When I was a kid in the Dark Ages, we wrote letters instead of texts. My first pen pal was my cousin in Florida. She was a decade older than me, but she was kind enough to write back and not point out all my spelling mistakes. In third grade, I was a flower girl at her wedding. It was the first time I ever met her.

I wanted my son to have a closer relationship with his cousins—even though we were an entire continent away from them. Whenever my siblings gathered for weddings, holidays, or birthdays, we flew across the country to join them.

Though we used miles whenever possible, my frugal Chinese-American husband complained about the cost, or about how it wasn’t a “real vacation” if we were visiting family. Continue reading Cousins: East & West Edition (#301)