Ever since I was a child, I have always known that food is something to be both loved and feared. My grandmother used to tell me that my mother fed me spoonfuls of butter as a child, that this was why I had a natural propensity toward greasy mounds of fried onion rings and MSG-flavored chicken teriyaki combos at the mall, swallowing bits of oily broccoli down without chewing, not quite registering what I was doing. The Wind in the Willows, my favorite book when I was eight, features a scene in which Rat describes their picnic basket contents to Mole— ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeat gingerbeerlemonadesodawater—‘
‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstacies: ‘This is too much!’
But I didn’t want Rat to stop. I would mumble the list to myself as if it were an incantation, enthralled by how this passage excited a sort of hunger in me, that even words themselves could be as crisp and delicious as the apples my grandmother cut into pieces and slathered with peanut butter for an after-school snack.
As I grew older and began to go out with friends for lunch, my grandmother seemed to take even more importance in preparing meals for me, an attempt to keep me close, watching me with incredible intensity as my chopsticks travelled from the small dishes of fish, cucumber salad, fermented soybeans, and slimy mountain potatoes to my mouth. “Moto tabenasai, moto.” Eat more, more, she would say, her stern brown eyes scalding me even through thick gold-rimmed lenses, even after I had asked for second servings of rice, even after the mirin glazed salmon had been reduced to a pile of bones, its shape fossilized into the white square plate. I would always oblige, though I felt a sort of kinship with hospital patients being force-fed, partly because I did not want to bear the wrath of refusing her hospitality, but also because I always knew I could eat a little bit more.
This is why it came as such a surprise when I announced to my grandmother during my sophomore year of college that I was a vegan. Already, I had lost over 60 pounds in less than two months, which was, to be frank, what I really cared about—not to save the caged, chemical-injected chickens who glared at me on the highway as I passed by a farm truck, not to ensure that the white, dreadlocked liberals on campus could put up their “MEAT IS MURDER” signs once and for all, but to shed my soft, dimpled flesh and the rare and inescapable burden of being a fat Asian girl along with it.
“What does ‘begam’ mean?” My grandmother asked as we were sitting at the kitchen table. “You sick. Fish and chicken good protein.”
I picked at a jelly stain on the tablemat. “I’m not sick, bachan. I just care about animal rights.” My stomach growled at me to stop lying, but I pretended not to hear it.
Later that night, my grandmother prepared the usual feast, meaning soup cooked with fish broth, marbled layers of beef nestled in between rice noodles and soft potatoes, and, of course, more fish.
“Fish is not meat,” my grandmother said as she began to slap slabs of beef onto my plate. Unlike other people, my bachan can so overturn the laws of nature as to declare what is and is not carnivorous, so while I decided that arguing was useless, I made a quick assessment of everything in front of me.
Cucumber salad: low caloric content, but filled with sugar.
Salmon: high in omega-3, good fat, but don’t know about the sauce. Roughly 300 calories.
Niku-jaga (beef, potato, and rice noodles): my favorite dish in the world. Flavorful and soft. Beef has too much fat, probably 250 calories for a couple of strips. Potato and noodles full of starch and sugar. Inedible.
I took a few pieces of cucumber in my chopsticks and slipped them into my mouth. “It’s really good, bachan,” I said, munching vigorously to show how hungry I was, but I could tell that she already knew.
My friend Marjorie from high school once nicknamed my grandmother Omni because she was, apparently, everywhere—the locker room where we would be changing for tennis practice, the lunch room, algebra class, pep rallies, Chik-fil-A, showing up to berate me for not wearing a jacket in 80 degree weather or because I hadn’t washed my hair that morning. The fact that she could not, no matter how hard she tried, dissect my thoughts or motives as she did my schedule, infuriated her to the point where she always assumed that I was lying.
“You lying,” my grandmother said, sniffing as she poured soy sauce over my spinach salad. It glugged heavily as she emptied the last of its contents onto the dish, so that the bits of green were barely discernable underneath the blackness.
“You literally just ruined it,” I said, pointing at the salty wet mass before me. “I don’t want it anymore. Also, I am not.” I said it with such authority that I almost believed it myself.
My grandmother raised her sparse eyebrows at me to tell me that, as usual, she did not believe me. We continued our meal in silence until the tea was no longer warm and the bowl of cucumbers was no longer full.
Back in my childhood home, I walked into the bathroom and pulled at the pieces of flesh around my stomach, grabbing any offending chunks of fat so hard that I hoped they would fall off. After ten minutes of waging war with my body, I turned off the lights and walked into my room. Laying down in my bed, my once fitting t-shirt hanging off the bony knobs of my shoulders, I scrolled through pictures of gourmet meals on Instagram, ice cream, fried chicken—all the food that I could not eat.
The next morning, I ate a quarter of a banana and gave my mother’s cat, George, some food. He had a constant look on its face of bewilderment mixed with constipation, which I attributed to the previous owners’ tiny, overenthusiastic children. Suspicious of my sudden attempt at friendship, George smelled my hands and then his food for a good ten minutes to ensure that it wasn’t poisoned. The test proved successful and George began attacking the salmon pate, his tongue and teeth working simultaneously to consume as much pink mush as possible. Entranced, I reached out to pet his back, thinking that I might be able to absorb some of his aura so that I, too, would be able to feel full once more. Such an act proved to be unsuccessful as George hissed and fled to his safe place under my mother’s car, leaving me and the remainder of his meal behind.
Connie Shen is a 23 year old non-binary femme from Greenville, South Carolina and Toyohira, Hiroshima. They attended Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina and have been published in magazines such as VISIONS: an asian-american literary magazine, OUTSIDER mag, and Oni Magazine. They are now an MFA candidate in creative non-fiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Growing up as a queer Japanese and Chinese femme in the South, their work deals mainly with struggles with race, gender, and sexuality in conservative, white spaces.