Once upon a time, my mother told me when I was a child, a spoiled merchant lived at the bottom of a tall mountain. The merchant had storerooms full of rice, and he didn’t notice or care that he wasted some every day. Grains of uncooked rice fell on the floor when he cooked, but he never bothered to pick them up. At the top of the mountain lived his neighbor, a monk. Every day, the monk walked down the mountain asking for alms. When he stopped at the rich merchant’s home, the monk picked up all the wasted rice and walked away with half a bowlful. One day, a huge flood came, and the merchant lost everything. He climbed up the mountain and went to the monastery to beg for his dinner. The monk, my mother explained, gladly shared his rice with the merchant. You see, she said, he had saved a whole storeroom full of it, thanks to the merchant’s wastefulness.
Thus went most of the stories my mother told me when I was growing up. She told them to me whenever I wasted food or was too greedy. They were cautionary tales, with the common theme being the terrible fates that befell anyone — especially little girls — who didn’t finish their food. Divine retribution for leaving rice on the plate ranged from the creative — my aunt warned me I would “marry a man with as many pockmarks on his face as the rice left in your bowl” — to the classic — my mother said, “I grew up with a little girl who wasted her food and now she’s a beggar.” Essentially, it boiled down to: If you waste your food, you’re losing much more than a meal — you’re risking your future.
Like most first- and second-generation East Asian-Americans, some of my deepest memories center on food. Food is a source of communion, a way to display both affection and criticism. But our relationship with food also directly reflects our relationship with scarcity.
In the mid-20th century, China underwent widespread famine on a cataclysmic scale due to the culmination of environmental factors, war, and the Great Leap Forward. While the “Great Famine Of China” (三年大饥荒) officially only lasted from 1959-1961, not having enough to eat remained the general state of things for much of the population. Until my maternal grandmother, Dong Qun, was in her early twenties, food was strictly rationed and distributed by the Chinese government to citizens only once a month, and the amount given was based on their number of registered family members.
“The 25th of every month was the day rationing opened,” my grandmother tells me now, remembering her youth in Urumqi, Xinjiang. “Every month there would be lines starting midnight the night before, and you would have to wait hours and hours. If you waited until the morning of the 25th, you wouldn’t get enough for a bowl of porridge,” says Dong.
Her family only had a wok to cook rice in, she tells me, and it cooked rice unevenly; there was always a burnt crust left on the bottom. After all the unburnt rice was eaten, they would soak the black crust until it came off the surface. As the oldest child still living at home amongst her seven siblings, it was my grandmother’s duty to eat that crust. Since they didn’t have a refrigerator, buns would spoil quickly. Getting home late in the evening from class, the only things left to eat, Dong remembers, were buns decorated with mold.
Sometimes, when Dong and her sisters were particularly hungry, they would walk over to a nearby soap factory, where peanut oil was used to make soap. If they spotted chunks of leftover peanut oil on the ground, they would fight over it. When her stomach hurt so much that she couldn’t study anymore, Dong tells me how she would pick through the coal fields: “There was a very soft kind of dirt, the consistency of liver, outside of the coal factory... I’d go pick that out and eat it.”
By the time my mother was born in the 1970s, China was recovering from the famine, and my mother — unlike her own — grew up having enough to eat. Both of her parents worked — a rarity; and my mother was one of only two children — even more of a rarity, in a time when most families had to split their rations between four or five children. My mother never worried about where her next meal would come from, and her father’s government job in the CCP car factory guaranteed that the family would have higher rations.
Still, food was never taken for granted. “Until I was in high school, meat was a treat and we had to give all our white flour to my great-grandfather, so we were forced to eat cornmeal,” she says.
It wasn’t until my mother moved to the United States that her eyes were opened to the cavalier attitude many Westerners have toward food, something that became especially clear as she raised me in a drastically different environment than the one in which she’d grown up.
“I remember volunteering in your first grade class for a craft day and doing a double-take when the teacher brought sacks of wheat flour to make dough for you kids to play with!” she says. “Good wheat flour played with like that? Unthinkable! In China if we did that as kids we would think God would punish us.”
I was born during my parents’ seven-year stint in the Capitalist Asian Disneyland that is Singapore, where you can buy prawns as big as your palm for less than a dollar. I don’t remember much about those years, but I do remember growing up surrounded by overcooked, unseasoned Western food in the suburbs of Minnesota. I vividly remember comparing how my friend’s mom threw away half a tray of cookies because kids had picked through them, while my mother recycled oil after frying chicken in it. My family was solidly middle-class and food was never a problem, but old habits die hard.
“Just because we have food now doesn’t mean we should waste it. That’s asking for God’s wrath,” she used to say.
Tammy Spears, a 26-year-old who moved to the U.S. from Vietnam with her family when she was seven, has a similar experience to mine, and we bonded over our parents’ shared neuroticisms when we first met as recent college grads.
“In America — in the suburbs of Houston — no one was really starving,” Spears says. “That made a huge difference in how the kids in my school treated food. They would throw away half of their uneaten food, and as a 3rd or 4th grader fresh off the boat I was like, That’s so odd, that’s so weird, where does all this food go?”
Our parents will always approach food from foundations of scarcity; it is forever linked to emotions rooted in a lack of control: gratefulness and fear. This fear was passed down to their Western-influenced children; as Spears tells me, “I grew up understanding that, okay, we just left a war in Vietnam.” For Americans of privilege, though, wars are something that happen far away, rather than happening at home, where they live and eat.
The pandemic has rocked this privileged position significantly, however. People in the U.S. are stocking up on food and living amenities like their WWII great-grandparents as food supply systems are disrupted by COVID-19, and a second wave of COVID-19 panic buying strips grocery shelves. When staples are scarce, to waste them is sacrilege, and figuring out how to take care of your family translates understandably into fear of change. For the first time in decades, people in the Western world are becoming conscious of a fear Asian immigrant parents drilled into us, a fear that when things really pop off, nobody, and certainly not the government, will save you.
To this day, my parent’s pantry always has enough flour, rice, and toilet paper for a small army. I’ve long been indoctrinated in the cult of Costco thanks to my mother and her friends. In an article on this site about the “disaster mindset” of Asian Americans, Connie Wang noted that living that way, and thinking about resources from that perspective, is what has helped the community “survive." Currently, the world is facing the worst food crisis in the last 50 years. Unless immediate action is taken, the impending global food emergency could seriously impact millions of children and adults — including in the Western world. As relationships with food evolve on a global scale, it is more important than ever to understand the “why” behind disaster mindsets, appreciate the ways in which they have kept us alive for generations, but worry about how they hinder new generations of children, particularly those in immigrant communities, with guilt and fear.
Feelings of guilt and fear can take on other dimensions in times of crisis, as well. An epithet often used against Asian Americans is: “Asians eat everything.” As the COVID-19 pandemic has been dubiously linked to Asian wet markets, the playground slur of “Asians eat everything” has turned into the rallying cry of xenophobia during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a line of attack that’s driven by bigotry — a fear of the unknown, rooted in part in a lack of understanding.
Hearing these scared, confused people makes me want to go back and explain how tasty shrimp congee is to the fourth-grade teacher who exclaimed with disgust when she saw I’d included it in the food journals my class was keeping, or have a frank conversation with the old guy I heard on the bus blaming COVID-19 on “Chinese people eating bats.” I want to tell them what it means to “eat everything.” It means to do what you need to do to survive, whether that means picking weeds to boil in starvation times or simply reusing leftovers. And, I would add this addendum: Asians eat everything, because we had to in the past, and we are always ready for the next famine.