White on Rice

I was six years old when my love affair with American food started. It was then, in the first grade, that I was properly introduced to it by the school cafeteria. I learned that hot dogs were not always compacted in tin cans and that rice was not a staple at every meal. I remember walking into the spacious cafeteria, the food aromas wafting, utensils clanging, and hungry children babbling. Every day I stood in awe of the steaming food patiently waiting to be devoured. My strict mother and Filipino upbringing, however, expected a different kind of lunch: a homemade Asian meal.

Coffee House Readings

It had all started after my first day of first grade as I perched on the stairs waiting for my mom to come home from the hospital where she was a nurse. My aunt, who usually stayed with me at night while my mom was working, had already left for work. My mom was late and so I sat alone, grabbing the maroon carpet beside my thighs. I heard the clamoring of keys and a swift shove of the door, and my mom appeared in front of me. Her eyes were bloodshot, her thick black curls disheveled, and her scrubs stained with a white powder as she reached out to hug me tightly. She had hurried home after a long twelve hours.

"Sorry I'm late, sweetheart," she sighed. The smell of latex gloves lingered as she walked to the kitchen and grabbed my Hello Kitty backpack.

"Where's my lunch box?" I asked as I put the backpack on. Her eyes widened and she took a step back, disappearing again in to the kitchen.

"I forgot. Mommy forgot to do it before work yesterday," she whispered.

"It's OK," I lied, looking to my feet.

"I would do it now if I had time… I'm sorry, I'm late, langaa," she said while rubbing her eyes back to life. I sighed. She had called me sweetheart in Filipino, which meant she was really sorry. She hugged me again, tighter this time. Disappointed that I would not be able to use my new Barney lunchbox, I begrudgingly went off to school with the dollar thirty-five jingling in my Hello Kitty backpack, for what purpose I had yet to learn. I sat in the classroom while the bell went off and my classmates jumped out of their seats, suddenly filled with excitement. Mrs. Cook led our perfect line of first graders to the cafeteria, her wrinkles moving as she talked animatedly. We approached the double doors to the cafeteria where Mrs. Cook instructed us to go to our class table and then wait for her to escort us to the lunch line. When she opened the door, my nose instantly filled with the warm, foreign smell of what I would soon learn was hotdogs, hamburgers and mashed potatoes. As our line marched into the enormous room filled with what looked like extra long picnic tables, I saw kids with heavy silver utensils eating food off of white plastic trays. There was no rice on the plate but rather a yellow stew containing pasta and the faint scent of cheddar cheese. Fascinated, I darted to my seat as my classmates leisurely followed behind.

"Do you have your money, sweetheart?" Mrs. Cook murmured. I violently nodded as I ripped the paper and change out of Hello Kitty's head and followed Mrs. Cook to the line. We walked into the kitchen, and I could not contain my excitement as we slowly inched toward the plastic plates, cups and bowls overflowing with American food begging me to try it.

"What do you want, dear?" the woman behind the metal counter asked as she gestured toward the food. Doe-eyed, I pointed to the various cups and bowls that seemed appetizing because I lacked knowledge of the proper terminology. I tossed the cashier my crumpled money and bolted back to the table, clenching my tray. My mouth was full of macaroni and cheese even before I had completely sat down. Satisfied with the yellow concoction, I moved onto the hotdog, an oblong piece of meat jammed between a fluffy bun and crowned with ketchup. I devoured all my food within ten minutes. Beyond satisfied, I waited for my peers to finish.

I went home that day excited to tell my mom about my eating adventure. I told her about the macaroni and cheese, the exotic cafeteria, and the fact that there was no rice.

"Isn't that weird? It's sooooooo weird, Mommy!" I exclaimed. She laughed.

"Maybe they didn't have rice today," she yawned and closed her eyes.

"No, they just don't have it. The cafeteria doesn't have rice." I said sternly.

"Mmhmmm," she mumbled while fingering through the pile of mail in front of her. Clearly, she was not as thrilled as I was.

"Are you even listening to me?" I bellowed, annoyed at her indifference.

"Langaa, mommy is still sleep. I worked last night," she said. I groaned, so she mustered a smile I did not believe. Then she widened her eyes and shook her head from side to side singing, "Buuut I'm going to wake up soon!" She would do that often, partly to make me laugh and partly to lighten the load of her fifty hour workweek. Then she hugged me and murmured into my hair, "I'm so glad you had a good day at school."

That night, the anticipation of the next day's lunch kept me up and I sang Barney songs until I fell asleep.

The next morning, I galloped down the stairs and held my hand out to my mom. In it she placed my bright purple lunchbox instead of the money I was expecting. Dumbfounded, I opened the box to find two foil pouches and a box of mango juice.

"What is this?" I cried in despair.

"Your lunch. It's rice and adobo. You don't like it?" she asked with disapproval.

"I want to buy lunch!" I hollered without hesitation. She laughed at my haughtiness. My mother saved every penny because she lived in caution that our house would foreclose, that she would be fired for not being a citizen, or that I would contract a rare disease with expensive consequences. She would never let me forget that disaster was not far away.

That day, as lunchtime approached and we walked to the cafeteria, I was one of the few girls who had to grab her lunchbox. I cracked open Barney's head and despondently took out the two hand-made foil pouches. My peers soon returned with their trays full of hot, delicious American food and I looked on with jealousy as they merrily chomped away. Dejectedly, I picked at the rice and beef stew with the plastic knife my mom carefully wrapped with napkins. Alex, a fellow first-grader, inspected my provisions and asked, "What is that?" with a slight air of contempt.

"Filipino food," I muttered.

"Looks weird."

That was it. No more. I hastily threw the foil pouches back in the box and stared at the clock as my classmates munched and chatted.

When I went home that day I immediately flung my backpack and lunchbox on the table and grabbed my Barney blanket for comfort. I heard my mom rustling through my belongings.

"What happened?" she inquired as she clutched the foil pouches.

"Mommy," I began, as she sat next to me, still holding the food. "I want to buy food. I want American food like all the other kids. They made fun of me today for the food I brought. I just want to buy American food like the rest of them." It was a slight bend of the truth but I had to do what was necessary in order to get what I wanted. I added a sniffle for the full effect. She sighed.

To my mother and my family, meals were an unquestioned experience, consisting of different variations of meat and white jasmine rice. My sudden disinterest in Filipino food confused and worried my mom.

"Ok…. I guess since you like American food, Mommy will give you American food." She would always refer to herself in third person, sometimes even calling herself "Daddy" to create some kind of humorous double authority.

After her concluding statement, she ambled away, scratching her head and quietly mumbling to herself about "….in the homeland." And there it was, mission accomplished. I would be an American yet again. I could already taste the creamy mashed potatoes.

The satisfaction lasted only until the next morning when I found my mom holding the purple lunchbox.

"Look inside!" she chirped, eyes lighting up. A hotdog mummified in saran wrap, a bag of potato chips and a small box of apple juice. Shocked, I dropped the box.

"Noooo! Buy food, not bring!!" I screamed as fury ran through my veins and bubbled under my skin. My mom bent down, took my head between her hands and looked me in the eyes.

"This is what we have and this is what you want. Ask someone to heat it up for you in the cafeteria," she said sternly. I started to whine, but she shook her head and raised a brow to my quivering lips. I could not fight back as she squeezed me out the door.

Another day. Another lunchtime. I sat in my seat staring at the purple plastic; quick glances to my left and right, then again to the box. My classmates were filing in around me with exotic food. My mouth started to drool at the familiar sight. I decided not to eat my own food. Ten minutes later my hunger won and I opened the hot dog from its plastic.

It was mushy and sticky in my hands, so I walked up to Mrs. Cook and asked, "Will you heat this up for me please?"

Seconds later she returned, hotdog still in hand and said sweetly, "We can't put outside food in the microwave, I'm sorry, sweetheart." I grabbed the soggy meat and wandered back to my seat. Embarrassed, I put my head on my lunchbox for the rest of the period.

As I sat on the bus going home that day, I thought of a master plan to persuade my mom. This was World War III. There was no backing down. This was go time. I entered the house, ready for a fight, and marched right up to my mother and proudly displayed the uneaten food to her. This time, however, she was not sympathetic. Her usual kind, round face quickly contorted, and her black eyes widened in outrage.

"Why did you not eat this food, Sarah? Others have nothing and you waste!" she raged. Surprised by the intensity of her attack, I quickly thought of my defense. I pleaded to her that I did not want soggy American food.

"I want normal food!"

At the word "normal," she started to pace back and forth, running her calloused hands through her hair.

"It's just me and you, Sarah. It's always going to be you and me, langaa. You have to help mommy here. I'm trying to give you what you want!" she roared while staring intently into my eyes. Her loud voice made up for her small frame. She stomped away, anger getting the best of her, wanting to calm down and not yell at me anymore.

Overpowered, I retreated back to my room and cried. I sobbed as I realized I would grow up the token weirdo, forbidden to participate in foreign American culture.

At dinnertime, my mom woke me from my sobs with macaroni and cheese. I eagerly took the piping hot bowl between my hands, not caring about getting burned.

"I made it for you because I know you like it. We can have American food at home too, langaa." She wearily smiled. She gently stroked my hair as I inhaled the stew before falling fast asleep.

The next morning my mom and I were silent, which was the norm after our big fights. She attempted an encouraging smile as I quietly exited the house, still mad. Lunchtime came and I again sat in my seat, feeling bad for myself and staring at the purple contraption in front of me for most of the period. I felt a body behind me and turned to see Mrs. Cook bending down to me.

"You haven't eaten in days, Sarah. Do you want me to buy you lunch?" Mrs. Cook said. I looked up and met her eyes.

"No."