June 7, 2010
Today’s Inviting Writing essay on the topic of “fear and food” comes all the way from Singapore, where reader Melody Tan is based. We appreciated her vivid, insightful storytelling, and think you will, too.
Dinner With My Grandfather
By Melody Tan
For as long as I can remember, my family has spent Saturday evenings at my paternal grandparents’ home, an old walk-up apartment that boasts peeling paint and cracked concrete walls. It’s a rare sight in Singapore, one of the few rundown buildings not yet demolished and replaced by a whitewashed new condominium.
Saturday evenings at my grandparents’ place consist of two key events: dinner, and television watching afterward. My grandmother still cooks the dinner by herself, a traditional Teochew Chinese meal featuring at least four dishes, a soup or curry, and steamed white rice. In the kitchen, next to the rice cooker, is a teapot full of heavily sweetened hot English tea for anyone who wants a cup.
It all sounds admirably homely, but with six middle-aged children and ten grandchildren squeezed in the cramped dining room, Saturday night dinners are more apt to recall a frantic assembly line: people taking turns to eat at the undersized round table, loud calls for more soup to be ladled into the communal bowl, conversation kept to a bare minimum in favour of scarfing down rice as quickly as possible.
Us grandkids never wanted to sit next to my grandfather, a formidable presence in his tattered white singlet and blue pinstriped boxers, still a big man even in his old age. He had a habit of glaring silently at you while you ate, somehow managing to convey a powerful disapproval tinged with disappointment over his bowl of rice.
Is it the way I handle my chopsticks? I used to wonder nervously. Did I eat too many meatballs? Or too few? It’s because I’m a girl, isn’t it?
My older cousins, all male, managed to keep eating throughout this bloodshot scrutiny, but I invariably lost my appetite five minutes in. I couldn’t ask my grandfather what he was thinking while he glared at me; we didn’t speak the same languages. Occasionally he grunted at me in the living room, which was about as close as he might get to acknowledging my existence beyond the dinner table.
Throughout my childhood, the terrifying ritual of Saturday dinners with my grandparents continued. I would slink to the table reluctantly, and pray my father wouldn’t tell me to sit next to my grandfather. Once ensconced in the dreaded seat, I kept my eyes down and nibbled on dry white rice, too frightened to reach out with my chopsticks for a stir-fried mushroom or one of my grandmother’s golden, eggy prawn fritters.
Sometimes my grandfather would place food in my bowl. To a picky child, these occasions were the height of terror. He always gave me something that was “good for you”—according to my parents—but was the equivalent of Fear Factor to my white-bread tastebuds. Shreds of black fungus, steamed cabbage with preserved shrimp, a gamy slice of braised duck. Under the watchful eyes of the adults, I whispered “thank you” and choked each offering down, too afraid to protest and risk a scolding.
This fear of my grandfather kept me at a distance from him for years. He was so forbidding, so uncommunicative and remote, like a mountain range no one was foolish enough to climb. Later on, when I had grown up and conquered my fear of the man and his unfamiliar food items, the distance remained. We had nothing in common beyond shared genes. He liked American pro wrestling and nature documentaries featuring sharks and lions. I liked Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, the concepts of which were difficult to explain in Teochew. He continued to glare at me during mealtimes, but I nonchalantly ignored him and helped myself to seconds.
Then one evening I sat down at the table earlier than usual and was repulsed by the sight of my grandfather feeding my cousin’s year-old daughter. I had never seen my grandfather engage in any form of child-rearing before. It was a stomach-churning sight. First he pincered up a bit of steamed fish with his chopsticks, placed it into his mouth and chewed, carefully extracting the fine silver bones with his fingers. Then he extricated the grey mush and fed it to his great-grandchild, placing it onto her tongue delicately with his fingertips.
“Gross!” I whined to my mother, in the car on the way home. “He chewed it first!”
She seemed amused. “Don’t you know he did it for you too? When you were a baby, he fed you fish the same way. You ate it without complaining.”
Stunned into silence, I stared out of the car window, watching the buildings and streetlights go past. My grandfather had fed me, moving food from his mouth to mine, like a baby bird and its mother. Not even my parents had done that. It was disturbingly intimate, and I was unable to believe that we had once been so close.
The car stopped at a traffic light, and I remembered how gentle my grandfather had been with the baby, the way he gingerly placed the chewed fish into her mouth, in case she should choke. One part of me was still shocked, unable to get over the Animal Planet nature of what I had seen. The other part of me thought: Maybe we do have something in common after all.
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