At my mother’s call to dinner, I scramble to my feet. I am eight years old, clinging to fleeting wishes and dreamy passions the way all other prepubescent girls do. Abandoning my Rainbow Loom, I scurry into the kitchen with high hopes for the ensuing meal.
Sizzling ginger and chives waft its way into my eager nose, and expecting one of my favorite Asian dishes -- perhaps pai gu, Chinese pork ribs, or mian tiao, noodles -- my eyes gravitate towards the table.
Instead, a horrifying scene greets me. A whole fish, glistening scales and all, languishes on a platter with minced ginger and green onion. One lazy eyeball, barely attached to its eye socket, seems to scrutinize me from its perch on the dislocated head. A repulsive sight, especially for a young, impressionable girl who reads regularly about animal rights.
So I do what any other sensible eight-year-old girl would do. I shriek.
Naomi, calm down. It’s zheng yu.
Zheng yu. [Steamed fish.] A Cantonese delicacy from our hometown, Canton.
I don’t want to eat it.
A flicker of [shame, disappointment] crosses my mother’s face. Okay. Make something to eat for yourself then.
What I did not know at the time is the amount of preparation and effort for my parents that goes into putting this fish on the dinner table. While I dream and fantasize with my toys, my mother and father labor quietly downstairs, descaling and cleaning the fish for hours -- followed by the most significant step of all, steaming. Even when I am eventually taught the process, I brush it aside in an Americanized fashion. It is only ages later when I begin to embrace the culture of my ancestry.
This so-called battle between my parents and me persists for years throughout my childhood, always ending the same way: I, the provoker of the skirmish, demand food that is adapted to my tastes, be it plain rice or pasta with Walmart tomato sauce. My parents allow this. At eleven years old, I shamefully remember being served a separate dish than the rest of my family one night simply because they had conceded. I had victory, but what exactly did I win?
In recent years, social media platforms and influencers have given much-overdue appreciation to Asian culture in numerous forms, from the rise of mukbangs and fox eyes, to the popularity of bubble tea and Yakult drinks. Although well-intentioned, the sudden infatuation with certain Asian trends throws my younger self off. Who am I, really, in the grand scheme of things? America, the promise of a new life, a melting pot of cultures, as they say, was founded by immigrants. Am I an immigrant, then, born on foreign land?
When my parents arrived in ‘98 with nothing but business textbooks and a hope for a future, did they dream the American dream, like all others fresh off the boat? Who am I to throw generations’ worth of memories, of comfort food, of nourishment away?
It is not easy, but slowly, over the course of months, I make a promise that I will do better: for my heritage and for my own parents.
The night I turn fourteen, I do not hover as a stranger in the doorway of our kitchen. I cross an invisible line I had drawn myself, fabricated from years of self-loathing and torn identities, and I join my mother and father as an equal.
I do not see their faces, but I can hear the smile in their voices.
Ling Yunduan, pass the ginger. Here it is.
I learn how to descale and gut a fish for the first time, and I no longer cringe in disgust when I separate the head and tail. At the one slimy eyeball I wink back.
In true Canton-style, we do not overdo the flavor: just minced garlic, cilantro, green onions, and a splash of soy sauce and hot oil to taste. While the fish steams, my father explains that it must be caught and eaten in three hours or less in order to taste the freshest. Any longer than that, and it has lost its zest.
As I scour the glistening skin of the fish, my mother compares zheng yu to life -- perhaps to crack a pun and give me a laugh. It’s a process, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. I am eight and eleven years old once again, grasping onto snippets of two worlds in a struggle of reconciliation. I still have ways to go before I truly embrace my motherland, the ugly parts and bittersweet parts and everything in between, but for now?
I’ll help myself to some fresh zheng yu -- even that eyeball.
As a Chinese-born-American, I grew up having to reconcile two identities into who I am today. This is an attempt at diving into my struggles through a dish I've grown up with: freshly caught zheng yu, or steamed fish.