mouth stories.

originally written and sent as an email almost a year ago. title borrowed from poet aimee nezhukumatathil.

when my family moved to the bay from orange county, my mom started working for my uncle’s catering truck business in santa rosa, while my dad took esl classes at contra costa community college. eventually, they got their own lunch truck in hayward, with a route in milpitas serving a predominately latino clientele, service workers of the silicon valley. as such, my mom learned how to make menu staples like tacos and burritos from the previous cook. she did all of her prep work at home, which meant there was a lot beef being chopped on the kitchen table all the time.

and i remember she would make huge amounts of barbacoa in this fatty stock pot, and then sit on the floor pulling at the meat that fell apart on itself, it was so tender. she would feed it straight to me and my sister’s mouths like we were little babies. (she would do this with homemade meatballs too; who knows how much meat i ate as a child.) i didn’t actually learn that the meat was called barbacoa until i went to a chipotle for the first time in college and saw it on the menu. my mom picked up bits of spanish on the job, and spoke it quickly, pronouncing the ending syllable quà, like a gift.

a few summers ago, i was at my aunt’s house in orange county with my parents, and there was kind of a food gathering going on, with my other aunt and uncle and grandmother over. they were making spring rolls, the usual kind with pork and shrimp, and i mentioned that bò bía was my favorite, which always comes with the special peanut sauce. so i asked one of my aunts what hers was, and she was sassy in her response and said to ask my grandmother–she only ever made boiled vegetables and rice for dinner.

i was confused at first, mostly shocked at her audacity, but also the truth of situation. my parents were farmers in rural viet nam, and they grew the same vegetables they ate, which has now become a novel concept in my life: “gardening.” my mom said she learned how to cook “traditional” (in my re-imagination) vietnamese dishes by eying them at the grocery store, just like how she watches the food network channel and can recreate meals from there without ever paying attention the recipe. and i sat there, the only person from my generation, reeling from my idea of culture and its connection to food and history–how diaspora doesn’t always work the way you imagine it to.

last weekend i visited my sister l. in madison on a fifty cent megabus ticket. we hit up the farmers market where we passed on the cheese curds and tried our best to purchase from farmers of color, most ostensibly hmong. l. was super hyped on the butternut squash and bok choy offerings (her boyfriend j. says she has an addiction,) but we bought a few other things, including cải làn, which i never enjoyed because it was one of those boring boiled vegetables we had at every other dinner growing up.

but now, after college and separation from home, i have come to crave these foods. so l. and i called our mom that night to ask her for directions on how to cook the greens, and she was totally nonchalant about the affair, as always, saying to parboil them for a bit and then stir-fry it up with some sauce or whatever, and we’d have to interject and ask her to specify how long, and how much. she asked what else we were having for dinner, and after i rambled off some things, she remarked, what? veggies only? i had to reassure her, no mom, we have fish too. and it was then she said, good. you’ve done well. now you can come home and cook for me.


lessons re-learned

over a scrumptious ethiopian dinner, a new friend tells a story about the time a fly flew into her eye.  “it was bigger than a fruit fly and smaller than a horsefly.”  i recoil, trying to imagine something the size of a grain of rice lodged in my eyeball. “we tried blowing it out, flushing it with water, everything short of removing it with our fingers. no one wanted to touch my eye.” i imagine what an eyeball would feel like against my fingertip. peeled grapes? soapy marbles? the inside of a longan shell?  “the worst part is that i could feel it moving around.” she pauses to make room for our reactions–a symphony of gagging noises, expletives, and groans–before she finishes the story. “the next morning i woke up, and when i was washing my face, it just like, fell out of my eye. it came out in a clump, completely covered in eye juice, like a giant booger. my eye was completely fine.” i think of insects fossilizing in tree sap. more gagging gives way to intrigue and we stop being disgusted long enough to marvel at the way our bodies deal with foreign objects. i consider that boogers are just the crap in the air that didn’t make it past nasal security, and i stop being surprised at the way our bodies protect themselves.

one time when i was eleven, i got in big trouble. i probably couldn’t recount in satisfying detail what i did or what the repercussions were, but i know that it was the kind of trouble that left me marinating in my own guilt. i remember feeling helpless and anxious and what made it worse was that my dread was steeped in drowsiness. as the day inched along, i found myself on the verge of falling asleep at every turn–nodding off in class over passages of lord of the flies, while gripping my styrofoam tray in the lunch line, and at the handball courts in our fenced-in school yard. i was a narcoleptic delinquent pre-teen, threatening to pass out on you, but not before putting glue in your hair and writing mean things about you on my aol homepage.

later that day i got desperate and confided in a teacher about both sins and sleepiness and she said, you’re stressed out. sometimes, when we are out of tune emotionally, our bodies react by shutting down. this is its way of protecting you.

the summer that i turned eight i made an ill-timed turn while wearing ill-fitting shoes during a game of tag. i fell on a pile of glass. it was from a broken car window, one of those things that feels normal when you’ve only ever lived in new york city but realize later in life that actually, in many places people don’t often go around breaking into other people’s cars. after i got over the disappointment of being “it,” i started to pick myself up until i noticed that my left knee looked like mount vesuvius on a bad day–gaping hole, lava spewing haphazardly, a smattering of particles from the sidewalk like fallen ash on pompeii.

before i could react, a neighbor scooped me up and carried me into our second-story three-bedroom apartment, where my mother made sounds of dismay as she transformed the couch into a hospital bed with firefighter-like efficiency. she cleaned my knee with rubbing alcohol, sterilized a pair of tweezers, and dove in as if she was merely removing an ingrown hair. i felt the searing pain for a split second before i blacked out.

a few hours later, i woke up. the only evidence of the fall was my bandaged knee and the too big, blood-stained shoes placed in a corner of the room. i laid back down and asked my body, how did you know not to let me hurt anymore?

ebb and floetry

the other day i dreamt about pencils.  they were three different mechanical pencils that i spotted as i was walking by a table.  i picked them up, felt the weight of them in my hand, noticed the variations–color! translucence! erasers! ridges!–and wondered at the ways that humans have managed to transform simple writing implements into beasts.  when i was done, i put all three pencils in my pocket and walked away.  the end.

i woke up feeling a mixture of indignation and amusement.  wahhhh that was so boring!  what was the point of that?!  i don’t even use pencils wahhh!  and then i remembered that two years ago i regularly woke up with inch long scratches on my arms from dream crime fighting.  for nine months, every time i closed my eyes i transformed into the victim of a grisly murder.  next to a dream within a dream in which i’m killed in a bathtub and then “wake up” only to die again, three pencils is kinda nice (if on the dull side).

i believe the point of that (totally boring) story was to illustrate that i’ve been trying to practice serenity.  and what i mean by this is that i’m learning to appreciate stillness, to be present, even when it means embracing the parts of life and love that are unenticing.  this is no easy task, folks.  growing up, i didn’t have any cool kid toys so i spent my time watching pbs shows and reading books that instilled in me (mid)westward expansion dreams and a desire to churn butter.  i learned to keep myself up for hours every night with pioneer girl adventures and made up games and little kid theorizing.  you know that feeling when your mind won’t turn off even though you’re telling it to shutupshutupshutup, and it’s exclaiming, i’m your imagination! i just want to be wild and free!  i stumble into that space all the time.

especially during lulls, i’ve been known to hop on the crazy train and ride it to the last stop, sometimes staying on and letting it loop back around.  no, my mind won’t shut up and my body will not stay still.  i like movement.  i like to fight crime and tell stories about it after.  i want to churn butter!!! in work, love, play, and organizing, i tend to dive deep, come up for air, and then move on.  a few months ago, in an attempt to break the pattern, i decided to stay planted in baltimore.  i even started a blog post about it:

it’s true; i am the kind of person who runs.  my friends are used to my flitting around and chasing opportunities that bring me far from home for long stretches of time.  i’m young. i’ve spent the last five years living life in terms of semesters, bouncing from place to place every three months or so. i’ve always been the kind of person who could define myself by my work, who only took jobs that i loved and let myself be consumed by them.

but maybe now i want to be the kind of person who learns how to walk with stilts and make soap on the weekends. the kind of person who has time to eat brunch and go for runs.. who learns languages and cooks dishes for potlucks.  maybe i wanna be the kind of person who loves as hard as she works and has time for side hustles.  maybe i wanna be the kind of person who sticks around.

without getting into how successful i’ve been at doing any of these things (short answer: mostly not), i have to say that now i’m antsy.  can you be still even as you are going balls to the wall?  can you practice serenity when all you want to do is fuck shit up and dance?  how much of me can stay planted and present while the rest makes cross-country moves?  can’t i stilt walk and make soap in california? would i love less fiercely if i left?

two years from now, would i rather be telling the story of my inception-style bathtub murder or remembering the time i found three pencils?  can’t they be part of the same story?

we are okay

i decided earlier this week to incorporate less rage, more art into my life.  last week was particularly rage-ful for me and i felt the tension throughout my body all weekend.  so yesterday, on my way home from work, i stopped at the art supply store to pick up marker pens for future doodling endeavors.  pen to paper is often the only way for me to shake it off.

when i was done, i walked over to the nearest bus stop–one that i had never waited at before–and found myself looking at this:

n. charles st & north ave, baltimore

THANKS!  you’re right.  we are okay.

you’re the one i want to be reminded of

on a journaling date with a friend*, among musings on white supremacy, zines, and the word chink, we talked about the importance of honoring ourselves.  not just the parts that we’re proud of, that we have meticulously groomed through years of self-reflection and self-help, that we are willing to share with the world.  no.  we talked about honoring our small, silly, scared selves.  our little kid selves that have hidden in closets or under the covers while fires raged around us, that have bullied other little kids and reveled in feelings of power and belonging, that have been hurtful, or mean, or violent in order to stay resilient.

we talked about how much time we spend pushing/pulling away, and painting over these parts–all in the name of being smarter, better, faster, stronger.  but how crazy is it to think that actually… we are enough.  and we have always been exactly what we needed to survive–small, silly, scared and all.

so let’s try this again, to a different tune this time.

to the one who reads under her covers with a flashlight:

thank you.  thank you for being pensive and introspective.  for three hours a day, on your daily commute, you listened to dido and sat with your thoughts.  you were scared and lonely, and you learned to shut out the world and savor solitude, even in a crowded train car.

thank you for being rebellious.  you fought–hard–and perhaps this is the part that makes me feel small and silly.  i admit that when i see holes in walls or trip up during difficult phone conversations, i resent you.  i have a hard time forgiving you for the defenses that you put up, the excessive cursing, and the questions you never asked when you had the chance.  but bundled with all of that, you challenged authority and pushed boundaries, and where would we be now if you hadn’t been brave enough to do those things?

thank you for being a good friend.  ten years later, i still aspire to your honesty, creativity, and expressiveness in love.

thank you for staying angry.  surviving one year at your elite manhattan private school was not enough to make you complacent, and when people called you the ‘ghetto asian girl,’ after you were done feeling ashamed that you weren’t rich enough, white enough, upper west side enough, you got pissed.  your outrage led you to consider the intersections of race, class, and gender as you firmly planted your feet as a working class asian american woman born and raised in queens and said, fuck you.  my name is monna.

one time in the winter, you walked down a street in the neighborhood you grew up in and someone pelted you with a piece of ice.  through your hurt and rage you pondered the prevalence of violence in cities, in poc communities, against women.  you thought about what it’d be like to feel safe in your body, and you resolved to work towards that, always.

thank you for being fierce and resilient.

the one who tattooed your favorite literary character on her wrist.

*shout out to SHJ, one of the best things that has ever happened to the mullet, and my life. ❤

letter to my 13-year-old self

hey buddy.

life sucks right now, i know.  you’re going through puberty while your mom is going through menopause.  ten years from now this will be a little bit funny, but right now it feels awful.  i promise that you will be better for it, even if it takes years to realize this.  until then, here are some things you should know:

some things are worth doing because they are ridiculous and you will have great stories to tell for years to come.  this list might include climbing on rooftops, duct taping your friend to a couch, staying in a hotel room with a glass shower with the most platonic of buddies, and various instances of public nudity.  some things, however, are just not worth it.  things that are not:

  • smoking
  • stealing
  • lying
  • cheating
  • multiple all-nighters in a row

stop stressing about dating.  it will happen when you are ready, and when it does, it’ll feel like slipping into a pair of form-fitting jeans.   it will be with someone who is worth the trouble, who makes you feel comfortable in your skin, who is willing to si(f)t through your damage and find the parts of you that are vibrant, silly, and adventurous.  you are eventually going to leave this person, and that’s okay too.  sometimes jeans stop fitting.

you have really great friends.  they’re going to change, and you’re going to change too, but you will find a way to make it work.  in ten years, you will still have things to laugh over and stay up all night talking about.  of all the things in your life, this will hopefully always be the last thing you have to worry about.  keep finding new and unusual ways to express your love for these people, because they will be the ones you’ll turn to when you need to be reminded of yourself.

try harder to speak, read, and write chinese, okay? not taking the time to do this could be the thing you end up regretting most ten years from now, when you are struggling to tell your parents what exactly it is you do for a living.  you will grow to resent the ambitious econ majors in your college intro-level mandarin class and feel like an imperialist for seriously considering teaching english in china just for the language immersion opportunity.

start dancing now.  it will make you know yourself and other people better.  you will learn how to communicate.  you will be happier.  it doesn’t matter that you are a clumsy oaf 95% of the time, because there will be that 5% when you realize you are stronger and more powerful than you’ve ever given yourself credit for, and this will change everything.

and then you will blog about it!!!

your 23-year old self