When I tell my mother on the phone that I would like to teach me how to cook Vietnamese food when I visit Toronto in October, she thoughtfully replies, “Okay, but you know, everything is on the internet nowadays. Have you tried checking there?”
I have what I would personally consider a difficult relationship with food. A lot of the people I know talk about their childhood memories with great clarity, which I never understood. I remember vivid little details but nothing that would ever constitute as a full story, but thankfully, mostly of these vignettes of my young life revolve around the act of preparing and eating food.
I remember eagerly pushing a chair to the edge of the sink so I could peel and devein shrimp with my grandmother. I felt so much self-satisfaction when I was able to pull the little tail out of its telson in one piece, the translucent meat unbutchered, grey and glistening in my wet hands.
I remember the excitement of accompanying my family to the Chinese supermarket, which at the time, I treated as my own personal playground. I often got in trouble often for touching and climbing onto everything. I would stick my grubby hands in the containers of dried beans and scale precariously stacked bags of jasmine rice. My favourite activity was to poke and prod the lethargic crabs and mussels in the seafood section. I would attempt to make the sea snails kiss by sticking them to one another. The briny rank of fish markets remains a pleasantly nostalgic odour to me.
I remember waking up from the sounds of my mother getting ready for work at the crack of dawn. My drowsiness would quickly be replaced with hunger, and my mother would sit me down at the kitchen table with a warm bowl of white rice and cut apple slices as she waited for her curling iron to warm up.
I remember the family fishing trips we would take during the summertimes. We would drive home hauling a sloppy large white bucket crowded with smallmouth bass, and my father would gut and clean them in the garage as soon as we arrived home.
I remember the rattling of carts and clinking of china and the whirl of the lazy Susan that was common in all the dim sum restaurants we went to. Eating at these places were a game of strategy that involved a great deal of multitasking. As you were slurping down the rice noodle rolls, you also had to keep an eye on the woman toting the cart with the har gow to make sure you were the first to wave her down once she got close enough.
I remember picking cherries in our backyard. I remember every birthday cake with an absurd amount of clarity, always topped with canned peach slices, melon balls, and strawberries. I remember my mother telling me that I would have to eat a maggot in the afterlife for every grain of rice that went uneaten in my bowl in my current life. I remember being a little shit and not believing her. I would sneak outside with my unfinished bowls and dump them in the backyard for the birds to consume.
I called my mother today and asked her to help me flesh out a certain memory, and we ended up speaking for thirty minutes, laughing over the story of my younger sister mistaking a fish bladder for a prawn cracker.
These literally are some of the only things I remember from my early childhood.
It wasn’t till recently that my love towards food was challenged. A couple of years ago my anxiety reached a level where it became almost impossible to eat. A lot of what I forced down would find its way back up. And if for some miraculous reason a meal stayed down, it would give me terrible heartburn or intense gastrointestinal distress that would usually leave me curled up in the fetal position. I would put off eating for as long as I possibly could. I remember a low point during this time where I was hunched behind the counter at work and had thrown up in my cupped hands.
During this entire time, I was unaware that it was generalized anxiety causing me these problems, and a good chunk of my summer was spent getting blood tests and ultrasounds and having doctors tell me that there was nothing physically wrong with me. I spent a lot of time in bed crying, feeling terrified and cheated that the simple pleasure of eating had been stripped away from me. And this is going to sound fucking cheesy as fucking hell but the one thing I remember being able to successfully eat (and by eat, I mean destroy) without any difficulty was a large bowl of pho dac biet because sometimes life will prove to be one big and unavoidable cliché. This pho is a dish that has come to embody the comforts of home and my mother’s gentle and responsible heart, and it turned out to be the one thing I could keep down during this episode.
I’m much better now (I’m eating a big bowl of fettuccini alfredo as I write this), but I do have short periods of time where I lose my appetite and feel physically nauseated by the very thought of eating. I know these feelings are temporary now. Knowing this is comforting and allows me to muscle through those sluggish days where I feel like a sentient sack of meat because I know it will all eventually pass with time.
I recently learned that the human gut has more neurotransmitters than the brain. A 2015 study at Caltech found that around 90% of the human body’s serotonin (which regulates mood, sleep, and appetite to name a few) production occurs in the microbes in the gut. Some biologists have come to even dub the gastrointestinal system the “second brain.” Gut health is just as important as brain health when discussing the one’s mental and emotional well-being. This piece of information still baffles me, and has changed the way I look at my mental illness. Up until recently, I have been isolating the issue to the dysfunction of a singular part of my body (my dumb, imbalanced brain), which is probably a faulty way of thinking on my end.
I’m trying to use this new piece of information to my advantage. I love to eat but I’m terrible at it because I always forget to do it. My request to my mother will then function on multiple levels. My goal this homecoming is not only to help me further connect to my family and our culture–hopefully, I will also learn to be kinder to myself. That being said, I am looking forward to my trip in October and am already excited to recount my little cooking lesson in the future.
I feel as if the very acknowledgement of food’s importance to one’s mental well-being has the possibility of creating a more accessible dialogue in concerns to the topic of mental health. For me, this awareness is reassuring in its carnality and practicality. My mental illness doesn’t define me, but the food I eat sure does, and I’m totally okay with that.
About the Hello Friend series.