Food by VICE

Rice Is a Highway

After fleeing Mao's China for Peru, and finally settling in Canada, my family discovered that rice was a comforting constant.

by Jackie Wong
Apr 26 2017, 6:00pm

Illustration by Adam Waito.

"¡Hola!" my grandfather would holler as my brother and I stepped through the side door of the garage with our mother, dropping us off in the morning on her way to work. " ¡Hola, Jackie! ¡Hola, Michael!" he'd say. And then, in Cantonese, the familiar question: "Have you eaten?"

The greeting is more widely exchanged among members of his generation than "How are you?" It recalls a time when food was scarce in China during Mao Zedong's horrendous Great Leap Forward, an era that caused such unprecedented devastation that its original five-year rollout was cut off at three.

During those years, Mao's Communists took everything. They took crops from farmers, causing millions of people to starve to death in the countryside. They took the jewelry my grandfather had given to his wife. It began in 1958, the year he turned 30 and she turned 28.

They had been married for 11 years by then, and had a baby girl. They'd worked as farmers and eventually in a pharmacy in Macau, the last familiar place they would live before fear for their future and a black market passport for Lima, Peru enabled them to leave Mao's destruction behind.

In Lima, they feigned Roman Catholicism, learned rudimentary Spanish, and started a new general store under a new family name—still mine, taken from the illegal passports they'd obtained to get out.

My grandparents spoke to us in Cantonese, Spanish, and English, often pulling phrases and words from each language into the same sentences. Their cooking carried a similar spirit of affectionate panoply.

Decades and oceans later, my grandparents on both sides would begin every conversation and phone call with the same question: "Have you eaten?"

To us lucky grandchildren, the question seemed rhetorical, especially if we were in their house. Just around the corner, there was surely a pot of congee on the stove, or an extra helping of stewed tomatoes and beef over rice in the fridge. But the daily need to measure wellness and survival this way was constant for them, even with full pantries in Canada. They saved bones, stems, and scraps to reuse whenever they could.

My grandparents had a knack for making ordinary objects sing with new life. Gong Gong, as we called my grandfather, wore hip, thick-rimmed glasses that he prided himself on owning since the 1960s. In the downstairs kitchen adjacent to the garage, he hid out-of-print $2 Canadian bills and obsolete Peruvian currency in the plumbing of the unused sink. Among the winter boots and quilted jackets stored nearby, he maintained a pair of white Nike sneakers (his "going out" shoes) from the 1970s well into the 2000s.

He was a slight, spry man who spent his retirement years in a matching cotton Penmans sweatsuit from Zellers under a blue polar fleece vest or thick-knit Cowichan sweater. Standing at a proud five-foot-five, he often broke into mischievous laughter, but he cut a menacing figure.

For all his graciousness out on the 14 Hastings bus and his generosity with his grandchildren, Grandpa Lai didn't fuck around. He always said what he meant. He had no patience for messes or latecomers or laziness.

Rice got my family through when everything seemed unfamiliar.

My grandmother was more forgiving. Her husband's willfulness had moved them from China to Peru to Canada, and somebody had to temper the often-annoying sense of determination that he passed on to my father, then me. "Don't worry," she often said to me in Cantonese. "Slowly does it."

She and my grandfather decorated their Vancouver Special house with knick knacks from the places they'd called home. In the front entranceway, they erected a small shrine with incense, a hanging lantern, and small sculptures of Fu, Lu, and Shou—the Sanxing ("three stars") deities of prosperity, status, and longevity. On some mornings when I was six, I would follow the smell of smoke and spy my grandmother praying to them by herself.

Upstairs on a shelf, they assembled a collection of fabric llama figurines, Inca plates, and Peruvian dolls from Lima, where my dad was born, where they named one son Fernando, and where they followed the locals and served their four kids bowls of black coffee before sending them to a school where the nuns were scary. There, they learned how to make lime-licked ceviche and peppery anticucho—favourite, anticipated items, cooked years later at my Auntie Ana's summer barbecues in her backyard.

My grandparents spoke to us in Cantonese, Spanish, and English, often pulling phrases and words from each language into the same sentences. Their cooking carried a similar spirit of affectionate panoply.

After they had attended to the other duties of the day, they'd reunite in the kitchen to work side by side through Vancouver's rainy afternoons. They'd simmer stock for corn and chicken soup with egg, or stand at the sink cleaning shrimp and smelt to deep-fry and serve with a ketchup-and-Miracle-Whip dressing alongside gai lan braised with oyster sauce. For Saturday lunch, they'd make papa rellenas with a Cantonese twist that had them rolling the Peruvian stuffed potatoes in rice flour to make them extra crispy when they fried them.

On Sundays, they'd pull a Rockwellian roast beef and baked potatoes from the oven, or stand at the stove to stir a batch of sopa de mondongo, a slow-cooked Latin American stew of tripe, tomatoes, and peppers.

Every meal—regardless of whether potatoes or noodles or some other carb was already in the works—was anchored by steaming bowls of white rice.

In a stout pot on the kitchen counter, rice was always there. It was enough to serve all 12 of us on Sundays, or more when we grew up and brought partners and first kids. The fine white grains stuck to our bellies, to our Beaver Canoe sweatshirts, and to the bottom of our white 90s sport socks.

It was as though the sticky rice within the Christmas turkey was saying, "We made it. We're still here."

Rinsing and cooking rice was a daily ritual as ordinary and comforting as breathing. It stretched out a meal. It was predictable, invisibly constant. In a life that delivered so much chaotic, frenetic newness and upheaval, rice was the comforting glue that held things together.

Rice got my family through when everything seemed unfamiliar, which it was for so many years in Lima, and then finally in East Vancouver, where Chinatown was just a bus ride away and they could talk to people in a language that felt like home.

Vancouver was a place where they could cook to celebrate. They braised abalone and shiitake mushrooms over bok choy for Chinese New Year. My grandmother made grand batches of barbecue pork buns we would eat after school. At Christmas, they'd roast a crispy-skinned turkey that held a secret inside, my favourite: sticky rice stuffing flecked with salty-sweet lap cheong (Chinese sausage) and mushrooms.

It was as though the sticky rice within the Christmas turkey was saying, "We made it. We're still here."

My grandparents welcomed many influences into their lives, most explicitly in the kitchen, where they seemed to invite the whole world in.

I can only hope, but will never know since they've died, that the locals in their new home cities ever returned the gesture.

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