You have to stick to a bag of rice. And I’m not talking about the little disasters that can be heated up once in the microwave – I mean the many 50-pound who are always near records at grocery stores like Seafood City or 99 Ranch, the ones you have to put in a rice dispenser, a piece of furniture that’s suitable for homes Asian.
Growing up in the Philippines, we would eat rice with every meal. Every day we had to decide what to eat with. The strong flavors of the pot-cooked beans flood the kitchen whenever my grandmother cooks, nicely supported by everything I found on the wet market that morning, whether it was delis, little anchovies that were fried with chile and sugar, or ambalaya, bitter melon sautéed with pork and fish sauce. Some days just a bowl of rice was enough.
When I was eight years old, my grandmother taught me how to cook rice on the stove, fearing for my future independence and self-sufficiency: “God forbid that the rice pot explodes!” She took me to the shiny green plastic barrel where we kept the pills. I could barely see it. I passed my hand through the rice. She encouraged me to feel how wonderful the rice was on my fingers, and how my hands were covered in soft silt that smelled foul and sweet. This, “I remember saying,” is all you need. “
She showed me how to clean dry rice, remove the residue of husks and small pebbles, how to clean the rice when it is wet, and rinse it over and over until the water is clear and it feels like large grains of sand barely sticking together. She dried the pot, placed it on top of the stove, and gave me the magic cooking method: pour water over the rice until it is a knuckle length over the grains (no matter how much rice is below) and combine that with patience.
Tagalog contains almost as many words for rice as the number of stars in a galaxy. When the bigás turned into kánin, and as my enthusiasm for the cortical hole escalated, something clicked and felt connected to my phyla. I grew up in my grandmother’s eyes. Using a simple bowl, she taught me how to turn humble rice into a porridge called lúgaw, how to fry it with garlic for sinangág, and most importantly, how to cherish something deceptively ordinary as a source of such relief. She has nothing to worry about.
I moved to the US without papers when I was 10, with heavy accent and full of culture shock. From Metro Manila to the malevolent health that was in suburban Orange County, California, I maneuvered the most recently found America through my Jesuit upbringing, and I apologize at nearly every turn for the Filipino way I’ve been giving. My tastes shifted and grew as I ate increasing amounts of very American food, things that originated in movies and magazines: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milk chocolate, square pizza, ranch sauce.
Almost every immigrant child has the shameful food experience of dumping culturally appreciated lunch food into the home but to other kids it smells strange or looks bad. To avoid this shame, I’ll buy Lunchables, cheese, and French fries at school, making sure to get my teenage moving by keeping my Filipino food and rice at home. Despite my efforts at assimilation, I didn’t feel completely American because I still had a very Filipino dinner, as rice had always been around. Even though the rice became a reminder of a place I would never call home again, I never felt like eating it. A warm bowl tastes like the feeling of a hug, the smell of nostalgia that puts me in my grandmother’s kitchen, thousands of miles away and many years away.
My mom and I were studying American history together, she is for a citizenship test and myself for civics classes, our sessions are enriched with Filipino food as the orange light of the rice cooker glows in the background. After my mother acquired her citizenship, I also became naturalized but still felt uncomfortable at the prospect of having to describe my future self as an American.