Mom has laid a three-foot spread of newspaper over the yellow linoleum floor. In an old, fifty-pound rice bag, several chickens squirm. I’m standing to the side waiting as the kettle sings its readiness on the stove. Mom picks up the kettle and pours steaming water into a white bucket next to the spread of newspaper. With an expert hand, she opens the rice bag and pulls out a chicken.
A couple of years ago, I read a fantasy novel that opened with the main character eating an apple on her way to market, and before that I read a fantasy novel where the main character and her companion packed bread and apples as their meal for their long, horseback trek across a kingdom to participate in a war that was devastating the countryside. Not gonna name any names or titles, but I was like, “Enough with the apples!” C’mon people. Can’t we do something different? Can’t we offer these characters some rice or something? Or maybe a cucumber?
A little while ago, I ran into some colleagues on the way home from work, and one of them pointed at my chest, lifted an eyebrow and asked, “You’re wearing your name badge home?” I told her I was, and that I always kept my name badge in my purse in case I needed it for something. The truth is, sometimes I forget to take it off, but sometimes I leave it on intentionally. I leave it on because it’s a weapon in a battle I face everyday. It sends a message I don’t need to verbalize—that I have a job, that I can take care of myself. It reminds me that I’ve made it, that I’ve pulled myself out of the poverty hole I grew up in. It acts as a shield against my memories of food stamp and milk vouchers and the barely contained repugnance of more privileged shoppers at the grocery store.
For most traditional Hmong families, “doing family” means coming together to share a feast that we’ve all cooked. “Doing family” is seeing younger nephews and nieces playing and grabbing sodas as they run in and out of the house, grandparents and men gathered in the backyard reminiscing. On the side of the house, aunts and sisters-in-law are washing mustard greens, cilantro and green onions for the next dish, while mothers congregate around big pots set on gas propane tanks. They talk and laugh about the latest gossip as they stir boiling pots of chopped pork. At the same time their daughters are endlessly washing big bowls and double-stacker rice steamers with the water hose. They stand on top of temporary wood pallets with the legs of their pants rolled up to keep from getting wet. This is a common way of gathering in the Hmong community. But was this how you envisioned “doing family”? With my busy schedule, I am beginning to prefer potluck style gatherings with my immediate family only.