by Christoph Grosse
A strong, young man cannot develop on white rice and soy sauce alone. In response to my picky eating as a child, my mother once hid a bit of cod in congee she made for lunch, sneaking some nutritional value into my diet. At least the way I liked it, congee was still technically white rice with soy sauce. The fish blended with the broken rice porridge, and I finished my bowl of jūk none the wiser, my aunt Lily and my mother exchanging a conniving look as I did. I asked them if they were hiding something. Upon learning that I had just eaten fish (which was supposedly "good for me") I gagged in a fit of melodramatic trauma.
On paper, we’ve no familial relation, but the intense friendship between Auntie Lily and my parents could be blood. One could consider her my godmother were we a non-secular family. Her family hails from Fuzhou, my mother’s from Guangdong; Lily grew up south of both provinces in Hong Kong. In the mid-20th century, both families immigrated to Manhattan's Chinatown, settling down between the shadows of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. She found a fast friend in my mother, Lucy, a woman who shared her conviction, empathy, and stalwart work ethic. They remain close, all these decades later.
Auntie Lily is astute, unconquerable, and assertive. Her dark eyes are always fixed upon you in conversation, formulating a poignant and well-forged response to what you have to say. She’s the first to tell me when she doesn’t think we’d have a good time at a restaurant that I’ve found on social media, and even quicker to steer us in the right direction. “I’ve had better,” she’ll say. “There’s a place down Grand Street that I prefer. Don’t forget cash.” We’ll transition from trendy Malaysian fusion to nyonya’s rich, red Laksa in a heartbeat. I almost always forget cash. She almost always picks up the bill.
It’s a big, scary, edible world out there, and I grew up in a central position of a cultural compass rose. East and West coalesced in my family kitchen, two distinct cuisines attempting to find common ground in the mind of a mixed kid. Food is canon in both Chinese and German culture - the former sees folk greeting each other with “have you eaten rice yet?” (“Ni chī fan le ma?” 你吃飯了吗?) - and my home dinner table hosted a confluence of both. Despite these tastes of Canton and Bavaria available to me, I consumed primarily white rice with soy sauce. If I was feeling adventurous, I’d sprinkle on some Maggi Fondor, a German all-purpose seasoning salt of dehydrated herbs, onion, garlic powder, and, most importantly, MSG. A potent sodium-laden umami mix of both my cultures - the staple cereal grain of the Chinese, with industrialized German inflection. An infelicitous Frankenstein’s monster of a meal, with none of his brawn.
Humble white rice is an accompaniment to many a dinner table but rarely serves as a meal in and of itself. As a child, this felt like a table I wasn’t Chinese nor German enough to sit at so I grazed from the sidelines. The most surface-level Cantonese foods made up my plate at my mother’s dinner table - rice, pastries, and sweet-sticky charsiu pork. My father’s - Käsespätzle, schnitzel, Wurst, and Bratkartoffeln spiked with caraway seeds (which he used in most everything he’d cook). These Bavarian dinners were closer to the American fast food I saw my friends eating. They were easier for my mind to swallow than the dishes my mother’s sisters would prepare for our family gatherings, like pearlescent, sweet tapioca soup (sai mai lo, 西米露), or sticky rice folded in lotus-leaf (laap may lo mai fan, 臘味糯米飯) like so many presents I left unwrapped on the table.
I benched myself on the sidelines of Chinese cuisine. Meals were cause for dissonance; choosing to eat only one thing helped to quell these feelings of push and pull. In a study published in the National Library of Medicine, researchers found that "biracial individuals are able to switch between their two racial identities, suggesting that they are more sensitive to social context than their monoracial peers." Those of mixed descent may recognize the image of a bifurcated home dinner table. Laura Wolfgang, lead product manager at Food52, discussed the dichotomous diet of Filipino and American food in her childhood home:
“I have been torn between the Filipino side and the white side of my family for as long as I remember. I never really identified with either side. I don’t really look like either of my parents. I don’t look like any of their family. I feel like I’ve lived a life without a real identity that I can trace back through my lineage.”
Now, during our regular catch-ups over breakfast (usually close to her home in Two Bridges), she imparts lucid advice and lived wisdom, oftentimes extending further than our dim sum table, and out to our friends and family. These rendezvous are a study in phenomenology, as we dig deep into the motivations and struggles of those closest to us, to better understand our own experiences.
Lily has known my family a great deal longer than I have. She holds a boon of rich historical context with a raw and uncut view of this family she has chosen. Her observations are objective and fair, expanding my understanding of my loved ones. Over lunch, we’ll explore the experiences of my sister, Caitlin, in her decision to pursue a teaching degree, or of my mother, whose conscientiousness and penchant for altruism drive her forever-full social work schedule.
We round out our understanding of our loved ones while slurping hot broth out of our soup dumplings (xiaolongbao, 小笼包) at our favorite Shanghainese spot. There’s always white rice at the table, but only as an accompaniment to more substantial dishes.
We almost always walk to get something sweet after our meal. Usually, that’s a pastry from a Chinese bakery of her recommendation. I defer to Lily, knowing my position relative to her. She is a sage and pillar of her community, and I am a pursuant disciple. Despite my best efforts, I haven’t yet been able to pay her for any of the flaky, semi-sweet egg custard tarts (daan taat, 蛋挞, a favorite of mine) she’s treated me to. Lily bolsters my nascent knowledge of Chinese culture during these encounters. Whether it’s the food, the topic of conversation, or the streets we walk down as we digest, I am wholly privy to the cultural identity we share. As she points out various details about Chinatown and its inhabitants, I absorb and internalize them with gratitude.
I wasn’t always this receptive. As a child, I resented my Chinese culture. The “small penis” and “dog-eating” jokes started as soon as a group of fellow high school students saw mom drop me off one morning, her jet black hair and almond eyes invoking wanton ostracism. Rather than defend my mother, I shirked my heritage. I longed to tap into my cultural heritage but felt it inaccessible and at odds with the social hierarchy I found myself in.
The dissonance of my childhood diet was a symptom of my “third culture kid” status - a term I discovered recently and was quick to append to myself. The term refers to individuals who are raised in a culture other than their parents or their country of nationality. In general, they are exposed to a wider variety of cultural influences than those who grow up in monocultural settings. My childhood was peppered with monthly trips to Manhattan's Chinatown, my mother's childhood home, and Bavaria, my father's, maintaining a cultural connection for my sister and me (and, in many ways, for my mother and father as well). I never got to meet my maternal grandparents. My parents decided that we would be better off communicating with our living Opa and Oma in Germany. My sister and I spent our Saturdays attending German school as our cousins learned Cantonese or Mandarin.
UNT Department of Psychology researchers examined the relationship between a child's cross-cultural experience and their adult identity. They found that developing "a sense of belonging, commitment, and attachment to a culture" can be difficult for third culture kids (TCKs). These factors play a strong role in one’s self-esteem and identity, as strong identification with a group helps to maintain one’s sense of belonging.
When I moved to New York City after college graduation, Lily showed me which hawker off Canal Street sold the best quality oranges. She let me in on where I could find fresh soy milk if I woke up early enough to get in line before the aunties selling were fresh out. My appreciation for my heritage blossomed, as did a wave of self-directed anger and guilt. There’s an impossible gnawing hunger that stems from stifling one’s true identity. As I learned more about my family history, I lamented the time I’d spent starving myself of my ancestral heritage.
The pendulum swung and I sped toward a culture I’d spent my childhood years hiding from, with food as my exploratory vehicle. I scoured the streets of Chinatown, looking for the best beef chow fun (gon chow ngau ho, 乾炒牛河) a mainstay dish always present during my family gatherings featuring wide noodles, tender vegetables, and meat piled high, coated in soy oyster-spiked sauce and kissed with wok hei. I spent my Saturdays eating my way down Mott Street with Auntie Lily. I bought myself as many egg tarts as I could stomach. I still felt like something was missing.
One of the challenges of being a TCK is developing a rooted sense of belonging, adeptness, and commitment to their culture. I felt wistful when I was unable to join my aunties as they poked fun at my uncles in Cantonese. I found difficulty navigating the menu at Cantonese restaurants I once visited with family, only this time solo and out of my depth. I felt that without almond eyes and jet-black hair like Lily, like my mother, I could never be Chinese enough. I began to ink my body with Chinese iconography. Symbols collected so that I may tout my heritage on my skin and on my sleeve; compensatory in nature, but self-affirming in the way they allow me to be perceived. My mom thinks they are silly - I’d wager Auntie Lily does too.
After so many lunches with Lily, and walks with my mother around her childhood home, I came to realize that neither ink nor jewelry could prove my cultural heritage. I had always been presented with the abundance of two cultures, neither of which ever felt easy to wholly commit to. I’ve leaned into this abundance, finding comfort in an ever-expanding biracial identity and diet. Now, alongside my white rice are mounds of boiled fragrant tripe, salty-sweet gelatinous chicken feet, fish balls bobbing in broth, and soups of winter melon.
I wish I could take my younger self to Chinatown now, and show him all that I’ve learned about us. I’d bring him to lunch with Lily. I’d buy him an egg tart, and point out those details about his mother’s childhood home that I’ve learned from her. He might start to feel proud of our mixed identity as Auntie Lily takes him by the hand as we walk down Henry Street. We would show him how good the cheung fun is at Sun Hing Lung, because somebody’s got to let that kid know there’s more to eat out here than white rice with soy sauce.
From the author: I don’t support the current Chinese state, their systematic oppression of free speech, state surveillance, the genocide of Uyghur peoples, the shunning of Taiwan, and many other injustices. But I, as well as many of my family members, have tried to untangle our pride in our ancestral heritage from politics.
Christoph Grosse is a writer-by-night and advertiser-by-day based in Brooklyn, NY. He is passionate about sustainability, hospitality, and generally cultivating a more hospitable world. His written work explores the intersection of food, climate justice, and his Cantonese-German heritage.
by Lucas Rucchin
Forte’s was a place where the rain liked to hide, which was a strange characteristic because the restaurant featured all the standard constituents of a building, including, though not limited to, walls with good posture, a set of double doors with rousing glass patterns, and a roof on which dozed an apartment complex that had no problems with rain. Somewhere the rain hummed, taunting them at every candlelit table.
Monday to Saturday, three to eight, Jones and Laurier would step onto the black makeshift stage at Forte’s without catching an eye. Jones would ready himself at the forefront, breathe in, out, let smoke trail and stream from the brass kissing his mouth; Laurier, placing himself at the bench with a back as straight as the keys before him, would dive into the silent orchards of his mind and sit there while his hands did the work. Their sounds warmed the air. They were invisible like the rain.
“Crowds this quiet back where you’re from?” Jones would mutter between his glazing impromptus. Laurier would not respond. He could speak English, but he was always sleeping as he played. It was only backstage that Laurier tended his partner’s thoughts: “Only if the food was good.”
So Jones set his blame on the chef, even if he was sweet as they come, his desserts sweeter. During his breaks, the chef would listen to their songs if the nearest table was unoccupied. “Lovely work, gentlemen. You keep my waiters so well-behaved. Like a lullaby.” He would laugh a hearty laugh while holding a few coins in his open hand.
The money was meant to be offered to them both, but Jones would scoop the donations all into his pocket at the end of his next phrase. “You’re so kind, West. Keep it up in the kitchen.” And then the brass was back on his lips and the smoke was purling.
On one rainy day, midday, like every day, the chef arrived not by himself but with another, a suited man, pacing to the black platform together to the rhythm of Jones’s brass bawls.
“That’s him?” the suited man spoke in the chef’s ear. The chef nodded. Laurier paid him no interest, but Jones recognized recognition and all its forms. The man beckoned at him to continue. Then this was someone of value, someone who enjoyed tasting his music, chewing and living, feeling it tingle his throat. The man began a light clap as they finished.
At the end of his work day—eight o’clock, the time when street-lamps had long replaced the sun—Jones found the man lingering by his car. He was holding an umbrella and he did not look real. The sidewalks and the buildings and the roaming headlights on the street were mirages in the evening rain, but this man was etched so clearly in his eyes, acrylic on watercolour. Laurier had caught a wandering cab and vanished in the grey. He was after Jones and Jones only.
The man spoke in a trombone’s croaky tones. “Forte’s. It’s nice. They know what they’re doing. Great clams. Met the owner a few years back. He has a nice wine cellar.”
Jones blinked. He could feel every droplet that merged with the fabric of his clothes. Somewhere on the street, a curbside current was strangling an empty soda can.
“How do you like it here? Not the food, I mean.” His fingers played around the handle of his umbrella. “You know.”
Jones knew. “It’s all right. The pianist’s fun to have around.”
“Is that all?”
“There’s some freedom. People spend more time looking at their spoons than our gig. Forte rarely visits and the chef will hear whatever. So the set-list’s in our hands.”
The man’s chin lifted. Maybe the rain had tampered with Jones’s eyes: he could not see the man’s face as it was hoisted into the streetlight. “You’re a nobody in there.”
“You saw me. West and I were the only ones watching. You don’t belong in a place like this, sitting in the background. You’re out of your element. You want more.” To lighten the package, he tacked on: “Don’t you?”
Jones felt as if this man was reaching around in his inmost thoughts. He did not respond. He let the rain speak for him.
“I’m offering you something. The Wayne Floor needs a new lead. Twelve to six, Monday to Saturday. Better hours, better pay. More eyes.” The suited man gave Jones no time to think. “If you want to think more than spoons, you know where.”
Jones knew. He knew all throughout the drive home and the hours he spent awake, staring at the ceiling of his dusty, often creaky, studio apartment. He knew that acceptance would mean leaving the black platform in the corner of Forte’s where no one seemed to look, for good. He made himself breakfast in the morning.
Jones found Laurier already at the piano bench as he entered Forte’s the following afternoon, like every afternoon. In the absence of customers, Laurier’s solitary chords and licks would ring warmful through the carpeted aisles. But this morning, he only sat, eyes locked on the charts. Jones could hear the whispers of the candles.
The makeshift stage leaned slightly as Jones stepped onto it, settled down his case. “Bloom Times?” A quick test of the valves, the shuffling of crinkled sheet music, then the rubbing of brass as the mouthpiece was inserted into the leadpipe. “It’s a day for Bloom Times. We’ll figure it out from there.”
Laurier would normally begin drawing out the chords of the specified song. He did not this morning. His hands had fallen slack onto the keys; his dress pants seemed a deeper grey today, fusing with the cushions of the piano bench.
Jones stood. “Hey. I know each day feels no different than the rest. But I need a pianist.”
Then the pianist looked at him, no longer in that sleepy dream-state that he harnessed on the bench. He was crying. That was not good. At least it was the quiet kind, the kind that spared the shaking hands and mouth but caused the eyes to flood still.
“That’s wonderful,” Laurier said. “That’s really wonderful.” His English was perfect, tinted slightly by those parisian silks, a sublime snake song. Then Laurier was grinning and crying, two phenomenons that Jones could’ve never imagined on the pianist’s face. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. Thank you for the reminder. This job needs me, doesn’t it? It does.”
Jones resisted toying with the third valve slide of his instrument; that would ruin the mood. He was no therapist, but he’d comforted a few troubled unwanted auditionees in his time, to moderate effect. “Are you all right, man?”
“Ah, it’s nothing.” Laurier fished out a tissue from his pocket. He was slowly coiling back to normal: straight back like piano keys, sleepy eyes that could see through smoke. “It’s nothing. My wife’s not well, you see. I’m not needed at the hospital, apparently—nope, they’ll take care of her just fine, as they say. They don’t need me to be there!” A quick and reviving breath. “But hey. I’m needed here. That’s good, isn’t it? Keeps my mind off of it. Our playing—it helps both them and I, you know?”
Jones knew, as well as his apartment, which seemed extra dusty that evening.
He held several lengthy conferences with himself during his morning commute to Forte’s. “He’s another man. He has his own goals, responsibilities. His life isn’t ours. Our life isn’t his. He has a wife, and we don’t. But that’s a personal choice. We don’t need someone else in our life. No—that would interfere with our goals. He has different goals, which is why he chose to pursue a relationship. We could get one if we wanted, of course. But we don’t want to. His wife—” Jones’s pointer and middle and ring finger tapped across his steering-wheel, patterning a chromatic scale to a double C. “He has a wife, and that comes with its own problems. Sickness, for example. Cancer, if we want to get dramatic. But that passes. It all passes. The Wayne Floor will pass. We don’t want that. We want to reach our goals. We’ve been at Forte’s for far too long. It’s time to move on.” And then he was back here, this concrete decision. And then he was conferring with himself again, strucken by his own words. “Another man. . .”
Forte’s was back to normal this morning. An euphony of passionate diatonics roamed the aisles.
“Good morning,” said the pianist. He’d never said good morning. “Little Sunflower. What do you think?” He’d never suggested songs. Such was Jones’s obligation.
“All well. You’re lively today.”
“Yes. She’s feeling much better. A miracle, really. The doctor has no words to describe it. A miracle.” Laurier was terrifyingly awake. “Come, let’s begin early. I find it easier to hear my playing when nobody is here. We’ll play well today. I know so.”
Jones felt his lungs smothered beneath his feet. “There’s something you need to know.”
“Something I need to know?”
“Today will be my last day at Forte’s. I’m moving on to play someplace new. The Wayne Floor.”
Whispering, gossiping candles.
When the suited man had said “more eyes”, Jones had not anticipated the well-dressed smudges gathered beyond the curtain, seated in the golden candlelight unblinking, hands placed on the circular, white-clothed table around which they gathered, all turned towards the stage like mannequins. The Wayne Floor took root in the expensive west of the city, and with expense trailed expectation. So did this audience expect, silently, in the straightness of their backs, in the smoothness of their clothes.
Sounding on the stage were some shifting Argentinian tangos. The guitarist and the flutist played well, and they pleased the expectations. Jones’s ensemble would play next, and they were all hoping that they could accomplish what those on stage were accomplishing now. They were fine, but they were not Laurier. They could play, but they could not slip into the fragile sub-space between wakefulness and slumber where magnificent ideas paraded and could only be incarnated by the most inflamed of minds, like Laurier on the bench at Forte’s.
Clapping; so the guitarist and the flutist bowed and fled and Jones’s ensemble took their place. All the eyes turned, and all the turning eyes were felt by Jones, on his neck and on his hands, in ice-cold tingles. Then the saxophonist sent out ripping silk, the drummer sifted his kit to texture the air with soft sand, and the walls became very near.
Jones readied himself at the forefront, breathed in, breathed out. But before smoke could start streaming from the brass kissing his mouth, he looked into the audience, and saw Laurier seated in the closest table, watching. Jones stumbled. A falling haze hurried his heart. Jones looked away, pushed his gaze into the depths of the audience, readied his instrument again. But Laurier resided there as well, watching. So Jones’s eyes hid behind the backs of his ensemble, but there he saw Laurier’s upright pose, his slim-fit attire, at every seat in the limelight.
Four bars passed, six, eight. The trombonist leapt into form to fill the missing melody.
For one, please. The doorkeeper was partially thinking of the man’s words, where to place him between the many four-partied and two-partied tables, as well as his familiarity. The latter thought dissolved a moment later. How many single, moderately dressed men with blurry eyes had she seen through all those months here? She reached beneath the guest-list, retrieved a single dinner menu, and led the customer through the aisles.
The doorkeeper beckoned towards an unused booth, fit between two other groups of four. The customer paused, looked elsewhere, then asked if he could be placed in the table nearest the piano. The doorkeeper nodded. As they moved, the pianist’s modest playing arrived in their ears, fully defined when they reached the table. The pianist said, This one is dedicated to the health of my wife, to no one in particular. Though the doorkeeper had not led customers into this corner for some time, she felt that something was missing.
The doorkeeper asked if regular water was fine, or if a sparkling beverage would be more to his liking. The customer did not respond. Instead, his attention was directed towards the pianist, who was nearing the end of his performance. The doorkeeper asked the same question again. She was met with the same. How many moderately dressed, jumpy, talkless men had she seen? Not many.
The pianist finished his piece. A loud clapping resounded about the aisles, the work of a single pair of hands. That customer was on his feet, applauding with a full crowd’s bravado, and the doorkeeper felt her hands come together, apart, together again in rhythm, and the rest of the restaurant yielded to this impulse as well, from those seated on the high-stools of the bar to the parties housed within the booths to the couples warmed by the candlelight near the windows.
The pianist’s head turned towards the talkless customer. It stayed in this position for a long minute. There was something in the pianist’s eyes, but the doorkeeper could not discern it from her distance. The clapping was like rain. How many moderately dressed men had come in here and made the pianist smile? The doorkeeper really didn’t know anybody at all.
Lucas Rucchin is a grade ten student at West Point Grey Academy situated in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is an aspiring writer who enjoys prose grounded in reality and the human condition. Surging Tide Magazine is his first medium of publication.
by Lucas Rucchin
The painter has remained in this grove for six-hundred, thirty-seven days. He had journeyed here for inspiration, new colours to spur the muse, but was met with yet another crowd to please. If he can receive praise from the critics, surely he can cull the same from lowly trees?
The painter drinks praise like heady wine, chews it for years, as do the cattle of the Tiber plains chew on grass: the eyes around his works at the Museo Campano, the rows of waiting legs seeking his hand at the Galleria degli Uffizi—he swims in such things. This grove, however, with all its quiet greenery, has never spared his pieces a word.
Every morning, the young artist sweeps the forest mire off his clothes, studies the foliage, the twining flora, the sturdy stalks of trees, and addresses them with the sun in his eye: “I promise,”—his left hand has already grasped and fondled the round-tipped brush, and his right, a pencil—“today, I will entertain you all.”
So he perches the brush on his canvas and his dreams assume control of his limbs; the muse, now, graces him with a reverie, and handles his hands from strings in the clouds. The sun has nearly finished its arc across the sky when the painting is complete. This piece surpasses the one created yesterday. It is rotated for all to see.
His voice echoes at dusk: “Regard, trees. Another masterwork by Signore Demonte, who is so honoured to be in your patient presence. Likewise, you have the privilege of being in mine, for tirelessly over the breadth of two years have I worked to perfect my craft to your liking! I ask that you now fulfill this privilege, humbly so, by serving your duties as my watching audience.”
The trees are quiet. Where are the enticed eyes, the polite claps, the arms folded in captivation? His pencil nearly breaks in his grip. “Well? Are you looking? Aren’t you pleased?” His gaze probes the motionless audience. Hours pass as he stands in anticipation, and anticipation turns the tone of his voice to thunder. “My mind has been emptied, my ideas exhausted to satisfy, and you daren’t speak at all? Have you really nothing for me, again?”
The sky is dimming and the painter’s legs are begging for slumber. “Tomorrow! Tomorrow, you infernal trees--you will be forced to break your silence! I can see it already. . . my new piece. . . you won’t. . . you’ll have to see it. . . and—”
Demonte is being cradled by sleep. His work is tossed into an ever-swelling pile by the foot of one quiet tree. In his dreams, the trees have eyes, the flowers dance to his strokes, and he floats on the wind. The painter has remained in this grove for six-hundred, thirty-eight days.
Lucas Rucchin is a grade ten student at West Point Grey Academy situated in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is an aspiring writer who enjoys prose grounded in reality and the human condition. Surging Tide Magazine is his first medium of publication.