Growing Up On Lard
By: Maisie Chan
grew up in Birmingham to English (read ‘white’) parents who were loving, but gave me steak and kidney pies to eat instead of rice. Not that they needed to give me rice, but I blame my lack of 'Chineseness' on the lack of rice I was fed as a kid. Have to blame something right? I mean, I couldn't really blame the blessed souls who had chosen to adopt me - rice just wasn't part of their daily consumption. And I couldn't really hold my biological parents responsible for wanting to give me to someone else to take care of me; maybe I was just a baby that looked like she shouldn't eat too much rice. I can't really say. All I know is that our chips were cooked in lard.
The other Chinese kids at school (all two of them), their parents owned takeaways and of course, they would have rice there; hills of white rice, cooked and steaming with the romantic mists of the Far East; fried rice, shook and coated with the love and affection that soy sauce brings with it. A Chinese kitchen without soy sauce is like a French kitchen without butter, or a British kitchen without ketchup. Of course, Chinese takeaways also had chips for those British people who didn’t want rice with their sweet and sour pork. Did they also cook their chips in lard? Had the Chinese who resided in those takeaways ever had a fish finger or chicken kiev? Can my 'Britishness' be attributed to the amount of fish fingers I ate with tomato sauce on a 'piece'? Perhaps.
I remember the packed lunches that I’d take to school every day; they consisted of roast chicken on buttered white bread, a packet of cheesy Snaps and a can of orange Tango. With technical precision, I would expertly place two and a half Snaps on one triangular chicken sandwich. Still to this day my taste buds appreciate the beauty that is a crisp ‘sarnie’. The feeling of crisps breaking with every tenuous bite, yet softly cushioned by the layers of roast chicken made my taste buds stand on end with anticipation. The realisation that my adapted masterpiece held within its breaded walls a burst of fake cheese flavouring made my heart swell with love. I ate this everyday for years, sitting on the plastic green chair in the dining hall making sure I ate my crusts. Mom told me all the time ‘Come on Bab; eat your crusts like a good girl. They’ll make your hair curly.’ She lied. Perhaps it only curls if you are English. We Chinese are well known for our naturally straight hair, and no matter how many crusts I ate my hair never did curl.
I would always watch with mild amusement and wonderment when both my parents would spread ‘dripping’ onto a ‘piece’ – the bits of white pig fat sitting precociously in a lump where my mom couldn’t be bothered to distribute evenly, the amber jelly-like substance sitting in between, the poor person’s snack. My dad’s shining example of a ready meal in a pre-microwave era cuisine was an Oxo cube drowned in boiling water. The mucky brown murky depths were reminiscent of the local canal with its shopping trolleys and rusted bicycles, poking out of the water trying not to drown. Into this cheap concoction he would submerge roughly ripped pieces of sliced white bread. What terror it must have been to be that piece of bread. Scalded by dirty looking brown liquid and then stuffed into a mouth where no teeth resided due to a massive intake of sugar at a young age, to be chomped and mauled to death by a hard set of gums.
Is there such a person as a food psychoanalyst? A Captain Birdseye Freud or a Sarah Lee Jung? If there were I’m sure they would lay me down on their black leather couch and I’d spill my repressed secrets like molten cheddar cheese oozing furiously from the triangular pockets of a Breville toasted sandwich; regurgitating my sordid past of fry ups and bubble and squeak. I’d confess my love of Bernard Matthews’ chicken drummers and Findus crispy pancakes; the meaty torture of battered and deep fried food with grease bleeding from their golden outer covering. I’d guiltily confess my love of stew and dumplings, the animal fat content of which probably would have formed a small piglet had it been put together. Bacon and eggs sandwiches were my guilty pleasure, my devil, sausage and plum tomatoes soaking into white bread, (yummy yum) penetrating my memories and raising my body fat percentage to thirty-five. Yes, yes I can smell the odors of my youth. They haunt me like the piercing ‘beep beep’ sound of the smoke alarm when mom burnt the chips. It was my Great British breakfast childhood.
There was no problem trying to coax me to eat like there is with some kids. My younger brother had to be prodded and normal chicken soup was transformed by name to the heroic ‘Superman Soup’ by my mom just to get him to take one spoonful. Not me. I ate and I ate. I was fondly nicknamed ‘the human rubbish bin’ by my mom who thought I had the insides like a Hoover. I just sucked up all remaining food from everyone’s plates. ‘Waste not: want not’ was the motto in my house. There were children starving in Africa so it would have been terrible of me to have left one baked bean on my plate. Nothing was leftover, nothing forgotten. We were not a rich family, renting a terrace from the council. Yet, I never felt we were one of those families who were struggling to make ends meet. We had too much. The cupboards were always overflowing with food. At the back of every one it was guaranteed that there would be an out of date packet of blancmange and a jar of pickled onions from some Christmas hamper from way back in the late 1970s.
There was a time too that I tried to be more 'Chinese', I would watch kung fu movies and of course ordered prawn crackers with my takeaways. I’d tell the kids at school that Jackie Chan was a relative. But maybe I just didn't eat the rice in the right way. I used to scoop it into my prawn cracker and use it like a spoon. Of course, I'd then eat the make shift spoon. That's just not Chinese.
Sometimes we ate out at fancy Chinese restaurants when the biological parents of the other Chinese kids my parents fostered would come to visit. I would be put to the Chinese ‘test of authenticity’ - using the dreaded chopsticks. I recall one time visiting the Chung Ying Garden Restaurant in Chinatown I flatly refused to use them. In my defence I proclaimed how useless they were. “I can get more in my mouth with a spoon!” I shouted. I just couldn’t see the point of trying to get food into my mouth with two long sticks with tiny ends. Where was the logic in chopsticks? Which fool had invented this finicky mechanism of click clacking two sticks together to use as eating utensils? The truth was that I failed the test. I couldn’t use them, didn’t know how. I wasn’t really Chinese, just a make believe phantom, a doppelganger with a packet of Strawberry Chewits in her hand. BW
Maisie is an adopted British Born Chinese author from Birmingham, England. During her academic year abroad at UC Berkeley (as part of her BA American Studies) she read many Chinese American authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. In contrast, there were no British Born Chinese writers back home, so she decided to do something about it and enrolled on the National Academy of Writing diploma course.
Maisie has had short stories and flash fiction published in a variety of anthologies. 'Growing Up On Lard' was published in The Map of Me (Penguin, 2008). She has written two short plays. The Seal Maker's Son was performed at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2008 and Insufficiently Yellow which performed as part of the Dim Sum Nights Tour by Yellow Earth Theatre in 2012. More recently, her piece of flash fiction Home Instead about a Chinese elderly lady who receives home care, was highly commended and published in the anthology Impossible Things as part of the Creative Futures Literary Awards.