Yuxi Lin | Longreads | June 2022 | 12 minutes (3,311 words)
It’s 2004 and my first year in America. I type the word “wholesale” into my digital translator.
definition: the selling of goods in large quantities to be retailed by others.
I’m 12 years old and all I want to be is whole and wholesome. The ability to buy it is even more appealing.
In front of me, the glass display case contains all the luxury I’ve ever known. Watches, earrings, and necklaces, all sleeping under the fingerprints of strangers. At this point in my life, I can’t imagine anything costing more than a Costco diamond. During ESL class, my teacher asks how I would like to be proposed to one day. I tell her that I want my future husband to take me to Costco, where I would ask the salesperson to open the case and take out the $1999 ring. My future husband will have also made reservations at a nearby Pizza Hut, my favorite restaurant, and kneel down on its fake wooden tiles.
While my parents and their friends peruse the enormous shelves, I prowl the sample stands. This is one of the only times I get to eat American food. My parents don’t patronize American restaurants out of a combination of fear and disdain. For a while at lunch I was dumping out the fried rice my mother cooked because the white kids said it looked funny, but I quickly ran out of allowance money to buy chicken nuggets.
I make a beeline for the old ladies in hairnets doling out cut-up Hot Pockets or lone nachos with salsa. More than anything, I lust after the microwavable cheese-filled pierogies. “Trash food,” my mother calls them. I tell her that I aspire to be a trash can.
Almost always, the samples come in grease-stained cupcake liners. I fold them into halves, then quarters, hide them in my palm, then wait a few minutes before circling back for another round. I don’t want to appear too greedy, too needy, the way immigrants feel starved for that unnamable thing, no matter how many years they live in their chosen country. I go back for thirds, sometimes even fourths, unable to stop myself. The aproned ladies occasionally look askance in my direction but never stop me, and to this day I am grateful for their silence.
My parents are self-satisfied at Costco in a way that I rarely see except when they return to China. Their coworker sometimes joins us on our trips, picking up a 15-pound sack of flour so he can make mantous and noodles for every meal, less expensive than rice. After we drop him at his house, my mother makes fun of the guy for being cheap.
“These northerners don’t know how to enjoy seafood like we do,” she says smugly from the front seat.
My father agrees. “Let’s invite them over next time and show them a proper feast.”
“They’ll talk about it for weeks after!”
“How do you know he doesn’t just like lots of mantous and noodles?” I ask.
My mother whips her head around and casts me a disdainful look. “Because that’s food for poor people. We are different.”
2005 is the year Keira Knightley plays Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It’s my favorite movie. I enjoy watching the Bennets complain about their poverty while being waited on by five servants. When my Korean American friend Stephanie mentions that she has the movie on DVD, I don’t believe her. I’ve seen the price tag for the movie at Costco, $25.99, and multiplied it by eight in my head, the approximate exchange rate between USD and RMB. In China, I could have eaten out for a whole week on that money. It seems impossibly luxurious for a 13-year-old to own such a thing. How could she afford it, even if her father is white?
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“Do you want to borrow it?” She offers.
“Sure, if you can bring it.”
She hands it to me the next day. “You’re so funny. Why didn’t you believe that I had it?” Stephanie asks, puzzled at my look of surprise.
I stroke the smooth plastic cover over Keira’s half-turned face and shrug, wishing I could disappear.
Once a year, I look forward to the most special time. By the Costco entrance, there are pianos for sale. Just a few Kawai and Roland uprights so beautiful that I fear touching them, uprights that make me tear up with nostalgia for the piano I’d left in China, the bench on which I wept from fatigue as I practiced for recitals over and over again until my fingers would carry the music, even if my brain shut off. When I sit down at a Costco piano, my former self wakes up inside me. Awkwardly and slurring, my fingers get to speak a language that they’d almost forgotten. I know that I don’t have much time with them, just a song or two at most before the sales lady asks where my parents are.
The pianos stay for a week, maybe two. Inevitably, the next time we go, they are gone.
I am 14 when I buy my first American CD. Against a silver background, Britney glows in a black bra and leather shorts, her face haloed by a black fur hood. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. My Prerogative, says the cover. I look up the word in my dictionary and understand that it’s something along the lines of “rights and privilege.” I rub the glossy cover against my cheek as my parents complain about how much it had cost. I’d snuck it into their Costco shopping cart and refused to put it back. We drive home blasting “Boys,” my parents awkwardly silent while Britney whispers “Okay nasty” against Pharell’s heavy breathing.
I learn in first grade that the greatest sin is leaving food on the table. This message is reinforced both publicly and privately in China. One of the first sentences I learn to read in my Chinese textbook is that every drop of a farmer’s sweat turns into a pellet of rice in my bowl. That is how my food comes to be, and it is a disgrace to the farmers who toil in the fields should I leave even a single pellet of rice uneaten. This discipline is drilled into everyone in my family. My mother would stay at the table until every speck of flesh is picked from the bone. Then she would break the bone to suck out the marrow. Then she’d simmer the bone fragments to make broth.
I don’t want to appear too greedy, too needy, the way immigrants feel starved for that unnamable thing, no matter how many years they live in their chosen country.
Whenever I express distaste for any food, my father says, “You’re so lucky. Back when I was your age, I would have given anything for a bite of that.”
I believe him.
While researching nutrition in my adult life, I keep encountering the China Study conducted by the Campbells in the 1960s, where two American scientists conclude that Chinese people had fewer cases of heart disease because they didn’t eat meat and relied mostly on vegetables. I roll my eyes. Most of the lauded healthy Chinese eating habits back then were probably involuntary.
Chinese people like to say that they are a culture obsessed with food, and it’s true. It never occurs to me until adulthood just how much of that obsession stems from intergenerational trauma. Once I see the privation on my parents’ faces while chewing on a piece of chicken, I cannot unsee it. Who are they eating for? Their former selves perhaps, which, like ghosts, could never be satiated. And then, is this what I look like, too, when I’m eating?
After graduating from college, I live alone in North Carolina, loathing my first job where I travel four days out of the week to corporate client sites in obscure cities. I make more money than my parents and spend it mostly on clothes and heels. Some days I drive to Costco and order a Coke and pizza. I eat it next to a family with small kids who cannot sit still. They climb down and over the benches, smearing their greasy, ketchupy hands everywhere. I call my parents on the phone so they can ask me what I’d bought, how much I’d paid, and I can tell them that I’d eaten the same thing that they’d eaten last week when they’d gone on their own Costco run.
Two years later, I quit my corporate job and move to Texas to teach English. While unloading my bags from a weekend shopping trip, I realize that my wallet is missing. Where had I seen it last?
I call the San Antonio Costco, and a calm Texan accent on the other end reassures me that my wallet has been found. I had dropped it while putting groceries into my car in the parking lot. When I pick it up, I want to hug the man in his silly-looking red vest.
Sometimes I go to Costco in Texas just to see other Asians, where I project my past and future onto the families there. I watch sensible middle-aged Asian parents strolling through the aisles, scanning for Kirkland products for their relatives back home, gifts such as vitamins, salted walnuts, and anti-aging creams. Like my parents, they look for the cheapest thing with a Made in the USA sticker that would simultaneously convey their own success and justify their abandonment of a former home. I make up stories about them in my head. Do they, like my family, pull up with their Asian neighbors in a row of Toyotas each Sunday at the Costco parking lot? Do they buy in bulk the favorite food of their adult children and freeze it until they come home? Do they feel in some way that this is the safest place in America?
My favorite people to watch are the young Asian couples pushing carts piled high with toilet paper and granola bars, doing mental arithmetic on cost-per-unit comparisons. They’re absorbed in the comfortable tasks of mundanity. In a stroller next to them, a baby sucks his thumb and gazes out at the mountains of things around him.
My parents are born in 1962, the tail end of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Chinese Famine. The fields lie barren. All the shoots dug up. The trees stripped of bark. Caused partly by natural disasters, and partly by terrible agricultural policies, the famine left roughly 35 million people dead, but my parents don’t know that yet. Nobody knows the real body count. One only hears whispers of bodies lying in the streets of villages; some of them disappear and are never found. Nobody speaks of what happens to them.
One of the first sentences I learn to read in my Chinese textbook is that every drop of a farmer’s sweat turns into a pellet of rice in my bowl.
Food shortages and poverty continue to haunt the country for decades. In a grainy photo taken at the beach, my young father and his college friends are so thin that I can easily count their ribs.
My father grows up drinking rice porridge, and, being the younger son of six children, occasionally has a desiccated olive to suck on while my aunts watch with envy. This is what it means to be the favorite. This is what it means to be a son. He nurses that olive for an entire meal because it is the only dish. When guests visit, his parents boil an egg and serve it to the practical stranger or obnoxious neighbor while their own children watch from behind the door frame, imagining the burst of yolk amid the soft white crumble.
The family, like almost all families in China at the time, couldn’t get enough food even if they’d had all the gold to sell, but my grandmother would still hoard gold for the rest of her life. Her last gift to me is a single gold earring, taken off her left earlobe at her 94th-birthday banquet. She mumbles something with her toothless mouth in the regional dialect I never learned. My aunt translates for us, “She says, for your dowry.” My grandmother nods fiercely, puts it in my palm, and closes my fingers over it.
During the famine, unable to feed six children, my grandparents send my third aunt, my dad’s older sister, to the countryside to be raised by distant relatives. She will survive there somehow, they tell themselves. But the conditions outside the city are even worse. Along with other starved and desperate farmers, my aunt pulls wild grasses and weeds from the cracked soil and eats them boiled. Years later, when she finally returns to the family, no one thanks her.
“Why is third aunt so fat?” I ask my father when I’m in elementary school.
“She’s not really fat.”
“So does she eat a lot?”
“It has nothing to do with eating.”
My aunt lives the rest of her life with a bloated face and a body turgid from the plant poisons she’d ingested. Every year she sews me pajama pants in the ugliest fabric with elastic waistbands, and each night I still go to sleep under the duvet covers she made for me. She works at a crematorium and uses her connections to help everyone in our family get a nice plot. In her early 60s, she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We hide it from her so she can die in ignorance. Within six weeks, she does.
Whenever I tell my parents that I want to write about them, they say, “Why? Our lives are so ordinary. There’s a billion of us and nothing worth telling.” Maybe they’re right on some level, that human suffering in its various forms is no great secret. Yet, when I sit down at a meal sometimes, I feel a void inside, like I’m merely a mouth for generations of mouths, and I’m eating for my parents, my aunts, my uncles, and ancestors; while other people, the ones who do not walk around being gnawed by ghosts, watch with horror at my insatiable glut.
After a decade in the States, my parents move from the northeast to a town in Florida and begin cultivating the land behind their house. It’s swamp land, low in nutrients with loose sandy soil. Each month they make a one-hour drive to a horse farm to collect manure. They ask the local Asian grocery store to give them the Kikkoman soy sauce buckets to use as planters for radishes and carrots. My father nails together planks of wood and builds trellises to anchor the cucumber vines and snow peas, then winter squashes and bitter melons. Their efforts yield so much harvest that they buy a $3000 industrial freezer for storage. It still jars me to see their petite Asian figures standing next to a freezer twice the size of them combined.
Despite their ability to buy or grow most vegetables, they still love going to Costco, out of habit rather than need, driving two hours to Orlando and back. It gives them satisfaction to walk the familiar aisles, to load and unload the car. My father always buys more than they need, and my mother spends days stressing over what’s going bad so she can determine the order in which to cook the meals. But sometimes, they come back with just a jug of milk and some fruits, things they could easily find in a grocery store down the road.
On our way to a family trip to Miami that I had planned and booked, we drive past a Costco. My mother wants to go in.
“Now? We’re trying to get to the hotel while there’s no traffic,” I explain, irritated. “Is there something you need to buy?”
“No, but I want to go,” my mother says, staring longingly at the warehouse. “Maybe pick up some groceries.”
“We’re staying at the Hyatt Regency, Mom. There’s nowhere for you to cook.” I’d forbidden my parents from bringing their electric stove, which they brought on road trips and plugged into the electric outlet at a Motel 8 to cook Chinese food. But this time, I am determined to vacation like an American. I hit the gas.
“Well, maybe I’ll just look…” My mom’s voice trails off. The store shrinks from sight just as quickly as it had come into view.
One night, I receive a video call from my father out of the blue. He wants to know how one goes about eating jamón.
“Where are you getting jamón in Florida?” I ask.
“Costco.” He pans the camera to a whole bone-in jamón lying on the living room floor.
“Are you having people over?”
“No. Just for your mom and me.”
My parents have never been to Spain or enjoyed Spanish food. In fact, the one time I’d taken them to a Spanish restaurant, they’d commented how much better the seafood paella would have tasted if only the chef had cooked it as Chinese fried rice. What they said about the flamenco dancers at the restaurant was even worse.
Sometimes I go to Costco in Texas just to see other Asians, where I project my past and future onto the families there.
Staring at the giant leg of cured meat on my screen, I don’t know what to say.
My father switches back the camera to face him. “I thought I’d ask you since you went to Spain.”
“I’ve only had jamón when it’s been sliced at a restaurant.”
“Well, what’s the point of going all the way to Spain when you can have perfectly good jamón right from Costco?”
“Is this about my going to Spain a few months ago instead of visiting you and mom in Florida?”
“No. Don’t be immature.”
We are quiet for a few beats.
“Want us to save some jamón for you in the freezer?” He offers. “You can try it when you come back.”
“Okay.” I hang up, not sure what defrosted jamón would taste like.
Over the years and our continuous fights about my increasing Americanness, food has become the only safe subject between my parents and me. It is also the only language through which they can tell me that they love me. While my white friends receive care packages of cookies and candles from home, my parents offer to overnight me live lobsters that they bulk-order.
Pushing a cart along the massive aisles in the Orlando Costco, my father loads up boxes of oranges and blueberries that he tries to force-feed me over the next few days. I do my best to act grateful because I know the people he’s trying to feed are no longer alive.
“I never had this growing up,” he’d say and dump another 5-pound box of fruit in the cart, ignoring my mother’s scowl. It’s an act that they’ve perfected and carried out for years.
I look up at the stadium lights shining down on us. In the great halls of Costco, two of our greatest fears are assuaged — that of not having enough, and that of not being enough.
Ten miles away, children are lining up at Orlando’s Disney World to live their dreams. Here in Kirkland, my parents are lining up to checkout. Here is where I feel most American. Here is a home where I can touch everything that lives in yours. When we walk out the door, a white woman smiles and waves, “Please come back soon.”
Yuxi Lin is a poet and writer living and teaching in New York City.
Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copy Editor: Krista Stevens