photo by Jonathan Canlas
I didn’t realize I grew up in an anti-fish household until I had long
left my parents’ house. It was my junior year of college, and I was
home for Christmas break when I uncovered not only my mom’s
apprehension of fish, but also the realization that we were more alike
that I thought. My family recently moved to an Air Force base in
Okinawa Japan, and I was out with my mom and three younger sisters
exploring the island.
We were at Jusco, a mega-mall of trendy Japanese fashion and an
abundance of local eats. As we walked through the food court section,
we passed aisle after aisle of regional cuisine. Strolling by displays
of bento boxes, I asked Mom what she though of the sushi here.
“I don’t know,” she said shrugging her shoulders. “I haven’t tried any.”
I was immediately taken back. Mom was usually very adventurous when it
came to exploring new food. When we lived in Korea, she fell in love
with kimchi. While in Idaho, she became a believer in mashed potatoes
made from scratch. The fact that she was living in Japan and had not
eaten a single piece of nigiri was surprising.
“Why not?” I inquired. “This is Japan. You know, they invented sushi.”
She simply replied, “I don’t like fish.”
I stared at my mother. My sisters stopped poking at the Hello Kitty
gelatin molds. The four of us were speechless as we tried to take in
this revelation. I was the first one to regain my vocal chords. “Of
course you like fish!” I sputtered. “You are Chinese and Thai. You eat
it all the time!”
As soon as the word left my mouth, it dawned on me that I could not
recall a single memory of Mom serving fish for a meal. Try as I might,
there was no memory of her mentioning a distaste for it. I was
surprised at the betrayal I felt. She had kept this knowledge from me
my entire life. I’m supposed to know everything about her, and to be
unaware of this food aversion made me feel like a bad daughter.
“Why don’t you like fish,” I hissed.
“When I was growing up,” Mom said, “it was my job to clean the fish. I
hated it so much.” She looked off in the distance, past the boxes of
panko bread crumbs and into her childhood in Laos. I could see Mom
picturing herself as a young girl, loathing her life as she scrubbed
scales off of freshly caught fish. “I hated the smell,” she explained,
lost in thought. “I hated the eyes. They look so round and surprised.
Like, ‘What’s going on? Am I dead? Where is the water?’” She shook her
head, as if brushing away this terrible recollection. “It was my most
“I hate fish, too,” whispered my youngest sister Sheela. She was
eleven at the time, and looked at Mom with understanding.
With her captivated audience, Mom continued. “When I first married
your dad, your grandpa Dean thought he would surprise me with a fish
he caught in the river.”
I imagined my grandfather — from a small town in Southern Idaho —
trying to connect with his new, foreign daughter-in-law. His
assumption was innocuous. Eating fish in Asia is as universal as
“When he brought me the fish,” Mom said, “I almost ran away. I wanted
to cry. It was so big, so gray, and so dead. Dean was a little upset
when your dad told him I didn’t like fish.”
She looked at us solemnly and said, “He had the same reaction as you.
He was so nice to think of me, but thought we are all the same. All
Asians like fish.” She turned to look at me. “Well, we don’t.”
The expression on her face told me she was disappointed. I should know
better. Her eldest girl, constantly fighting assumptions from others,
did not understand her own mother’s struggle against stereotypes. I am
tall, but I do not play basketball. I am Asian, but I do not speak
Chinese. Or do well in math. Or cook rice everyday. I am my mother’s
daughter, but I do not know everything about her. She was more like me
than I thought.
I took Mom’s hand and placed it in mine. Her hand was tiny in my
grasp, but strong and firm. “Thank you for never making me clean
fish,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Will you try some sushi with
Mom looked at me, looked at my sisters, and looked at the arrangement
of raw fish beautifully arranged in a box. They were vivid in color,
blush pink salmon and deep purple tuna. No eyes staring back, just
thick slivers of flesh resting on tiny beds of rice. Mom hesitated,
and then smiled at her girls. “Well okay,” she consented. “We are in
We each purchased a roll, and Mom took the first taste. The rice and
fish disappear in one bite. She chewed slowly, and finally swallowed.
“Hmm,” she said. “Taste like fish to me.”
photo by Amelia Johnson
Veeda Bybee is a wife, mother (currently expecting her third baby) writer and cook. She blogs at WhiteLotusCooks.com.
I am C. Jane Kendrick and the first time I saw Veeda I forgot who I was. She's that stunning. You can contact me personally at cjanemail @ gmail.com or leave comments on my facebook page and if you are on twitter you can find my tweets here. But no pressure.