Twenty four years ago, my parents gave me an old 3-cup rice cooker, National brand. It was rusty on the outside, but it did the job. They loaded me up with used furniture, an Ikea piece or two, mismatched kitchenware, and a new rug when I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school.
When I started my own family, my father couldn’t believe I still had that little rice cooker. He gave me a new one, a bigger one, to feed more people. He told me to toss the old, small one. He said it looked embarrassing, it was old and rusty, and had one button. I took the new one, packed the old one in that new box, and put it downstairs. I loved that little rice cooker. Plus, I’m a hoarder.
Today I became overwhelmed with panic. I lifted the lid, to find rice grains soaking in warm water. My rice cooker had broken. Died. Gone. What in the hell does a Chinese woman do without a rice cooker? Where is my rice?? I have never been able to make rice on the stove top. The outer edges get burned and the middle stays uncooked. There’s a reason billions of Asians use rice cookers–they work reliably. So reliably, that I literally did not know what to do for dinner.
Fortunately, my children laughing at me interrupted my frantic search on Amazon (but of course) for rice cookers that could be delivered tomorrow. It was then that I remembered my trusty old rice cooker. I searched downstairs for it, and sure enough, it was there waiting for me after all this time. It was so comforting to see it again. It felt like my parents were in my kitchen.
My mother died a year ago, and I think of her at strange, unexpected times. Sometimes it makes me really sad. Sometimes it makes me laugh. Sometimes it makes me wish I knew her better. My sisters were much closer to her than I ever was. My relationship with her waxed and waned through the years. She was very old-school Asian. I am not. My parents weren’t touchy-feely parents. I’m a feely sort of person.
My parents had one job to do, and they were going to damn well do it, and do it well. They sacrificed everything for us to have better futures. They worked their asses off so that we could go to school and well, go to more school. They weren’t interested in who our friends were, or what our interests were, or what the new clothing trend was. They weren’t interested in why my heart was broken, or who made me laugh, or what made me anxious. They weren’t interested in what my dreams were, and why.
They just needed to get us through college and graduate school so that we could earn more money than they had. They took that job seriously. My mother did not take me seriously. She liked to tell me she disagreed with my thoughts and dreams and fears. She thought she was helping me, by telling me how she was right and I was wrong. She thought she’d save me from myself. So I stopped sharing myself with her. And she never really asked. So when she died, I still didn’t know as much about her as I’d had liked.
Like the rusty, trusty, simple rice cooker that stays with me, her impact on shaping who I am stays with me. It took me a really long time to learn it’s better to be kind than right. My relationship with my mother would have been different had I known that she just needed to be right. I don’t know if I would have been able to not personalize it, or if I would have been able to accept her when I was younger. I would have likely continued to be irritated with her. I do know she guides me to be the parent I am with my children.
I try to be mindful to have a different relationship with my kids. I used to think that Western/American culture tends to have parents who want to be friends with their children. Asian cultures tend to have a hierarchy in parenting, and feel this friendship prevents good boundaries and discipline. I’ve come to realize that I can be the Boss of Them, and get to know their dreams, their fears, their opinions. I’ve come to realize I love watching their faces when they’re doing something they love. I love having family inside jokes. I love when they come and ask me for advice. I love when they come to confide something in me. I love that I am a safe place for their hearts to rest, and their souls to blossom. I love getting to know them in a way my mother never experienced with me, in a way I never experienced with her.
Like with many things, it’s bittersweet. To have my rusty, trusty rice cooker, and my rusty, trusty memories of my mother by my side, reminding me to be the kind of mother I want to be. The kind of mother who feeds her childrens’ bellies with warm, soft rice, and feeds their souls with sacred memories of facing fears and dreams together. For the record, I’ve banned the children from ever touching the rice cooker. I will absolutely lose all coping skills and freak the fuck out if it ever dies on me.