My Mother and the Dishwasher
On growing up in a family of undiagnosed obsessors
It’s a familiar sound in my home.
The cacophony of metal forks on metal spoons.
The sound of mom’s slippers sliding across the floor.
It means she’s moving.
. . .
My mother loves a perfectly stacked dishwasher.
Plates in a row, bowls aligned to the left, glasses and mugs on top.
An ironically perfect metaphor for her life.
Organized, clean, efficient. Everything in its place, everything in order.
. . .
It’s a well-oiled system, a result of years of practice — mastering the art of the perfectly stacked dishwasher. The beauty (or challenge) of this (or, of life?) is that there is always room for more than you think. A bowl angled wrong can be picked up with nimble hands, set on the counter where the wedding ring sits (momentarily removed to keep from tarnishing in warm, soapy water) and placed once again on the metal rack, so that suddenly there is room for more.
The difference is when the dishes must be in place.
When a need for order — for just an instant — becomes more important than a need for peace.
Heavy little things like this get passed down through generations.
Grandma’s hands shake when she’s just sitting there. Grandma takes the pills the doctor prescribes. Grandma washed her family’s clothes in the river when she was younger. Grandma lives alone and wishes she didn’t.
We go to her house on Sundays; it’s a few miles away in the suburbs, one floor so she doesn’t trip on the stairs like my mom is afraid of.
Dad fixes the shower rod that falls every weekend because grandma’s convinced she doesn’t need to spend money on a new one. Mom answers emails about arthritis and hearing aids. I sit on the same gray sofa that moved from Chicago when all the kids had grown up and gone away.
Grandma stares at a TV that yells in a foreign language just so that sound echoes against empty walls, in subtle hopes of feeling less alone.
Moments pass where I know that when she dies, I will say you should have hugged her then. Helped her carry that plate to the table. Told her you’re so thankful that she gave up everything to move to a country where she didn’t even know the language. Sat more patiently when she went through the words in emails that she didn’t understand because English is a fucking weird language where the word “positive” can mean good or happy but it can also mean that you’re certain of something and “positive,” these days, can mean disease, so “positive” means whatever you want it to mean, so “positive” means death.
Don’t think that way, Julia.
Stop that, Julia.
You worry too much, Julia.
I watch her fingers shake. Her have to pee every ten minutes like I do. Her not understand that this illness is generational, it’s earthshattering, it’s our secret little curse.
. . .
So when mom loads the dishwasher until every last spot is filled, I know she is my mother.
It saves space. Order is good.
It saves water. In case we somehow run out.
It saves her.
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health, and how we communicate how we feel with our loved ones.
I couldn't think of anyone better to talk to about all of this than the incredible, bubbly, talented, insightful, and a million other things, Jasmine Pak. A boba-lover and BIPOC-owned business advocate, Jasmine is making waves at Buzzfeed and beyond, while also starting important conversations about representation, mental health and more.
Thank you for sharing with us all, Jasmine <3
The visibility you have brought to Asian food and culture through your work at Buzzfeed Tasty is so inspiring. In my family, food is a form of love. Whether it’s my mom’s mapo tofu on a cold winter day or folding dumpling wrappers together in the kitchen, those little moments tied to food mean so much. Where did your love of food come from? Do you have any favorite food-related family memories?
This is so sweet, thank you! Food is so important to cultures around the world, from family to family, and it was no different for me. My mom actually studied food science and was preparing to be a food chemist, one of those scientists who would make extracts and stuff! She has some sort of hyper sense for smell and taste, and it passed onto me! From when I was very young, I loved cooking with my mom. I love being able to try foods and pick out the different ingredients that are used in the dish and has helped me in my own cooking ventures in food production as well! My mom loved to host people for meals when I was a kid and one of my favorite nights was making Taiwanese spring rolls/burritos AKA Run Bing. It's this super delicious, customizable dish that is packed with different flavors and textures. I'm salivating just thinking about it! She would prepare all these different ingredients one by one, like carrots, fried tofu, cabbage, hand-crushed peanuts, handmade sesame sauce, squash, shredded pork, chili sauce... the list goes on! She would lay them out on the table and everyone would be able to go and customize it for themselves. I was lucky to be her assistant all those years and now she's my taste tester! I love my mama!
We’ve talked before about some of the stigma and challenges that come up when talking about mental health in Asian families. How did you find the confidence to open up to your mom and how has that changed your relationship with her?
I've always been very close with my mom. She's my bestie for life! The bottom line is that I knew my mom would listen to me. I didn't know if she would disagree or critique or invalidate my feelings or not, but I knew she would listen and at the time, that's all I really needed. And I'm so happy to have initiated the conversation because she has shared experiences of struggling with mental health herself. I'm realistic with the fact that she also grew up in a household where mental health was even more severely overlooked. It's simply unchartered territory for some folks, and talking through it and keeping it an open dialogue is the best approach. My mom is a single mom of three children, so I've watched her stay strong for us all these years. I think breaking down the barrier of needing to have our shit together 100% of the time has helped our relationship (and my entire family's relationship!) so much. She told me recently that she feels like she's constantly growing just talking to my brothers and me because we have a different perspective on the world. We not only love and care about each other, but also have a deep mutual respect for one another.
And finally, tying back to the theme of this newsletter. Is there any question that you wish you could ask your mom?
Dang, I looked up 300 questions to ask your mom and I knew the answer to every single one of them 😂 But here's one: Mama, what are the biggest similarities between me and you when you were my age?
Question to ask your mom: