Hunger

CW: eating disorders, domestic violence

When I was very young, my parents and I lived at my maternal grandparents’ house. My father was in the Air Force and was often posted far away, on the mainland or in Yokosuka. I wouldn’t see him for months at a time. My mother worked as an accountant in downtown Honolulu and would come home very late, usually after I went to sleep. She was so exhausted from her work that on weekends, she would spend most of her time either sleeping or zoned out in front of our clunky MS-DOS computer, games like Lode Runner and Shanghai Mahjongg.

I spent most of my long, happy childhood with the two people I loved most in the world, my grandparents. My grandmother in particular was just the loveliest woman you could imagine: kind, and earnest, and patient. She loved to cook for me and my sister, she’d help us with our homework, she’d tell us bedtime stories in her broken English. She hugged us when we cried.

I was seven when my grandfather passed away, and my grandmother followed when I turned nine. It was around this time that my father had retired from the Air Force, bought a house for our nuclear family, and moved us all out. My mother quit her job in Honolulu and got one in Kaneohe, closer to home. Both of them would still come home after sundown, but we were, for the first time, having regular meals together as a family.

Except, that wasn’t really true.

My father, whom I’ll probably talk about in other entries since he is quite the character, is an incredibly paranoid and temperamental man. He despised cooking because to him, it was far too dangerous; knives can cut through human flesh, you could burn yourself on the pans and fire, the microwave oven was sending out deadly rays that would give us all cancer. There are so many countless times when I’d try to do something as simple as heating a pot of water on the stove only for him to come screaming at me to stop being so reckless. Everything terrified him, and nothing more so than the kitchen.

Meanwhile, my mother’s exhaustion didn’t end even after she changed jobs to be closer to home. She’d come home too tired to eat, let alone make dinner for us, and would immediately retire upstairs to play Minesweeper for hours on end. On weekends it was the same: she’d only leave the computer long enough to use the bathroom or grab some water, maybe some granola bars if there were any, and then go right back to clicking.

Weekends were terrible. On weekdays, at least, we could go to school and eat hot cafeteria food. My friends would bring brown bag lunches and they insisted that cafeteria food was too gross, but for me, it was heaven. I could eat until I felt full.

On weekends, I was left to my own devices. My father spent most evenings and his weekends taking college classes. In any case, he certainly had no interest in “women’s work” of grocery shopping, and he insisted that I not learn how to cook since it was dangerous. My mother would be glassy-eyed and vacant, waving me off when I’d say I was hungry. The cupboards and closets were always bare, and my mother hid the granola bars and easy consumables in her room. If I ever went in to steal something, she’d become uncontrollably angry and tell my father, who would slam my head into the walls and floors.

My father did cook sometimes, but he was terrible at it, because he was terrified of it. We ate a lot of instant food, and he’d bellow at us all the dangers of using the microwave as he would tentatively heat up our food. He’d make awful sandwiches of wheat bread, peanut butter, and sliced baloney, and get angry at us if we complained about the weird combination. He’d make military-style camping rations of sliced hot dogs and frozen green beans, but because he was afraid of deadly microbes in meat, it would always be charred and nearly inedible. He made pancakes but was afraid of undercooked, raw batter hiding inside, so he’d slash the centers and then smash them down as hard as possible so it was like eating hard, burnt biscuits instead.

That was when my father bothered to cook. For the most part, I grew up very hungry.

It doesn’t make sense to most people. My family was definitely not poor, thank you very much, as my huffy father would tell you. In fact, my horrible aunt used to tell us, we were actually very spoiled children for having a father who looked after our safety so carefully. We had four cars, all bought new, even though our household only had two drivers. We lived in a newly-developed suburb and had a two-story house with a great big yard. We had dozens of computers because of my father’s work, in a time when most people didn’t have a single one in their homes.

And we starved.

I slept over at friends’ houses a lot, even though my father hated it and would scream at me for inconveniencing them. Sometimes he’d get violent with me when I’d tell him that my friends wanted me to stay over. At friends’ houses, I could eat–they always had meals spread out for their children in the evening, and the cupboards were full of snacks that we had easy access to. No hiding granola bars away, no bare cupboards and empty fridges, nobody screaming at us not to touch the microwave because we’d get cancer.

On the days when I couldn’t stay at a friend’s place, I had to make do. We’d find Kraft sliced cheese singles, put them one slice at a time on a plate, and microwave it when my father wasn’t around. Then we’d scrape the little flakes off bit by bit and hungrily eat them. If you eat it that way, it’ll last longer and trick your brain into thinking you’re eating more than you really are. We’d find cans of Spam and eat it, raw, straight out of the can, since we weren’t allowed to cook it. We ate my father’s old MREs that he brought home as souvenirs from his Air Force days. We’d sneak into my mother’s closet and steal the granola bars and chocolates that she’d hidden, then pay the price later, and it’d be worth it.

My mother would cook exactly twice a year: once on Thanksgiving, for the stereotypical American turkey dinner, and once on New Year’s, which deserved an enormous spread because, as my father used to like to bellow at us, WE ARE JAPANESE! On both occasions, she’d make huge feasts, because actually she was really damn good at cooking. She cooked because those were the two days of the year when company would come over, and it wouldn’t do to serve our guests water and microwaved cheese singles.

I think about her a lot and quietly close up inside.

I’m a 31-year-old adult now. I haven’t lived with my family in over nine years now. I still can’t cook very well, though I’ve been trying more recently. I still don’t really have a good relationship with food. If I have a lot of time off, as I do now, I tend to skip breakfast and lunch altogether because my body doesn’t have that internal clock telling me it’s important to eat. I move very slowly, carefully, deliberately, because I don’t want to waste any energy. I eat myself to bursting when there’s food in front of me because I don’t have that mechanism telling me to stop.

I don’t know if what I have is actually classified as an eating disorder, and I don’t really care. I know how to handle myself, and I don’t have body image issues. It is going to take a lot of work to get myself in a place where I have a more stable relationship with food and keeping myself fed. I don’t even really know if what I want is possible; maybe everyone’s got their food hangups, and this is mine.

I’d just like to pick up my entire past and throw it away into the sea.

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