I’ve been toying with telling this story for several years and through those years, it went through different iterations. At one point it was going to be a poem, at another a short story. Once upon a time, it took the shape of a personal essay and then back to being a poem. From there, that poem started to form individual illustrations accompanying each verse where it finally landed as a kids book. And like most of my projects, whether it’s a creative endeavour or a work-related assignment, I needed to set a deadline for myself so a Christmas present for my family was a great motivator to get my ass in gear.
Well, that’s how the book came to be but that is not the story behind Rice On My Socks. And with it being Asian Heritage Month, I thought that diving more into why I wrote it and where it came from was a good way for me to honour that in some small way.
There’s nothing clever about the title; we ate a lot of rice with our meals and through our enthusiasm for my mom’s cooking, the odd grain of rice found itself on the floor of the kitchen after every meal. We’d excuse ourselves from the table to go watch television or play video games, collecting a tacky clump of mashed rice into the fabric of our socks. The rice would dry up, of course, but by the time it was discovered in the laundry basket, the crusty remnants of a long gone meal had to be picked off like a scab.
One of my favourite dishes was/is mechado which, for those who don’t know, is a beef and pork stew (marinated in soy sauce and lemon juice) with potatoes and whole black pepper in a tomato-y based gravy. Nothing was better than scooping a generous portion of that and planting it on top of a mound of rice (yes, potatoes and rice is a completely acceptable combination). Added bonus: the leftovers rivaled a freshly cooked pot.
The funny thing is I didn’t know I was eating Filipino food. Hell, I didn’t even know I was Filipino. In fact, I didn’t know we were anything; that people were divided by such things as ethnicity or race. It wasn’t because my parents hid the fact that we were Filipino. Far from it! It was just never treated as being something that was different or “non-Canadian.” Truth be told, I don’t even remember when the idea of being Canadian was a thing. I thought people were just people, doing people things. Everyone ate what we ate, spoke the way my parents and their friends spoke, and used a tabo with every bathroom visit.
Then I entered kindergarten.
Even then, seeing people with fairer skin and an array of different hair colour didn’t faze me. Why would it? I had, afterall, been exposed to non-Asians, predominantly white people, in movies and TV shows like… a lot! I did not, however, take into account that other people’s exposure to Asian culture was not only minimal but that of stereotypes and tokens, mostly Chinese and Japanese. Having to explain to classmates I was Filipino and not Chinese was met with “same thing”s and “whatever”s. It sucked but at the time I never defended myself or said anything because I wasn’t even entirely sure how I was supposed to be. It wasn’t until I was much older in high school when humour became my defense mechanism and I’d retort with a snarky comment that (hopefully) made them feel stupid or embarrassed by their ignorance. Unfortunately, to no avail.
Where was I? Oh, yes… Food.
Kindergarten snack time was stress-free; apples and grapes were a welcomed offering for everyone to share. But when I entered grade one, lunches soon became a badge of individualism which is a frightening thing for a child. The appeal of leftover mechado was replaced with the need to not draw attention to myself. Peanut butter sandwiches were safe and satisfying and allowed me to blend in nicely…
Just kidding! Your “Asianism” doesn’t just go away, nor should it. I wish I could’ve told myself that then. I wish I could’ve told that quiet, shy little girl to embrace her food publicly and openly. Even my close friends at the time fed into my insecurities of not belonging. This particular page cites some real life examples of things my own friends put in my head.
Actually, the exact thing she said (and yes, I remember this very clearly) was, “Don’t worry, you’re just tanned. It’ll go away.”
Looking back now, I don’t even blame my friend. It came from a place of concern, though ignorant-based as it was. However, being teased that the bridge of my nose was too flat is another story, and a ridiculous one at that. I can’t believe I once wanted to shape my nose into something else. It was so cute then and it’s still pretty adorable, I can’t even!
By the time I was old enough to dance and participate at the Thunder Bay Folklore Festival — an annual celebration of culture in the city that had performances, foods and a makeshift bazaar — I had a better understanding of what being Filipino was. Spending our Christmas vacation in the Philippines in ‘87 was a true eyeopener in discovering my heritage and family, more so the latter. Though sadly, I don’t think my young privileged Canadian ass appreciated it enough at the time… more on this in an upcoming book in the same series as Rice On My Socks.
Anyway, it was amazing to enter the food area of the festival with all the cultures on display in full aroma. I remember walking pass booth after booth, unable to decide how to spend the $5 my folks gave me: German schnitzels? Cantonese chow mein? Ukrainian perogies? Not only did I realize there were so many different foods I didn’t see my classmates pack for their lunches, but the crowd forming at our Filipino booth was among the largest there. The local radio station always advertised the highlights of the festival and there was always a plug for people to go to the Filipino booth for our BBQ pork skewers and turon (which is like a fried banana spring roll). It was amazing to see people wanting to not just taste our culture but to get to know it.
Maybe that’s why Rice On My Socks went from a Christmas present to a published book. I wanted to reach kids who were once like me: unaware of the thing they wish to hide is a thing to not only embrace but to share. And if you give people a proper chance, they just might want to embrace it too.