Article by:
Wen Hsiao

The last time I was home was in February 2020.

I had decided to take advantage of the lenient attendance allowance and take a trip back home to celebrate the lunar new year with my family. It was a thirteen-hour flight I would otherwise be less keen on, but at the thought of the reunion dinner on lunar new year’s eve, I knew it would all be all worth it.

Plus, the red envelopes certainly make up for it.

Lunar new year’s eve is a big deal in my family. With more grandchildren than I can count or remember the names of (I am not proud of this), my grandma is tasked with the impossible: feeding us all and making even the most distant cousin feel singularly special and beloved. For my grandma, the holiday is a season of varying episodes: from her visit to the wet market at the crack of dawn, to the hours spent in and out of the kitchen to check on the stove, to the hundreds of conversations she commands.

My grandma circles the reunion dinner table like a hawk; she refuses to let anyone leave the table without at least having seconds; she is only satisfied when we unbutton our pants to make room for more. Our bellies become proxies for our hearts, and she intends to fill them both.

Family photo provided by Wen Hsiao

In typical Wen fashion, though, I barely made it past the third day of the lunar new year when I began itching to return to Amsterdam. Taipei was dampening my holiday spirit. When I wasn’t stuffing my face with food, I was coughing out answers. I had gone through the usual rounds of interrogation: “Do you have a boyfriend?” (No, I don’t); “Did you gain weight?” (Yes, I did); “Do you know how you will find a job with a media degree?” (No, I don’t but neither does literally anyone else).

By the time my dad dropped me off at the airport, he noted the inappropriately wide grin on my face, while he was getting teary-eyed at the thought of saying goodbye. We split a bowl of overpriced airport beef noodle soup and bid our goodbyes.

Little did we know then, that would be my last time home in two years. 

I don’t know the last time I ate good food, let alone a home-cooked meal from my family. It definitely doesn’t help that Dutch cuisine is really just an approximation of beige, soaked in mayonnaise.

Especially with Amsterdam going in and out of a lockdown every other month, it is hard for me to enjoy food the same way I once did: in a crowded restaurant, splitting desserts with my friends, sharing spoons. The height of culinary pleasure these days takes place in my shoebox studio apartment, alone and hunched over a take-out container. Once upon a time, ordering food delivery was a rare, celebrated indulgence; these days, the soggy delivery bags feel like a sour reminder that even the art of eating has been rendered into the barest of survival mechanisms, soullessly facilitated by a threadbare and punishing gig economy (but I digress).

This is not how I want to eat, and is therefore - not how I want to live.

If you ask someone what their love language is, they might choose among the standard options:  words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, or physical touch. For me, it’s always been food.

Whether it be people memorizing my bubble tea order, or remembering my favorites at every fast food place, the evidence of their knowing is a tender act of love for me. Someone making a home-cooked meal for me is akin to them professing their love for me at the top of their lungs. They don’t just see me: they want to nourish me, sustain me, soothe me, take care of me.

The same could be said for the rest of my family. Like other Asian parents, in our household, a plate of cut fruits is a substitute for an apology. The light knocking on the door, putting the plate of beautifully arranged fruits on the desk, leaving the room without closing the door properly: they are part of a ritual beyond words, transcending pride. They mean more than “sorry.” Cut fruit indicates “you are still mine to care for.” 

Cut fruit indicates “you are still mine to care for.” 

In my 20s, I’m finding more similarities between me and my dad. In his 20s, he would host dinner parties in the apartment he shared with my mother, inviting anyone and everyone he knew over for barbeque and hotpot, treating people to more than they could eat, even when he could barely scramble for next month’s rent. In my 20s, at every brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner, it all ends with me hastily shoving my phone in front of the pin machine, even when I know I only have single digits in my bank account. Our generosity is our frenzied, sweeping declaration of love for the people around us - boundless even though our wallets are not.

All we can do is stuff their faces with food to make up for the things we can’t bring ourselves to say out loud.

2022 marks my second lunar new year spent away from home. When I think about my family and how they express their love through food and how our conversations are bookended by bites and sips, I want to recreate that feeling in my home away from home. For what I lack culinary skills, I at least have the company to make up for it.

But the next time I’m home, I want to stay a little longer and eat a little more, because I don’t ever want to be hungry for home again.