Thanks to Francis Lam for asking me for a story. Thanks to Helen Rosner for giving it voice (my story is told towards the end). And thanks to my Pau, who I hope can forgive me for what is still raw.
100 days is the length of the Official Mourning Period for Thai people. If you’re a proper Thai, you wear only black or white for those 100 days. At the end of the mourning period, you make merit at temple to honor your loved one.
I insisted on getting doughnuts for my dad. I wanted to go to a Cambodian-owned, smaller doughnut shop near the hospital where he spent too much of his final year. I remembered a small shop with a tiny, difficult lot somewhere on that vast stretch of Amar Rd. Whenever we took a trip to the pharmacy to pick up giant bottles of Lipitor and refrigerated vials of Procrit to increase his hemoglobin production, he’d always ask to stop there, always for an apple fritter, a plain buttermilk bar, and a coffee with cream and two Splendas. Half the time I would take him, and half the time I would refuse. But if I couldn’t let him eat doughnuts in life, I’d make sure he could have them in the afterlife.
My mom and I couldn’t agree on which shop. She insisted that he made her stop at The Donut Hole, a landmark doughnut drive-through tunnel flanked by two giant doughnuts being dunked into the hot pavement. After driving around for 15 minutes and not being able to find my shop, we wound up at the Donut Hole because we were running the risk of not getting to the temple on time for the monks’ meal.
The doughnuts line the windows on the driver’s side—glistening bear claws the size and color of baseball mitts topped with glaze or mottled with crumb, a long row of frosted cake doughnuts with many different glaze colors and sprinkles, golden twists and long maple bars and piles of golf-ball sized doughnut holes. As you wait for the person in front of you to get their order, you have time to decide, then change your mind, then change it back.
It seems obvious now that my lifelong obsession with doughnuts started at the Winchell’s near our house on Colima Road, where I used to pick out a pink glazed yeast doughnut with sprinkles before he dropped me off at the Montessori preschool across the street. It was the three of us in the morning, my Pau and my brother and I, long after my Mae had driven to west L.A. for work. It was our secret, because if my Mae had known we got to eat doughnuts a few times a week, she’d have put the kibosh on it right away.
Now I try to think of doughnuts as yeasty time bombs of atherosclerosis, powdered sugar as potent as cocaine, each bite a doomsday prepper sealing itself in by padding my arteries with a hard paste of hydrogenated shortening. I try to think of them as the enemy so I don’t eat any more than I absolutely must. I ate two of the apple fritters after the ceremony, each one about a pound and the size of my face. And I felt terrible about it.
It’s been a hundred days. I got a $63 parking ticket, my first. I turned 37. The life span of a housefly is 15 to 30 days, and I killed two today. I bought six pairs of shoes and returned four. I’ve paid four rent checks. I saw a therapist once. Every day I think about things I have done, things I could have done, things I did not do, things I should do now.
It is a long time to be recycling your black clothing, but not long enough for the lacy edges of the scab to complete their infinitesimal creep towards the middle.
In an effort to get to know this unknowable city, I’m going to fling myself far and wide to do at least one thing I’ve never done each week. Enter Explore Mode.
Shortly before he died, my dad installed a motion detector which turns blindingly bright fluorescent bulbs in the kitchen on and off automatically. Unfortunately, the sensor stopped working correctly shortly after he died (or his spirit is haunting the kitchen which, you know, would actually be kind of appropriate). When sitting in the kitchen after sunset, the overheads will cut out suddenly, and there’s only a 50/50 chance that your frantic arm waving will actually flip the lights back on. Or you can leave the room with the lights on and come back at 3 in the morning to find that the lights still haven’t turned off yet.
This makes dinner after 6pm a frustrating affair in my parents’ house. After using the last hour of daylight to wrestle with and lose against the detector, I drove myself to Xi’An Kitchen, an always-packed noodle shop in a strip mall in the City of Industry. Under the kind of harsh, bright fluorescents only myopic Asians can appreciate, Chinese families sit at pushed-together formica tables for melamine bowls of hand-pulled or rolled noodles and Wimpy-worthy double stacks of pan-toasted rou ja mio, translated as “Chinese hamburger” on the menu.
The kitchen’s namesake, Xi’an, is apparently a city in the Shaanxi province of what’s considered “Northwest China”, and restaurants that pledge allegiance to it often serve the hand-torn noodles, lamb, and cumin-spiced foods of the region. But reading only the translations, you might not guess the menu’s origins; “Haggis soup” and “Shredded Hand Made Pita Bread in Mutton Broth” are both mystery items.
“What should I get?” I ask the waitress.
She brings me “Braised Meat in Preserved Sauce Hand Made Noodle”, a tangle of noodles that are like wider, thicker pappardelle, tossed with a tangy sauce of oil, soy, and vinegar. Tender, blanched lettuce and sliced scallions provide sweetness against the mildly piquant but toasty crushed chiles. The fatty fan of tender pork tastes of star anise. Each noodle I pull from the hot, haphazard pile curls over in a unique way, squeaking and resisting lightly against my chew. They’re delicious.
Even better for me is being in the crowd, soaking in the anticipation and conviviality. Several multigenerational groups of seven have ordered what looks like the $20 “Big Plate Saute Spicy Chicken With Hand Made Noodle”, a platter the circumference of a hug piled high with meat and a brownish sauce; the diners’ arms form an asterisk as they all reach for more. At one table, a toddler in a high chair bangs on a plastic plate until it flips over and lands on the floor to a round of his sister’s delight-filled guffaws. A stooped, grandmotherly woman wearing elastic-waisted sweatpants clings tight to a middle-aged man’s arm as they gingerly cross the room to meet their kin. Decor consists only of pastel posters with Chinese characters and giant, tasseled Chinese knots that frame the cash register. There are no proclamations of authenticity; There is only food and family, coming and going.
After a week and a half of being haunted in my parents’ kitchen either by a fitful spirit or some junk Chinese electronics, the garish light and steady hum of Xi’An Kitchen stirs a little life into me. I’m reminded that not only does life go on, it stops for no one.
18213 E Gale Ave
City of Industry, CA 91748
Right off Fullerton Ave., in the plaza near Home Depot
Plenty of parking, but if the lot seems full, check around the corner from Ruen Pair for extra spaces by the train tracks
I think it’s traditional in Thailand for the family of someone who dies to wear black or white for 100 days, signaling that they are in mourning. This makes a lot of sense to me now, though I’m not actually doing it. Would be great if my wardrobe signaled to people that, hey, I’m in mourning, and that is why I am especially mean or tender or humorless. It would be a gesture that offers explanation without asking for forgiveness.
You know, on the one hand I would like to preserve the dignity of my relationship with my father by encapsulating it in a single, crystalline essay that expresses my deep love for him. On the other hand, my grief can be acidic, or sharp and piercing, or a dull ache. A laugh or two can bubble up from the muck. Sometimes I let it stew inside, but sometimes I just want to throw my guts on the wall. I don’t know.
(from the LA Times)
What do you do if someone in the same tier is dumping in your circle (not my mom)?
If you’re me, you have a fight, storm out, see that the driveway is being blocked by the other car, contemplate going back in the house for the keys, not want to deflate your storm out by having to re-enter the room where the other party is, be deterred from a walk by the blazing valley August afternoon sun, and instead sit in your car, parked in the garage, texting everyone you know and blasting Olivia Newton-John on your headphones until the other person drives off.
As I didn’t drive until last year, I can’t even say it feels like I’m a teenager again.
I had a chat today with my friend Anel. Anel has a mysterious broken blood vessel in her eye.
ANEL: I got EYEbola
ME: Girl, stop importing bush meat
ANEL: I got El Mal OJO
ME: Dios mio!
We gotta go find the curandero
ANEL: I need a limpiada
ME: I’ll go to the Chinese market for some live chickens, you get the candles
ME: Seriously, what happened to your eye?
ANEL: I’m going to Optho at 5 to “see” whats up
I LOL. From the other room, my Mae yells.
MAE: ARE YOU CRYING OR LAUGHING?
Grief comes like a sudden storm, rolling in unexpectedly and with great vigor, then dissipating as quickly as it came. I walk into the kitchen at 9pm and think, the blinds are still open. That’s because Pau was the one who closed them at night. I look at his chair, his desk, like a set piece for an actor in the wings. The duffel bag of meds we brought back from my brother’s house sits on the floor, unzipped but otherwise untouched. I pass by his room, trapped in the amber of the dark. The house is filled with clocks, his clocks, second hands ticking loudly and out of sync. Grief drenches me, running down my face in rivulets.
That’s when I reach for my mantra. He died peacefully, without pain. He lived to see his granddaughter, and think of how happy he was. Remember how hard it was last year, how you weren’t sure he would, and he did? He didn’t spend his final days in the hospital, which he always hated. He told you he had no anxiety because he had lived a good life. You moved back home and you spent every night with him, listening to PG-13 stories about his youthful hustle. You got to know how much of your personality you inherited from him. You loved him and he loved you and there were no questions about that. You got so much. You got so much.
The storm passes. Each day there are fewer. Still, I watch for the fallen trees.
Seven days ago, my father passed away peacefully in his sleep while lying next to my mother. They had been living with my brother in northern California so they could take care of my baby niece. I rushed up to be with them, not stopping at home to get appropriate clothes or a portrait of my dad. We had to go to Macy’s to buy a shirt and tie for him even though he has dozens at home. The funeral home went through the mandated itemized list of expenses so we would know exactly how we were spending our money. There is a $20,000 casket that we did not opt for. Embalming is priced at a fortune-bearing $888. My brother and I read through the paperwork before passing it to our mother to sign.
The funeral service was intimate and honest. One of my father’s friends, a 75-year-old, traveled overnight by Greyhound bus to pay his last respects, then took the bus back almost immediately after the service.
I wasn’t sure I wanted an open casket, but I’m glad we had one. In his last few months, he liked to tell people not to bother visiting him until it was time to see him in his tuxedo. As it turns out, he actually had a tuxedo jacket for us to put him in. He looked handsome and at ease in it, and we didn’t regret buying him a new shirt and tie, despite how he would have protested the extra expense.
I touched his chest and his smooth, cold cheek and gave assurances to him. “Don’t let your tears fall on the casket or your Pau will worry about us,” my Mae said.
My niece, Momo, is five months old. Does she notice that her A-Kong, her grandfather, is missing? I snuggle her warm body close to my chest and hide my face in her Einstein hair. She smiles at me, burning away my sorrow with her joy. Doug calls her a “tornado of life.”
I tell my Mae that holding her makes me feel better. “Imagine how she made your Pau feel,” she says.
Today, the seventh day after my father’s passing, we attend temple to make merit for him. It’s hot and muggy. A rooster in the San Gabriel Valley neighborhood crows. Just outside the kuti, bamboo springs tall and green. Feels like Thailand.
Preparing for the 7th day ceremony, we wonder what food we should bring. It is traditional to prepare something the deceased loved. “Make that ginger chicken. Your dad loved that,” my aunt says.
“He loved making it for other people, not for himself,” my Mae replies.
When we tell people he passed peacefully in his sleep sometime in the morning, they say, “Oh, the Chinese say this is good luck for you. It means he left every meal for you, his children.”
We sit in a long line that snakes out the door to pass tray after tray of food to the monks. Mae and I sit together, and I shift several times to keep my legs from falling asleep. As I lift one burden from her arms, another takes its place immediately, the dishes moving from savory to sweet. Nearly everything is homemade, and I see dishes I haven’t tasted in ages. An aunt has made her renowned sakoo sai moo, translucent tapioca sacs filled with a sweet pork and peanut filling. Skeps of kanom jeen noodles pass along with melamine bowls filled with fragrant green curry laden with bitter cluster eggplant. Tapioca and mung bean cakes are blanketed in an aromatic, grayish sand of sugar and black sesame. Trays of cored rose apples and uncapped rambutan pass alongside mini-muffins and donut holes. Styrofoam cups of ruam mit, a dessert whose name means “friendship”, look colorful and cool.
For the first time in a week, I can feel my appetite being called.
After the chanting, people file out to pile their plates high. Some people fill two plates to take home, pouring o-lieng iced coffee into emptied water bottles. It is a little uncouth, but perhaps it’s just as my father would have done if my mom weren’t there to chide him.
We are back at home now. It is at once bereft of him and full of him. I ricochet between wanting to save scraps of paper he wrote on and rushing to throw out his old razors from the bathroom.
I know the physical things don’t matter. He will always be in my hands in the way I hold a knife. He is in my suitcase in the Chinese-puzzle way I pack it tight. He is in my kitchen in the way I cook for others to make myself happy.
Pau left this world as he lived in it, treading lightly but bearing his family on his shoulders. I am so grateful that I came back to LA and got to spend the last year of his life near him. I am grateful for Momo, for the unmitigated joy and tenderness she brought out of him. I am grateful to have been shaped by such an honorable, generous man.
My mom’s friends swarm around her, place her in the center of the flock’s formation. They speak freely of death. This is what we pray for, they say, an easy, fearless end that doesn’t leave a burden on our children.
My brother said it best:
Those of you who met him probably remember him for either the food he cooked, the stories he told, or both. If you have the time and the inclination, please take some time to share your favorite meal or your favorite story with someone who would enjoy it.
I love the actual Eagle Rock my neighborhood gets its name from. I haven’t been able to find much about it. Some say it’s named Eagle Rock because at high noon, the shadow the overhang makes looks like an eagle in flight; I first noticed it looked like an eye and a beak, and now I can’t unsee the eagle’s head. It’s giant and rises over the entrance to the 134 like an unblinking mythical guardian. It makes me think about what people before me thought of it. Was it considered an omen or message? Did it inspire awe over the science of rock formation? I love that the desert monolith long preceded me and will outlast us all. In its crevices and shadows, generations of locals have and will continue to project their questions onto it while pondering the smallness of their lives.
When I was apartment hunting, I made a long list of all the things I wanted in a new place. I wasn’t sure how much I’d have to compromise on for the very low rent I was willing to pay. I was hoping for:
- a separate bedroom
- a separate kitchen with a window for ventilation and dishwashing view
- a dishwasher
- outdoor space
- a big refrigerator
- a proper stove
- a safe neighborhood
- walking distance to a coffee shop
I wound up in a very cozy 230 square foot “efficiency” in Eagle Rock/Highland Park. It’s a studio with a kitchen area, an IKEA wardrobe, and a roomy bathroom with a shower and a sliding door. There’s no separate bedroom or kitchen; it’s not really a walkable neighborhood for shops; the stove is not quite a full one. However, the place is incredibly well-laid out. There are wonderful boat galley touches I never would have thought of myself — a single towel hook in an ideal spot, a window that opens out with a crank so it’s easy to reach, a single wall-mounted unit that serves as air conditioner, heater, and fan without the noise of a window unit. The place did come with a mini dishwasher! And, of course, I got a private deck with a teeny garden.
This is not my first time in a tiny apartment. My friends and family always remind me of the “studio” I lived in after I graduated from college. It was located in Berkeley off of Shattuck Ave. on the ground floor of a small apartment building. The small, 9’x 12′ space was directly behind the carport, and I was always frightened by the sound of my landlady driving in on a Friday night with an alacrity that indicated her tipsiness. The water hookups were clearly meant for a laundry room, but the landlord instead rented it out as an apartment. The “kitchenette” consisted of a microwave and a “convection oven” — a plug-in glass pot with a fan that I used to crisp up takeaway katsudon purchased from the nearby Japanese grocery store, Musashi. It always smelled of rancid oil. The bathroom was tiny and expedient—you could wash your hands while sitting on the toilet. The closet was a cutout space in the wall with a bar for hanging clothes, and the room itself barely fit my full-sized futon and not much else. My mother was horrified by the place, but it was the first time I’d ever lived alone and I didn’t mind it. It was only $500 a month.
So I’m fine in a small space. With this new place, I knew I didn’t want to spend a fortune on rent. But I didn’t expect to appreciate living in a tiny apartment as much as I do now. There’s less to vacuum, which means that I actually do vacuum. I can do the whole place with a handheld, battery-powered stick vac while taking a ten minute eye break from my computer. It’s also harder to lose things, as I have less stuff and there are fewer spots to misplace them. Though I’m a person who’s never had much claustrophobia, I think of the neighborhood as my living room, and I hike its rosemary- and cactus-lined roads as the sun makes its way over the hills in the morning. When I take a break, I inspect the plants on my deck under a canopy of giant eucalyptus. Though my abode is small, my world feels expansive.
I think a lot about how to make the most of this space with the least amount of stuff.
I love this small corner double sink. To save counter space, I got the MUJI adjustable stainless dish rack with an extra slim cutlery basket which is about the thickness of a deck of cards. They drip right into the sink. Behind the sink is this weird triangular space which happened to be the perfect size for this IKEA Rågrund triangular bamboo shelf. I chose the four-shelf version because building up helps me maximize storage in a tiny space.
On the very top shelf is a MUJI stainless wash bowl, which I use to thoroughly clean my greens. I hate trying to wash greens in a tiny bowl — greens want space to be swished around in before a soak that lets the dirt fall to the bottom. When I’m done washing the vegetables, I dump the water into a bucket I have outside; when I’ve collected enough, I use it to water the plants.
On the second shelf are some of the glass containers I’ve emptied since moving into the apartment. I’m trying to minimize the amount of packaged foods I buy, in part because I want to eat healthier, but also in part because I don’t want to bring another jar into my house only to toss it into the recycling bin. So I bought one jar of jam, and now I use that jar to store homemade jam, which I’ve just started making. (Good god, why did I ever give precious artisanal jam makers my money? Homemade jam is the easiest thing in the world, especially if you don’t bother preserving properly. I don’t bother sterilizing because I refrigerate the jam and eat it before it spoils.) Anyway, I’ve been cooking down frozen organic raspberries with chopped pear for pectin and a tiny bit of sugar (1 part sugar to 4 parts berries), finishing with some vanilla extract. It’s better than anything I can buy (because it’s made to perfectly suit my palate), I can cook it while I putter around the apartment, and I save another jar from entering the manufacturing/waste cycle.
Magnets also help tremendously by lifting objects off the counter and placing them on the walls. I have a magnetic timer which I use constantly for toasting bread in my half-size oven, brewing tea, etc. The oven mitt is a San Jamar Kool-Tek Puppet with a magnet in the tag, and behind that is a magnetic silicone trivet I took from my dad. Under my friend Hee Jin Kang‘s photo of a cherished memory of summer in Hudson, I’ve got my magnetic knife strip. I LOVE a magnetic knife strip. You can see at a glance all of your tools, and whenever you need one, it’s easy to grab. I don’t know why you would store your knives any other way. Also, people who keep knives free in drawers are sadists (or masochists).
The oven is half-size. Before I found this apartment, I thought for sure I’d get a Breville Smart Oven, which I’d coveted since writing about it for The Sweethome. Since my apartment oven is already kind of a like a toaster oven, I didn’t have to. Half sheet baking pans don’t fit, so instead, I bought two of these Vollrath quarter sheets, which I now feel are indispensable in the kitchen—especially if you cook for one or two. I love how easy it is to clean the small quarter sheets, even in my extra small sink. I’d recommend them to anyone living alone. They’re perfect for cooking off just a few discs of frozen cookie dough, or roasting a single head of cauliflower.
I’ve purchased a lot of brilliant space savers from MUJI. I appreciate how thoughtful the designs are and how they make things that are minuscule by American standards. But my favorite item of all is probably this mini dust box, which I use as a countertop trash can. The most genius thing about it is that it has a rectangular metal ring inside (there’s a picture on the MUJI product page). You take that out, thread any small plastic bag through (I like the leftover bags from the produce section), and snap the ring in place for a super neat, Carmen Carrera-worthy tuck. As you can see, it’s not much bigger than a large yogurt container (which is what I use to collect compost scraps), and given the emphasis I’ve been placing on reducing waste and packaged foods, I find it’s really all I need. I love that I can leave it out on the counter instead of having to lean down and open the cabinet under the sink when I have trash.
I’ve got more to say about the rest of the apartment, but I should probably clean it up a bit before I post pics of the place here. Which may mean you’ll never see it. But, hey, we all need goals.