The hugs and kisses had disappeared by the time we became teenagers. Not exactly overnight, but by then we were too old for cuddles and public displays of affection from our parents were probably the last thing we wanted.
Affection comes in different forms, as Chinese kids would come to find out.
In our household, it manifests in plates of cut fruit. My mom would always say, if there is cut fruit on the table, someone will eat it. We eventually do, mindlessly munching on slices of guava or apple while lounging in the living room.
What my mother doesn’t express in words, she makes up for it by spending hours laboring in the kitchen, preparing dinners comprising stir-fried vegetables, fish and soup, all served piping hot at dinner time.
All Chinese families probably encounter some variation of this to differing degrees. As much as I would have liked to show love for my loved ones the same way one day, I’m resigned to the fact that this would probably be a skill I would never perfect in this lifetime.
Even when she was angry at us, she always cooked.
We would crawl out of bed and find nourishing minced pork and goji berry rice porridge kept warm in the rice cooker long after she had left for work.
Sometimes our arguments were about food. We would go out for a rare meal at a nice restaurant and my mom would comment that she could have cooked the same thing better for less. Or how we were always dining out with friends.
My mother is a first-generation immigrant from China who arrived in Singapore by way of Malaysia to marry my father, a second-generation Chinese Singaporean.
As children of the diaspora, my sister and I learnt of my mother’s childhood in Malaysia through her stories, sometimes long-winded and often anchored by food.
There was a time they were so poor, they had to eat rice drizzled with soy sauce because they could not afford anything else. She still raves about a type of succulent thin-shelled shellfish that can’t be found anymore in the markets today, simply marinated in soy sauce, chilli and garlic, and eaten raw.
I moved to China in 2005, on a whim, chasing the kind of dream that was only possible far from home. The distance between us ended up bringing us closer.
My mom gave me a small rice cooker and I began cooking for myself out of necessity for the first time in my life. I started missing her food and our family dinners at hawker centres. I held on to such food memories even if they involve my mom commenting that I had put on weight in the same breath as she nagged at me to eat more.
The longer I lived overseas, the more I made sure family meals were my top priority whenever I came home on holiday.
Later on, I learnt that tradition can just as easily be altered to demonstrate affection. For as long as I can remember, we traditionally have a breakfast of snow fungus dessert soup and braised vegetable stew with rice on the first day of the Lunar New Year.
These days, the dishes have long been replaced by black sesame dumplings in longan red date soup and vegetarian fried rice vermicelli, dishes that she adapted in view of my French husband’s palate.
My husband and my mom converse awkwardly in a splattering of Mandarin and English and most certainly my mom has found it easier to express herself in the way she does best – through food.
In all the years I lived abroad, my mother never failed to make sambal chilli and fry up crispy fried shallots each time I came home on holiday.
At the end of each trip, bidding farewell hours before my red-eye flight, we make an exception for hugs at the departure area. It is a rare show of physical affection that is at once awkward and emotional.
Yet what I find more endearing are the carefully-packed bottles of fried shallots and frozen sambal chilli in my checked-in luggage that would be my taste of home in the months to come.