There are ugly memories I try my best to forget. Like a silent movie, the fuzzy scenes are only sewn together years later.
My grandmother tilts her head up; the roof of her mouth is bleeding. She's crying. I've forgotten how this particular incident took place. It may have been over a lost flower when we visited the botanical gardens. The few photos we took that day document my descent well: I'm laughing, twirling in little white socks and ballerina flats until I see that the small flower pin on the center of my dress has fallen off. It's no one's fault, but I take it out on my grandparents — the closest family members I have — because they're available. Because they're there.
My parents are still strangers to me at this point. I'm 3 and a half when my grandparents and I meet them at JFK. I haven't seen them since they left me in China years ago to pursue their PhDs stateside.
My mother hands me a shimmery dress she calls "the Cinderella dress"; my father calls me his sweetest baby and I'm delighted. They tell me that this is my new life. I want to be American, to start over. I vie for their attention like a new student in class. It's almost cruel how quickly I forget about my grandparents who raised me all those years my parents were gone.
This new life in America exhausts my grandparents, I can see that. They don't speak the language and don't have any friends — they only have me.
My grandparents and I sleep in the same room in our small apartment, and they snore. I yell at them for waking me up, even record them on our old handheld recorder for proof. My parents are furious at how ungrateful I am, their anger exacerbated by their embarrassment at our cramped living quarters. I'm only 6, but my spite propels me to hide in the bathroom, turn on the shower, and lock the door until everyone has left. Some faulty key system allows the door to stay shut as I slip out, and the water floods our apartment. Our downstairs neighbor in 11C calls management.
The rest of my memory comes up mostly empty, save for flashes of my mother shaking and pacing as my father is on his knees with a tiny screwdriver, covered in ever-rising cold water. They're only students and can't pay for a locksmith.
A few weeks later, we receive our water bill and it is astronomically high. When my parents blame me, I throw a tantrum because all of this was my grandparents' fault. Why can't they leave? Our family should be three, not five. They tell me I wouldn't have survived had my grandparents not been there to take care of me. I complain that they're holding me back, so stuck in their old ways, in the past, part of a distant country.
That night, I trap a few fireflies in a cardboard box and try to drown them. My mother catches me in the act and tells me I'm a monster. I'm still angry and bitter, but more than that I am confused and lonely.
It's not hard to look past these ugly memories.
Years later, I move out, start a new career, and stop talking to my parents. But then my grandpa passes and I start corresponding with my mother again. She says my grandma misses me so much, just wants to cook me a meal again. It's too much to think about, so I close my email browser before I can hit "Send." I scroll over to Amazon, where I order myself a wok. It's been in my "Save for Later" collection for years.
The wok arrives midweek, but sits unopened a few weeks longer until I have the mental bandwidth to deal with the seasoning process. Does anyone in my family even cook with woks? I'd never stopped to ask. I'd never stopped to ask my family much of anything, unless it had to do with me.
What was my grandpa's actual name, even? It was always just "Grandpa." The last thing I remember him telling me was a story about the horrors of the Japanese invasion. Of a general lustfully chasing a young girl around town until she ran into a lake and nearly drowned herself just to get away. He said all this without his dentures in, so the story sounded gummy and impossibly far away. When I failed to respond with anything but a nod, he scratched his chin with his left hand, where he was missing his fourth finger from a factory accident.
This was over a bowl of black sesame porridge, something he cooked for me every morning.
I wish I had been there when he died. My nostalgia mixes with self-disgust as I season the smoking wok with toasty peanut oil, and my arm hairs pull backward from the intense heat. I shiver. It seems a fitting reaction: All I did my whole life was push my grandparents away. Maybe what I projected at them was fear — fear that I would not be accepted in this new life where I straddled two worlds, China and America.
Even my speech comes out unsure, each word a fuzzy approximation of a sound I once knew.
You should just know this, I think, seasoning my new wok for the first time. It's your culture. How do you not know this?
My inner critic echoes the quiet assumptions of my peers.
But why? Why am I entitled to know something I've rejected so long ago?
Over the course of the next few weeks, the wok and I grapple for power. I diligently cook with it every night, to mixed success. To learn, I watch YouTube channels of Chinese chefs flipping stir-fries with ease, peer into dingy restaurant kitchens in Chinatown and see the same. I feel left behind and ignorant, but it hurts too much to admit that it's my own fault. I put myself here.
I try my hand at tomato and egg, a staple of my childhood. But I'm impatient, leaving the wok too cold as I pour in the eggs. They stick everywhere. I curse and maneuver the wok into my sink, where I scrub away the lacy, sulfuric egg scraps as I hear news anchors speak of China being the next global superpower. The pit in my stomach clenches, as if to tell me, You chose wrong.
I finally take a break from the wok while I move across the country to Los Angeles. Once I arrive, I remove it from the bottom of a musky cardboard box and find it completely rusted. A bottle of black vinegar had spilled everywhere. It smells awful.
My husband sees my face and jumps to reassure me, "We can buy another one."
But I refuse, the masochism in me seeing this as some sort of repentance, an opportunity to try again. I drape the wok most conspicuously over our tiny sink and buy a pack of steel wool. The first scrub, I ply the rust under hot water, over and over as clay-colored sediment begins to float away. My skin burns. I keep going, adding some white vinegar to the mix, thinking just a few minutes longer, even when I can clearly see that there's no way the wok will give in tonight.
My persistence gives way by day four, when I begin to think the exercise is futile. The steady sheen of rust from the wok is still staring me down, as if out of spite, so I hide it away in a cupboard and lie in bed ruminating on how idiotic I was to let this happen.
Weeks pass before I drum up the courage to finish this wok saga. I go back to the beginning — but just hot water this time, and elbow grease. It's almost funny, really: Technology has advanced everything in the kitchen, revolutionized the world save for that of wok cleaning. I'm scrubbing for dear life, begging the wok to let up, please.
Miraculously, I begin to see flecks of that pretty titanium blue resurface from the wok's first seasoning, eventually giving way to a dull silver. After I rinse off the last coppery bits and finish drying the pan, I run my finger along the inside. It's heavily discolored now, the once-polished surface ribbed with long scratches and patchy black spots. I spend a moment wondering what other chefs would call this ugly piece of metal, how they would likely judge me, before shaking off the thought.
What is there to do, but to accept myself and start over? This is my wok now.
So I turn on my hottest burner, open up my "Drafts" folder, and get to work.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: I'm Chinese, but it took me 28 years to buy my first wok