Pritong isda smells foreign to my friends. Scales flaked off with a cleaver, gutted to its eyeballs, fried in a pan with rice until the smells — residual oil dripping off crispy hardened morsels, used the night before to fry lumpia, fried chicken, egg — land on people’s clothing, in their hair, on their skin, rice pouring from within.
In my late teens, I refused to enter my house if my grandma was frying anything. The smell dirtied the air, made me feel like a squatter in the slums, or a back alley dumpster filled with day-old scraps. It wasn’t a privileged smell, like lavender or citrus or Pine Sol sold on shelves in stores; it wasn’t a white people smell.
But still, when I knew I was going nowhere where I needed to pass or fit in, I’d get into my pang-bahay, house clothing of shorts and an oversized T-shirt, sit at the table and tear up the fish with my bare, impatient hands. I’d scoop up the rice, thumb kissing fingers, cradle a gluten ball that I’d stuff into my mouth with pieces of fish that lazily hung out. I’d sit with my grandma, chattering away, fried tilapia swimming in vinegar, soya sauce, tiny garlic bits and my saliva. My taste buds would jump up like Tinikling where your feet would get chopped off if you weren’t careful or looking. The pungent acidity would move up into my nostrils, causing my eyes to water and my ears to ring. Tiny bones threatened to choke me as I stuffed it all down gluttonously. I sat and listened to her, speaking in Tagalog, tasting home, feeling full.
My grandma died a few years ago. I married a Canadian. I moved to a place where I am the only spot of colour in a sea of white picket fences. My kids prefer cereal, toast and McDonald’s, forks and knives and spoons. They’ve never seen me eat with my hands or see the pritong isda and I feel barren, lonely, something missing here. I sit staring at whitewash walls, granite counters, empty smells that leave a hole. My kids barrel in, ask for Wonder Bread, pasta, and I think – I wish I paid more attention to my grandma and her fish.
Aileen Santos is a Filipina-Canadian writer and high school teacher in the Greater Toronto Area. Her debut novel, Someone Like You, was published May 2016 by Two Wolves Press. Her creative non-fiction piece, Six, is forthcoming Spring 2017 in the anthology, Wherever I Find Myself: Stories by Canadian Immigrant Women published by Caitlin Press.
Illustration by Ethel Dalida