“The Ratio of Rice to Water” by Jessica Poon13 min read

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Illustration by Wendy Ma

Aubergines—my mother believed eggplant sounded too unsophisticated—bananas, zucchini, and once, even a phallic-shaped sweet potato, which she cautioned me early on never to mistakenly refer to as a yam, which originated in Africa and was botanically distinct—all of these had their turn in being a substitute penis when my mother demonstrated how to use a condom.

“You cannot just accept at face value that a woman will be responsible for birth control,” my mother said. There was a little too much empiricism in the way she looked at me, but I shrugged it off as projection. “In fact, I would go as far as recommending that you never have sex without a physical barrier for as long as possible, because the moment you do, it’ll become the gold standard and you’ll become one of those men who resent condoms and are consequently careless with condoms. You’ll carry a condom in your wallet at all times just in case, and in all likelihood, it’ll expire before it gets used, resulting in breakage, resulting in a pregnancy you can only hope will be terminated, but probably won’t be because of that movie Juno. Do you understand?”

Whenever my mother paused in her sentences, I hoped for a full stop and usually got a comma.

#

I never really dated until the emergence of online dating apps and it became dizzying how many girls named after places I ended up dating: India, Asia, Israel, Dallas, Jordan, London, Madison, Montana, Paris, Lima, another Paris, Sierra, and once, I swear to God, Luxembourg. Few of these women were well-travelled, which I quickly learned was not an observation most of them appreciated, which I likened to the lifelong nuisance of a tall person being asked if they’re any good at basketball. Indelicately, my mother often would say things like, “But she doesn’t even look Indian” and I would have to explain that few, if any Indians, would name their child India. That was something white people did and even then, not often.

Once, in a fit of romance optimizing, I sent a hundred girls the same message: we would make cute mixed race babies. One woman—non-Hispanic white—accused me of post-racial ideals that couldn’t be realized in our current lifetime and called me out for what I was: a cisgender white man of mostly Scottish ancestry. Four women responded positively (ranging from omg ur so funny, haha! to I prefer dogs. Would you consider a corgi and a vasectomy?), which meant an effortless whim of mine had a 4% success rate—not bad. I had sex with three out of the four and bought Plan B for one of them.

“Is it another girl with a liberal arts degree?” my mother asked, always prepared for the worst.

Notably, my mother used to have writerly aspirations and was, for a hot minute, a journalist. Then she met my father, who’d hired her. The relationship did not survive and neither did her career in journalism. I was born, the living byproduct of her mostly well-concealed resentment. My father offered to pay child support, albeit rather half-heartedly; my mother refused and resolved to become my mother and my father. I still remembered my mother explaining the phenomenon of morning wood when I was six with an unnerving serenity that made me wish I never had a penis. Now, my mother taught economics to unmotivated undergraduates that didn’t understand why, if economics was a social science, there still had to be so many graphs.

My mother, who had recently announced herself a vegan, placed a plate of kale on her new antique table. New antique was my mother’s favorite oxymoron. The kale had been massaged so tenderly I almost felt like I’d witnessed something indecent. She talked about nutritional yeast evangelically.

“You know, I recently read about a critical shortage of baristas. That was the phrase that was used in the article: a critical shortage of baristas. How would that be for a collective noun? I’m thinking that maybe STEM majors are going to fill that abyss, and everything will be okay.”

My mother failed to pick up the cue to laugh, a common shortcoming of hers insofar that I refused to believe I wasn’t funny, so I continued: “Actually, my new girlfriend’s never been to university—she’s more of an autodidact. She has her own blog. I didn’t even know that was still a thing.”

“Anything I would have read?” my mother said. I could tell that she was resisting snark; her lips twitched and then resettled to motionless poise. My mother, who had a habit of asking people carrying New Yorker tote bags if they were readers of the magazine and had anecdotally discovered the answer was invariably no, had a colossal mistrust in universities and yet, the moment a girlfriend or girlfriend-like person was revealed to be lacking a university degree, she assumed there was an intellectual deficiency. I already knew that the word ‘blog’ had done nobody any favors.

“The 10 Best Vibrators for Single, Sassy, Independent Women?” It had, apparently, been rejected by Buzzfeed.

“You’ll kindly forward that link to me,” my mother said, squeezing a lemon onto my salad, extracting a kale leaf to taste, swallowing, and then cracking black pepper. She assumed that we had the same tastebuds.

#

“You know, your mother doesn’t like me,” Quinn said.

She had a book open and appeared to be reading. Certainly, she was highlighting the text—but I knew better. She had been the one to tell me that highlighting was just a cover-up for inchoate absorption and now I wondered if this previous confession was intended to come in handy for analytical use, rather than the throwaway remark condemning undergraduate study tactics I’d assumed it was. How were you supposed to know what was an arbiter of future significance, and what was genuinely inconsequential? It seemed that everything had the potential to become significant, which could have been exciting but instead gave me the same feeling that plugging in a cord did: I had checked more than twice and I still felt electrocution was imminent.

Surely, there were better interpreters of Quinn waiting for their chance, somebody who was less white or not white at all, and legitimately, rather than merely performatively progressive in their views, somebody who dressed better and knew who the Antwerp Six were; somebody who was so devastatingly awesome that she would change her mind and be stricken with what my mother called yolk time, i.e., when a woman who was never desirous of a child suddenly looks at every man under fifty as a potential father. In public, I received looks of resentment and admiration. Quinn, who underestimated her looks, told me I was imagining things.

Out of all the women I had dated, Quinn was the most prone to non sequiturs or at least, as she pointed out, the one most likely to actually utter them. She was fond of saying “A non sequitur is just a thought you don’t understand.”

When I had met her, her hair was so blonde it was practically white. She had a single purple streak, which to me connoted a palpable but predictable rebellion and possibly, a subconscious signal that indicated a willingness to experiment with anal sex. This supposition had so far not been proven, at least, not by me. She also had two nose piercings, one gold stud and one silver hoop. A month into our relationship, she dyed her hair black, which she told me was closer to her natural hair color, but not her real hair color, which she described as “white girl nutmeg brown.”

“When my hair is dyed, people are in this weird fervor to compliment me. I got called a beautiful mongrel once. Was I supposed to say thank you to that? And for some reason, having unnatural hair makes guys think I’m willing to do all this shit that I’m not. I mean, maybe if I was still eighteen and equated having sex with being worthwhile. Seriously, when did a blow job become the new handshake? When my hair’s dark, people don’t look at me nearly as much. It’s like a low-grade invisibility. I still get besieged with ‘What kind of Asian are you? I can tell that you’re half-white.’ It was actually an Asian person that said that to me. But I think I get treated with more respect. Less compliments.”

I never knew what to say when she opined about what she perceived to be racist microaggressions, although she would never deign to use such a phrase. More than once, she had said things like “Why do we have to put a hierarchy on everything? Racism is racism. You know? Basically, if it’s not the Holocaust, it isn’t worth being publicly upset about” and I would assume she was being rhetorical because I could not help but feel I was at an automatic disadvantage when it came to something as nuanced and divisive as race. I was, genetically speaking, the enemy; together, we were a photogenic cliché for the Pew Research Center. I had mentioned mixed race babies as a jocular pick-up line and had my pick of the female equivalent of suitors (suitresses?); now I had a girlfriend and a purebred corgi. I was still, regrettably ensconced in the notion that if I claimed a blind eye to race, the world would catch up to me and also become post-racial.

“What do you mean? My mother adores you.” I supposed, perhaps, that wasn’t true. I continued: “Isn’t she always asking you about the perfect ratio of rice to water? She thinks you’re an expert in Chinese food.”

“Isn’t that kind of racist?” Quinn said in what sounded like a neutral voice designed to discourage me from dissent, the voice that said I am about to assassinate any argument you are about to make and I will do it without sounding hysterical and if you call me hysterical, you will have lost all credibility in my eyes, you cracker ass piece of shit.

“If it is racist, which I contend is eminently possible, if not wholly verifiable—don’t you think just maybe, it’s an unintentional, benign kind of racism? Like a benign mole that turns out, ultimately, to be harmless.”

I was glad I had not said my first thought, which was: Aren’t you Chinese?

“I don’t even know how to use chopsticks,” Quinn said, with what sounded to me like a disdainful pride, like somebody saying they had never done laundry because they’d had a housekeeper their whole lives.

#

I knew my mother was trying because she always set the table with chopsticks when she knew Quinn was coming over. And, of course, the usual three forks per person.

Quinn was dead-set on a corgi but felt morally obligated to adopt a mutt. It was the part of her I loved but also found frustrating; the part that insisted on free-range eggs even though they cost more—no, because they cost more—but got upset with me when I pointed out that free-range did not necessarily mean the chickens got to take piano lessons and forest bathe, that slightly less unethical was not tantamount to being good. She wanted to feel good about being good, but she also wanted it to be easy.

“Would you insist on adopting children?” I had asked her.

Quinn only looked disgusted. “That’s hardly equivalent. You know how I feel about children.” She treated the word like it was a spider in her mouth. “I wrote a whole blog about it.”

I wondered if it was my ethical responsibility to read my girlfriend’s blog. Probably it was.

Mortimer the corgi—I had worried about his name lacking hard consonants, but he had learned his name with seemingly no trouble—curled into Quinn’s lap and licked her face in a manner I could only describe as doggedly. Against all odds, we had found a corgi, fully grown but shockingly purebred and most importantly, unwanted and therefore inexpensive.

“You could learn a thing or two,” Quinn joked. I looked at her and thought with an unprecedented wistfulness that we would make cute mixed race babies.

“Is my son not a sufficiently cunning linguist?” my mother interjected, untying her spotless apron to indicate it was time for dinner.

My mother had been reading Quinn’s blog and had become especially sensitive to orgasm inequality, which from anyone else, I would have at least pretended to applaud and laud.

Quinn looked as though she wasn’t sure if she should take the bait. Was she really going to talk about female orgasms with my mother?

My mother, perhaps sensing Quinn’s ambivalence, added, “Well, in any case, you three look picturesque.” My mother extended her hand to high-five Mortimer, who was immediately rewarded with a blueberry yam—technically, botanically, sweet potato—treat after obligingly outstretching his paw. My mother had been the one who taught Mortimer how to high-five. I was pretty sure I’d been usurped, but I found that I didn’t mind. Much.

“You’re a good boy, Mortimer,” I said, thinking that had theretofore, perhaps, never been conveyed to him. I scratched his ears. He looked at me quizzically, unaccustomed to physical affection from men. It was usually Quinn or my mother lavishing him with attention; I was more like human furniture.

“So Quinn,” my mother said, “what is the ratio of rice to water?”

Quinn sighed. Not long ago, I would have characterized her sigh as being theatrical, but now, I thought maybe it was warranted. “You know when you buy a bag of rice,” Quinn said, “it comes with instructions on the back. Have you tried doing that?”

“I thought you’d have some Chinese secret,” my mother said. “There’s a lovely Indian place I like going to for butternut squash curry. I always ask for it to be Indian spicy. They have an inherent mistrust of white people’s tastebuds. Or perhaps, white women’s tastebuds.”

“Let me tell you a secret about Chinese people,” Quinn said in voice so conspiratorially low I could barely hear her. My mother looked like she might salivate. I was embarrassed but also titillated.

Quinn whispered something in my mother’s ear. My mother’s smile became a frown; she left the room, Mortimer not far behind.


Jessica Poon is a Chinese Canadian writer, former line cook, and dilettante pianist. Though she has resided for most of her life in Vancouver, she is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph and lives in Toronto with her dog, Wolfy.

Wendy Ma is an Illustrator and Designer based in Vancouver. Born in China, raised in Tokyo and Vancouver, she developed her interest in sharing her worldview and experiences as a person with cross-cultural background through art. Fluently speaking three languages, she is passionate about communicating emotion through her pieces. She currently works as an illustrator and designer at IBM. 

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