My mom and I eat shrimp with piles of shells stacked between us. At our table in the middle of the eatery at 99 Ranch, we rummage through the mounds of tails, legs and antennas that litter our cafeteria tray. The orange color of the stir-fry marinade has made its way onto every corner of the Styrofoam container we share. This seemingly desperate act would mark the end of the feast for most but not for us. Mom and I uncover the best part of the meal: the shrimp heads.
It’s quite simple, really. The right way to eat shrimp involves sucking the juices from its head. Do whatever you’d like with the actual meat — sauté it, broil it, deep fry it. But whatever you do, do not forget the head. You have to twist it off its body. Then slurp the orange guts wedged behind its charcoal eyes. Don’t be shy. If there’s a morsel you can’t reach, use your tongue to pick it out until you render every last drop. And, if you’re someone who asks for the heads to be removed, then I’m not sure why you even bothered to read this far. To properly eat shrimp, you must act as if it’s your life’s objective to kill the sea critter twice.
That’s how Filipinxs eat shrimp.
From the comfort of 99 Ranch’s cafeteria, my mother and I have no problem using this technique. We’ve become frequent guests of this Asian supermarket chain’s Hackensack location since her move to New Jersey. After nearly 30 years in our two-bedroom New York City apartment, my single mother has downsized to a one-bedroom house in the ’burbs. The move marks a new journey: her road to retirement. One that happens to be paved with Asian home essentials. Bottles of soy sauce, vinegar and patis; frozen fillets of bangus; a bag of jasmine rice and a bundle of persimmons if they’re in season. Every month, I commute from my Brooklyn apartment to accompany her on these grocery runs. Together, we stock her new forever home and conclude our errands with a hands-on feast.
Mom’s slurps become more audible and unabashed with every head she discards. I only notice because I’ve put down my seventh tiger prawn to come up for air. She takes a moment between exoskeletons to laugh to herself. “Wow,” she says, “We are some real Filipinos.”
Whenever we dined out, Mom would conceal her accent with a slowly articulated seafood order, fight the urge to manhandle the shells and limit herself to a fork and knife for the sake of our predominantly white spectators.
When I was younger, I used to worry what people would think if they knew I was a girl who ate shrimp heads. My reluctant half slurps made me taste more air and less umami. Shame got in the way of a perfectly good meal, so I refrained from Asian foods often described as gross, weird and foreign. However, as an adult, I began to crave the taste of shrimp brains, lobster guts, crab eggs, fish sauce, and pig’s blood. They called to me as if every taste bud on my tongue said, So what if we like this stuff? With third-party perspectives being less of a barrier to my mind and palate, I began to eat every gross, weird and so-called foreign Filipinx dish. Time had given me and my taste buds the confidence to embrace the cuisine of my roots.
When living in our former neighborhood, Mom, too, lacked the audacity to eat shrimp the way she knew how. Riverdale had many fine qualities — top-tier private schools, family-friendly parks, a synagogue on each block. However, diversity was a real estate feature it could never boast. Our local restaurants were limited to a handful of cuisines. Whenever we dined out, Mom would conceal her accent with a slowly articulated seafood order, fight the urge to manhandle the shells and limit herself to a fork and knife for the sake of our predominantly white spectators. Now, in the comfort of Jersey’s Bergen County, she resides in a community with a mighty Asian presence and the familiarities of Filipinx culture. Grocery stores that sell every Mama Sita’s spice packet available, restaurants playing TFC (The Filipino Channel), sari-saris on Main Street, a Roman Catholic church for Sunday Mass and neighbors who greet her in her native language of Tagalog. After living in America for decades, my mom finally feels at home.
“It’s just enough,” she says, finishing the last of her shrimp heads.
Minutes ago, our platter was filled with everything that 99 Ranch’s Chinese buffet had to offer. Tiger prawns, fish fillets, chicken and broccoli, pork lo mein and a heaping bed of rice. The woman who rang us up didn’t even bother closing the flimsy seal on our filled-to-the-brim dish. Now, only half of a fish and a few bites of chicken remain. I motion to carry our scraps to the trash, but my mom stops me. She swipes the Styrofoam container, ties it up in a plastic bag and tosses it into her Marc by Marc Jacobs tote.
“Seriously? Just finish it,” I tell her.
Mom sucks her teeth at my gluttony, the bag already under her shoulder.
“Fine. Then I’m tossing it.”
“Ah! Can you stop?” Her accent becomes more pronounced. It always does in situations that are beyond her control, and for my mother, saving leftovers is often beyond her control.
I roll my eyes as Mom walks away with stained plastic peeking out of her leather handbag. When I follow her out of the cafeteria, we pass an array of food outposts: Kings Village, Penang Street, Gourmet Fresh, Lau Ma Spicy and a long table promoting 99 Ranch’s sale on Chinese, Japanese and Korean sweets. However, the Filipinx dishes I crave are nowhere to be found. Our cuisine fails to earn its place within this Asian collective. The only sign of our culture is a booth adjacent to the eatery. A kiosk with a single teller behind a plastic barrier. On it, a poster reads: Send Money to the Philippines.
While lugging our bounty into my mom’s new home, I stub my toe on a storage box of what appears to be tax return documents circa 1995 to 2002. “Those are important,” Mom reminds me, “You never know.” With stacks of cardboard boxes, plastic crates and unhung paintings, her entrance resembles something closer to a storage unit rather than a living room. In the far corner, a balikbayan box collects dust alongside my MacBook Pro from college and my surround sound speakers from my first apartment. I’ve insisted to my mom that both of them no longer work, but she promises to fix them and ship them to our family in the Philippines. A promise made several times over the course of her two-year move. While I understand the slow and steady transition given that she’s single, approaching her 60s, and still working 12-hour shifts in the emergency room, I secretly hope that my mom’s front door will one day reveal a home that’s further along.
“Don’t mind my kalat,” Mom says in a lighthearted tone as she swerves around each obstruction. She says it knowing that I, her Type-A daughter, do, in fact, mind.
This Tagalog word translates into a term that is not welcomed in my Brooklyn one-bedroom: clutter. A few piles of kalat is all it takes to suffocate the 500 square feet of New York City real estate that I share with my fiancé. I make it a habit to put away my stilettoes, hang up my dry cleaning and break down any Amazon Prime packages upon entry. My neurotic ways are compatible with my partner’s penchant for Scandinavian interior design: simple-lined furniture from West Elm, linens featuring monochromatic hues and light accents of hygge vibes. It is in my fiancé’s Scandinavian aesthetic that I find reprieve from my Filipina mother’s kalat.
I set down my mom’s grocery bags on the tiled floor with vitamin supplements, half-empty packets of Splenda and a shrine for Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary occupying her kitchen countertop. To organize her latest addition of Asian essentials, I carve out space in the fridge amid containers of leftover chicken breast, a few slices of muenster, half of a squeezed lemon, a cup of yogurt with a resealed aluminum lid, a pint of skim milk taken from my mom’s hospital and a half-eaten salad with a paper plate used as a makeshift lid. When I slide in our buffet leftovers, the Styrofoam container of half a fish fillet somehow feels right at home.
My mother firmly believes that she is not hoarding; she simply has kalat. However, as her American-born child, I cannot tell the difference between the two.
Then, a distinct object catches the corner of my eye as I close the refrigerator door. Its tattered appearance lurks from the corner of my mom’s kitchen sink. Its color is a unique shade I know well from my youth. Its mere appearance triggers a deluge of memories. The object is a reused bottle of pale blue, watered-down dish soap. I recall the childhood shame of this diluted basic necessity — the fear that my friends might call out this blatant level of ratchetness during a playdate and the embarrassment when one of them inevitably did.
“This stuff is just too strong,” Mom would say while making her concoction.
Two-parts dish soap, one-part water. The result was a thin, bluish liquid that blasted out of the squeeze bottle and onto the sponge. Meanwhile, our value-sized jug of perfectly good, concentrated dish soap was relegated to beneath the sink. This recipe for parsimony wasn’t limited to dish soap. You name it, my mother added water to it: hand soap, body wash, mouthwash, shampoo, sauces, condiments, soups and any beverage she deemed too sweet. The variety alone left me speechless.
However, on this particular day, the sight of this pale blue strikes something in me. It’s a feeling compounded with the outdated paperwork in the living room, the religious shrine on the kitchen counter and the meager leftovers in the fridge. A reaction that forces me to ask why. Why must my mom add water to everything? Why can’t she use a dash of concentrated soap rather than an onslaught of diluted soap? Why can’t she fork over an extra $2 for Dawn? Why must she hold on to every last thing? Why must she embarrass me? All of my whys amount to one question:
“Why are you hoarding this crap?!” I ask.
My mom doesn’t respond. The look on her face says enough. It’s an expression that conveys the surprise of an assault. Hoarding is an ugly term reserved for people who surround themselves with enough landfills of trinkets and oddities to secure their own episode on a TLC reality show. My mother firmly believes that she is not hoarding; she simply has kalat. However, as her American-born child, I cannot tell the difference between the two. My mom sucks her teeth at my accusation and turns away from me. She tends to a pile of dishes with her watery dish soap, and while I can only see the back of her head, I can sense the hurt in her expression.
I fear that all of them will fail to sift through the kalat and limit their perception of us. The lesser-than Asians who eat like savages, save every scrap they can muster and echo the common plea of Send Money to the Philippines.
Adding water is an economical trick Mom picked up after growing up in the Pandacan neighborhood of Metro Manila. Her possessions were limited to a handful of outfits, a couple pairs of shoes and a shared bedroom among five siblings. With parents who survived World War II, her household had a focus on rebuilding. The Philippines they knew had been decimated, so the rejuvenation of their country started at the most fundamental level: the family unit. For them and so many Filipinxs, whatever belongings they had were considered not as home essentials, but as blessings. Each item possessed hope for a better life, for their family and the generations to come. Such hope proved to be fruitful as I was raised in an upper-middle class neighborhood, had the resources to land a well-paying job and earned a salary to fund my home’s bougie aesthetic. A privileged life made possible thanks to my mom’s frugality.
I am as Filipina as eating shrimp heads with my mom after shopping for patis and bangus. I am as American as recycling Amazon Prime boxes in my West Elm-inspired home that I share with my white fiancé. What does that make me? A real Filipina. A typical American. Both. Neither. My answer changes as my identity vacillates between realms. One where I build piles of shrimp heads; the other where I demolish piles of kalat. I struggle to balance the two as I reclaim my ethnic identity and find my place in this country that I call home.
In my mom’s new house occupied by no one other than me and her, I find myself occupied with the opinion of others. While I want her to toss a plate of leftovers, throw caution to the wind and live the life she’s achieved, the motives behind my criticism have less to do with frugality and more to do with embarrassment. What guests may say about the contents of her fridge. What unexpected visitors may think when they step into a living room of boxes. What my partner may consider when he sees that watered-down bottle of dish soap. I fear that all of them will fail to sift through the kalat and limit their perception of us. The lesser-than Asians who eat like savages, save every scrap they can muster and echo the common plea of Send Money to the Philippines. Stigmas that outline the portrayal of Filipinxs. To combat them, I hold my head with pride while eating shrimp heads for all to see. However, a single display of cultural acceptance is not enough. Reclaiming Fil-Am identity, or rather embracing it, is an imperfect mess of a journey. One that often requires time, perseverance and patience to undo the damage of shame, stereotypes and self-hate.
“Sometimes I think I should just sell the house,” Mom sighs with a self-deprecating laugh as she puts away her clean dishes. It’s a laugh that makes my heart break. She gazes at the piles of boxes surrounding her and says, “Maybe it’s all too much for me.”
“No,” I tell her. “It’s just enough.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah, it just takes time.” I smile and give her a hand.
I don’t know how long it’ll take for Mom to fully move into her new home. I don’t know how long it’ll take for me to fully embrace my heritage. Contents have to be sorted through, behaviors have to be unlearned, and items have to find their place. However, my mother and I continue to try. Both of us navigate the right way to be Filipina, challenge the right way to be American and uncover the women we’re meant to be.
In time, my mom’s front door no longer reveals mounds of boxes and kalat in her entryway. The living room carpet is visible. Vitamin supplements are tucked away in a cupboard. The number of Tupperware in her fridge has diminished. Although the diluted dish soap remains on the kitchen sink, the sight of it no longer makes me grimace. Its pale blue color serves as a reminder of where my mom came from while making this house her own. Before I head to Brooklyn, Mom packs me a bundle of leftovers containing my favorite Filipinx dishes and loads them into an old Christmas bag. One that I fold up and store in my own closet. The place where I keep reused gift bags, recycled tissue paper and piles of re-gifts. My fiancé asks why I bother holding onto this clutter. “Those are important,” I remind him, “You never know.”