I Will Eat Every Grain of Rice For You: Finding My Place in Kinship Culture

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孩子, 吃饭的时候,记得把碗里的每一粒米饭都吃完。你不会像我们一样在你的一生中挨饿。我爱你, 好孩子。” -奶奶

“Serena, when you eat, remember to finish every grain of rice from your bowl. You will not go hungry in your lifetime, like we did. I love you, sweet child.” –Grandma

I am a member of the Chinese Diaspora caught between the freedom dreams of my parents and that of my own.

Raised by parents who were formed in the shadows of the Cultural Revolution, I grew up in a household whose hopes for better futures were found in the American Dream. As part of the third wave of Chinese immigration to America[1], my parents left their families to settle into Detroit as auto engineers in the early nineties. Despite arriving with only a single suitcase, they carried the heavy memory of the oppressive communist regime they left behind. As 26-year olds, they dreamed of free markets, the relief of individualism, and meritocracy. In contrast to the working class Chinese, my parents’ education afforded them the class privilege to eventually move into the suburbs of Detroit, find stable jobs, and put down a mortgage for a home to raise their two children in. Like many third wave Chinese immigrants, they absorbed a one-dimensional interpretation of race, class, and identity. Fed with a white supremacist agenda that blamed the increased violence of the Asian Diaspora on the Black and Brown communities, and ineffective governing on the progressive agenda, their cohort increasingly identifies along the spectrum of conservatism.[2]

I grew up within this swirl of complex forces. My high school years were spent hopelessly seeking an Asian-American story to belong to, and I’ve spent much of my twenties struggling with how to square the “empire culture” ideologies that I inherited from my own home with what it means to be a part of the Chinese diaspora. As an aspiring student of liberated zones[3] and freedom dreams informed by Black feminist liberation philosophy, I feel increasingly clear on my political commitments. Yet, the more firmly rooted my evolving political orientations become, the larger the contradictions between my parent’s reality and mine feels.

I spent many years keeping quiet about my messy inheritance. During my climate justice work in college, I was ashamed of my education and class privilege. I asked myself, am I worthy to participate in this work, when I myself benefited from the very systems of oppression I am organizing against? Without consciously realizing it, I slowly began “canceling myself” from movement spaces, so that others would not have the opportunity to, unless they found out about the values and beliefs I was raised with. Yet, by wrestling with questions of inheritance, privilege, and belonging in the shadows, I did not have the opportunity to learn how to hold this complexity and contradiction in public. My shame of inheritance remained frozen for many years. Luckily, through the gift of friendship with other members of the Asian Diaspora, I am slowly, even joyfully, healing old patterns through growing the capacity to welcome conflict and contradiction. These intergenerational friendships have affirmed the importance of reclaiming our cultural and familial inheritance. These friends have been my teachers, my companions, and have helped me ask more generative questions:

How can I take courageous actions towards kinship culture, while firmly rooted in my cultural inheritance?

How do we relate to our beloveds who may share different orientations towards freedom dreams?

Rather than discard, how do we compost our messy inheritances and nurture pride in our positionality?  

In seeking to make sense of my family’s messy inheritance, I longed for an ancestral story of redemption to belong to. I asked myself: what were the liberation dreams of my Chinese ancestors that I can carry with me in my life’s walk? I found myself seeking “good” ancestors, protagonists of our lineage, like social movement heroines or wise Daoist sages, who could validate our own “goodness.” I was seeking to find nothing short of God in my lineage, to redeem our tangled histories.

More recently, when I shared my longings to understand the liberation dreams of my ancestors with a friend of the Chinese Diaspora, she said this: “I hear you… but honestly, I feel like my ancestors were just trying to have enough money to provide enough food for their families. They were probably trying to survive and escape hunger. I don’t think they held complex liberation dreams, like we have the gift to express.”

Being humbled by the possibility that our ancestors were focused on satiating their hunger resurfaced an old memory of my grandma when I was 12. After finishing dinner, I hastily got up to watch a soccer game with my brother. Nai Nai quickly called me back to the table and asked me to look into my bowl. I had left a spoonful of rice uneaten. 25 grains of uneaten rice scattered around the bowl. She cupped my hands with hers, and with solemnity yet grace, she instructed me:

孩子, 吃饭的时候,记得把碗里的每一粒米饭都吃完。你不会像我们一样在你的一生中挨饿。我爱你, 好孩子。” -奶奶

Serena, when you eat, remember to finish every grain of rice from your bowl. Though you will not go hungry in your lifetime, do not forget that we did. I love you, sweet child.”

I often zoom in so closely to my own American understanding of collective liberation, I can lose sight of the lineage of dreams that my ancestors have built upon, generation upon generation. For Nai Nai, it was having enough food to feed her family, having spent her adolescence living in hunger through Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a famine that killed 30 million Chinese[4]. For my parents, it is the opportunity to pursue education and achieve financial security. Through each of our predecessor’s loving eyes, my brother and I are living monuments to their hopes and aspirations.

When I move slowly enough to let this acknowledgement drop into my body, I feel a profound sense of solidarity with my parents and ancestors. Honoring them has become an essential part of my walking towards kinship culture as a Chinese American. When I light incense and make ritual offerings of food to my ancestors, I renew our covenant to carry their presence into each meal that I am so lucky to enjoy. Similarly, carrying on the tradition of filial piety and offering wholehearted gratitude and admiration to the life path my parents chose for our family, disagreements and all, allows me to pick up and progress our lineage, while making space for my own dreams.

Welcoming my messy inheritance, rather than resisting it, has invited me into the space of writing, talking in broad daylight, holding contradiction, and pursuing courageous community actions. Even though many of my ways are increasingly edgy to my parents, we are learning to accept and hold our differences. Rather than forcing me to carry their burdens, they’ve gifted me the freedom to compost and recycle their hopes into my own expression. As a result, I’m learning how to shift from trying to be “right” to being more loving. From being “good” to being more kind. By trying to live like this, I sense we are living into the fullest expression of aliveness that our ancestors longed for.

While I haven’t yet discovered powerful healers, storied sages, or spiritual leaders in my ancestry, I am slowly learning about the hard-working farmers, factory workers, dumpling entrepreneurs, and caring nurses who I come from. Some ancestors committed suicide. Some men harmed their wives. Some were victims of state and community violence. And throughout, there was likely loads of joy, creativity, and celebration. I am coming to peace with the likely reality that there is no redemptive ancestral story of inheritance I am part of. Rather, my lineage, like most, have been caught up in cycles of harm and rupture, while also experiencing possibilities of repair and regeneration.

As the political consciousness of the Asian Diaspora is agitated in the wake of Anti-Asian hate, we have an opportunity to work towards collective liberation, honoring the varied ancestral pathways that brought us here. This is an act of prayer, and my prayer is this:

May our communities not shy away from messiness, from the contradictory generational freedom dreams.

May we invite the edges of ourselves into the light.

May we collaborate with our ancestors as bridge builders and hosts for future generations, on the ever evolving journey towards repair, renewal, and liberation.

And may I remember to savor every grain of rice, for my Nai Nai, and for all my Ancestors.


[1] The overseas chinese: A long history. UNESCO. (2022, January 24). https://en.unesco.org/courier/2021-4/overseas-chinese-long-history

[2] Demsas, J., & Ramirez, R. (2021, March 16). The history of tensions – and Solidarity – between Black and Asian American communities, explained. Vox. https://www.vox.com/22321234/black-asian-american-tensions-solidarity-history

[3] Whitfield, E. (n.d.). What must we do to be free? on the building of Liberated Zones. Prabuddha. https://prabuddha.us/index.php/pjse/article/view/23

[4]  Dik, F. (2010, December 15). Mao’s great leap to famine. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/opinion/16iht-eddikotter16.html

Artwork by Mariza Ryce Aparicio-Tovar.

  • Serena Bian

    Serena is pursuing a life that remains attentive to the tenderness of a snail’s soft body and reverent to the miracle of its spiraled shell. Serena serves as a Special Advisor for the US Surgeon General and brings a spiritual understanding to the public health crisis of loneliness and social isolation.
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