Reads & Eats 5.1

Jessica Xing, on Taco Bell

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Thanks for reading Reads & Eats!

This month, you’ll hear from writer Jessica Xing. Xing’s obsession with fast food threw into sharp relief how different love can look, depending on where you come from. I hope you enjoy this read. For my essay on egg sandwiches (this month’s paid feature), you can subscribe to Reads & Eats by clicking here:

“Good Food”: How my girlfriend discovered Taco Bell—and I discovered what it meant to “take care.”

Jessica Xing

My girlfriend cooks for herself, and had never eaten Taco Bell before. 

She grew up in a small, Roman Catholic town in a remote corner of Connecticut, where she and her family were some of the only Chinese people.

We both grew up older daughters of Chinese families, and she took on that mantle dutifully: Every Saturday she would join her mom on the hour-long trek they took to the Chinese market in town. Then like clockwork, she and her mom would come back, and cook the hard-earned groceries every evening for her dad and brother. Her Chinese was a little clumsy, unpracticed, but through her cooking, she became a fluent master of her mother culture, easily correcting me when I called lotus root (藕) “hard potato cheese,” bitter melon (苦瓜) “a mean-looking cucumber” and so on; she named the most obscure vegetables with clinical precision.

I, on the other hand, grew up in a city-suburb in Northern California. Every day, I was surrounded by people who looked like me; we had a Chinese grocer nearly on every block, and my friends and I would get Boba after class and smoke behind the 7-Eleven next to our school. My parents were often absent because of their work schedules, and because of that they seemed to almost overcompensate for this fact with their nearly boundless generosity and understanding. They didn’t really know how to cook, so we got “good food” every night: Panda Express takeout, Subway, Costco Pizza, Taco Bell. I would come back home at 9 p.m., and reheat the Panda Express from last night, eating it on my bed while my little sister shouted at her friends over the phone on the other side of the wall.

My younger sister and I were coddled; we easily were allowed to quit things that were hard to us — I loudly declared my hatred for math and science and was not pushed to pursue it ever again.

My parents struggled to understand us, but they never really attempted control. My sister and I would get into fistfights in public and my parents would weakly tell us to not punch each other where people could see. I remember once registering what my parents were saying before I slammed my sister’s head against the restaurant table.

And I would get into fights with my mom that would reduce her to tears, yet we wouldn’t even apologize to each other. We could easily laugh over bacon and eggs the very next morning.

It is my understanding that food, in and of itself, is a form of love, and how you handle food then is an extension of how you handle yourself. For example, I learned I could be forgetful, careless, reckless. In college, I ate meal to meal. Just as easily, I swiped on Tinder and got random girls to pay for my dinners, and my fridge got to be empty. 

My girlfriend, on the other hand, goes home for breaks. While her brother plays piano in the background, and her dad works in his office, her mom, without fail, calls her down at 6 pm to ask her to help her prep for dinner. Unlike me, she listens. 

And unlike me, she dated her first girlfriend (who also happened to be her childhood best friend) for two years before they both respectfully broke it off her junior year of college.

I was stubborn with my family in just about every aspect of my life: the food I ate; the people I talked to; the major I studied—but my sexuality seemed to be the one thing I chose to keep quiet about. I knew how my parents would react, but I also knew I’d been unconventional and hard to raise in just about every single respect: I felt that at the very least, I owed it to them to be “normal.”

So I was unpracticed with how to actually start a real relationship with someone. When I first started really talking to my girlfriend, I tried to impress her. In her hometown, the closest McDonalds was a twenty-minute drive away; she had barely heard of a McDouble before, never mind the holy temple of Tex-Mex food that is Taco Bell. When we started getting close (but not quite dating of course, even though I so badly wanted to), I hung onto the Taco Bell thing like a lifeline.

“Oh, you never had Taco Bell before? That is insane, that is the craziest thing I have ever heard. This is a crime, you must fix this immediately by getting some with me this Friday. No, what do you mean? This isn’t like an invitation, or a date or—”  

Despite our differences, there were just enough similarities for me to start comparing myself to her. We both liked writing. We each knew the same random Chinese phrases our parents threw around.

We were so different, yet just similar enough that it all but threw into contrast just what a nightmare I was growing up; what a nightmare I probably still was. She’d grown up having to be responsible for just about everyone in her life. She didn’t deserve to have to manage me as well.

So, before I asked her out, I made a promise to myself: I had to be careful with her.

We finally ate Taco Bell together on a freezing December night, and I filmed her reaction to drinking a Baja Blast, and we started seeing each other a month later.

And I was so careful. Every act was measured. I only asked her to hang out every week or so, despite wanting to see her every hour of my day. I waited for exactly three dates before I kissed her. I held so much of the more problematic parts of myself back out of a deep fear of taking advantage of my girlfriend’s seemingly endless empathy. 

I vehemently denied her offer to cook for me for every single one of our dates. I paid for everything. I religiously cleaned my apartment every time she came over. The more volatile and unmanageable parts of my personality stayed hidden.

We’d been dating for about a month and a half when the pandemic hit and shut our school down. The day before she left, we sat eating the coldest Taco Bell in human history in a park next to my apartment, the knowledge that the pandemic would end our relationship obvious in every attempt at small talk we made. I desperately made joke after joke, trying to keep the air fun and light, and so I wouldn’t start hysterically crying and force her into a position where she would have to comfort me. 

And yet, before she was about to leave, she pressed a Tupperware of Mapo Tofu, marinated into the exact mildness she’d relentlessly made fun of me for preferring early on in our relationship, into my hands. She turned to me with a tired, quiet smile, eyes completely dry. 

“Take care of yourself, okay?”

Jessica is a writer based in NYC, with bylines at Vox, Electric Literature and EGMNOW. She loves reading campy horror books, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and watching bad TV.

News from prior contributors!

Reads & Eats #3 contributor ena ganguly is looking to dive into her skills as a writer and critical thinker. She'd like to find a career that involves social justice, writing, researching, and editing. Here are her clips, and her resume. Please have a look and reach out to her if you’re interested.

Where to find Yi Shun

It’s almost time to do your holiday shopping, and I have great news for you: My book, Pin Ups, is available at REI, one of my favorite retailers, now! It makes a great stocking stuffer.

Speaking of stocking stuffers, Undomesticated, the new project I’ve launched with Tiffany Hawk and Susan Blumberg-Kason, is coming out with a new gift guide that we hope will keep your traveling wits about you as we wait for a vaccine.

And on Thursday, December 3, keep an eye out at The Offing for my latest essay to be published, a piece about watching a movie about Taiwanese Americans. Check it out later this week, but in the meantime, read some of the other wonderful offerings at The Offing.

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I won’t get to see you again until December 30! Until then, have a terrific month, and a wonderful holiday season!

Cheers,

Yi Shun