The chaotic cafeteria drowned me. Voices ripped at my ear–laughing, shouting, and whispering. The fluorescent lights hissed at me. Everyone at my lunch table sat around me with smiles plastered on their faces. How could they manage to stay so upbeat? How could I manage to live knowing this? Brynn smiled at me and asked, “You okay?” But the real question was, was she okay? She continued with her conversation, and I heard her laugh almost falling out of her chair, but her laugh was distant, like the white, pearly, hardboiled egg she held in her hand.
My grandma always speaks about hardboiled eggs. I remember, her eyes were ever strong buried beneath her heavy glasses as she would talk about the starvation that occurred during her childhood in Taiwan. The only food they had was one hard-boiled egg. I observed Brynn. She eyed the food in her hand with contempt. She had delayed it until the last minute. I heard her swallow hard. Hiding a gag, she bit into the white of the egg, the flavorless exterior, to reveal the rich, golden, yolk within. There had been so many clues. “I am such an awful friend,” I said to myself, tears puddling around my eyes. She was always talking about how her nose was too big, how her face was too ugly, and most of all how she was too fat. I remember her covering her gaunt, fragile body within the depths of an oversized sweatshirt. The way she slouched to cover her large bust that she was so self-conscious of. The way she let her hair hang around her face at lunch and how her eyes darted across the room to avoid suspicion. Always, I would reassure her she was beautiful just the way she was. However, it was not enough for her.
“We never had enough food. No one in Taiwan did. Taiwan was plagued by starvation during the war. You know, I had ten siblings.” I nodded my head knowing the story by heart. “One egg, ten siblings,” my grandma’s voice would tremble. “Everyday, we just had one egg to split amongst us.” Through my grandma’s thick glasses, I could see the sorrow in her almond eyes. I tried to envision the empty feeling she and her siblings must have felt. How their mouths would water at the sight of their precious egg? How she would only get a nibble? How could she possibly focus all day without sufficient nutrients? How emaciated her body must have been. Memories of the previous conversation haunted me.
Brynn’s normally light-hearted voice turned serious, as she whispered in my ear, “I think I am bulimic.” She sat next to me, eyes round, head hung low over her head, and back slouched. This Brynn was different than the one I knew. This was the self-hating, self-deprecating, self-harming Brynn. How did I let my strong friend turn to this?
My stomach would begin to feel satiated. My semi-eaten plate of food would lay in front of me in shame as I would lay my chopsticks down– a telltale give away. “Ay! Huan Huan! Finish! Finish!,” my grandma encouraged me. “No waste, no waste!” Imagining my grandma’s sunken face, I would pick up my chopsticks again. How could I disgrace her like this? Especially after all that she had been through. Steadily, I would reject all signs of my body telling me to stop eating and finish every parcel that was on my plate, down to the last grain of rice. Once my plate was completely empty, the corners of my grandmother’s mouth would arch into a smile. Just to make my grandmother proud of that moment was worth it. Through the years, pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. I always wondered why my grandmother was so petite. Why did I loom over her frail body? For someone who’s presence commands so much respect, her size seemed comparingly unintimidating. I realized that starvation most likely stunted her growth causing her to be so short. For my grandmother, sharing this story broke an unspoken barrier and relinquished her pride. In Asian culture, there is an emphasis on honor. Through this story, my grandmother let down her walls to reveal a more personal side to herself. I got to see a window into her childhood. I understood.
I wanted to understand Brynn, too. I wondered why Brynn cared so much about her appearance. Then, I would remember the harsh critiques from the boys at our school. “Did you ever break your nose?” They would hurl at her as they chuckled amongst themselves. Or the different ways men would look at her because of her more developed bust. Or how she confided in me that at her dance studio, other girls would stare at her in her revealing leotard. All these memories compiled to almost give her a reason — there is no excuse for hurting yourself, but it gave me a window into her thoughts. With the combination of snarky comments from bullies, unwanted attention from men, and the body-shaming culture that thrived at her dance studio, I understood. People never realize that small things add up.
Two people close to me struggle and had to struggle with hunger. Both stories are so different yet so similar. I feel a lurching pain in my stomach as I think of the gaunt bodies. No one should ever have to feel that — whether it’s widespread starvation or hating ourselves so much that you are forced into starvation. Ironically, a food, an egg, is starvation to me. Starvation comes in all different forms and layers. Hunger is an on-going cycle that takes the weak with it. In particular, when I see a hard-boiled egg, memories of Brynn and my grandma flood into my mind. Not with scrambled eggs, fried eggs, or an omelet, just with a hardboiled egg. Today, I am unable to eat a hardboiled egg. They mock my family and friends. I look at them in disgust. Their bland flavor teased at my friends and family, and I refuse to submit to them. Today, my grandma repeats the same stories to the family with the same excitement as if she had never told them before. She gathers her highly accomplished life into so few mostly positive stories, yet this is one of the stories. The trauma of her youth still lives within her. Today, Brynn continues to struggle with her eating habits and was shipped off to a distant boarding school away from everything that was known to her and most importantly, me. My grandma is gradually losing her memory; the same 5 stories repeated day after day after day. Brynn is at boarding school; the same self-hate day after day after day. Egg after egg after egg.