The first time I saw Americans, I was fifteen years old in China.
My brother brought home two people that day, a mother and her son from Nebraska. The mother was an English teacher in his university language training center. I don’t remember what she looked like. All I learned in the world I lived in suggested to me that Americans meant white. The first encounter proved it. I have a picture of the boy, about eight or nine years old, green eyes with checkered shirt and jeans, hands crossed, sitting between my two grandmas, both smiling ever so slightly. Smiling is contagious, but the type of smile too. The boy was smiling like my grandmas. He was being put there for a picture. The entire time of their visit, Joseph sat quietly next to his mother. My brother lost contact with his teacher a long time ago. Joseph would be in his early forties by now. I remember how I felt about that day. They must have been some noble guests or else we would not have spent all that time cleaning the house and getting ready for them. Nobody spoke any English except for my brother, so we relied on him to translate.
Most memories were blurry, only these peanuts.
Common courtesy for our family, or maybe any family for that matter, would be to serve tea with snacks when guests visited. My mother offered many things that I don’t recall. After some polite but stiff conversation, our guests were about to leave.
My mother brought the plate with a handful of peanuts, presenting it earnestly, urging them to stay. “Have some peanuts. Have some peanuts!” This is our Chinese way. To keep you for longer means we cherish you and the relationship. It’s our hospitality. Besides, my mother is such a 掏心 person. The word literally means “scooping out the heart.” She would not hesitate to scoop her heart out for you if she cares about you. Today, at eighty six, hands shaky and no longer able to sit up straight, my mother still has her reflex to serve tea on all occasions. She suddenly leans forward and prepares to rise, only to realize the effort is outside the will of her body. She serves; that’s what she does and has always done. On that day, mother poured tea and waved her hands upward to offer the peanuts. I could see that our guests wanted to leave but were reluctant to do so. Joseph’s mother smiled apologetically at the peanuts, “Oh, the small ones!”
Even with my very limited English, I understood. But what did I understand?
When craving hits, I go to 99 Ranch Market to get a bag of salty boiled sun-dried peanuts, a product from mainland China to indulge in my old-time pleasure. A bag of peanuts from six thousand miles away.
Each peanut inside the shell is the size of a pea, half the size of the typical one we see here in the US. They taste simple—well, they taste like peanuts—a bit chewy, so they stay in your mouth longer. These peanuts refuse to rush. Humble, practical, and forever delicious, to me the kind of snack that you can never get enough of. My father called it 卖仔豆, his rustic expression literally means the peanuts are so addicting you can’t stop until you sell your son for them. Nobody is selling their son to buy more peanuts, but it shows how snacks like this make you unable to stop. “Betcha can’t eat just one!”
I am not a picky eater. That helps bring all possibilities of food to the table. I say yes to any suggestions friends make for outings. Such adaptability has brought me interesting and diverse friendships and ease in an interracial marriage, but somehow it doesn’t translate to being flexible about snacks. Looking at the giant Costco packs of tortilla chips, Lays potato chips, Doritos, shelled nuts, some coated with caramel or salt, they are not appealing at all.
My brother, being the first of the family to study abroad in the US, brought all sorts of alien snacks the first time he came back for the summer. I remember one being Reese’s peanut butter cups. Oh, the intense sweetness. I don’t recall how many I ate before my temples started pounding and my heart racing. I felt dizzy. I had never experienced a sudden spike of sugar in my body like this. Years later, when I first resided in Irvine, California, a similar sensation overcame me after I ate a slice of chocolate cake and drank a juice box. Another time after half a slice of cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory, I was again violently attacked by the excessive sugar. “You don’t have an American body for that,” my friends in China said. This sensation only occurred during my early years in the US. What does it say about my body now?
Out of so many variations of snacks, Chinese people preserve the pleasure of nibbling on nuts or seeds, taking the time to crack, gnaw and nourish their body and mind. We like peanuts or seeds with tea during family gatherings, or peanuts with beer at nighttime with friends. Come over. Let’s sit and crack some peanuts. I mull over my theory on why we Chinese people, at least my generation, are generally in good physical shape. It’s our snacks. We crack peanuts and seeds while drinking tea to kill time, not chips or M & Ms with soda.
I crack open the tiny shells with both hands, thumbs, indexes and middles, then pour the tiny pearls, sometimes only singular, onto my palm before sending them into my mouth. While slowly gnawing them, I allow the cycle to repeat. Gnawing and cracking. I feel that the chewing I hear creates a bubble around me, my jaw moving, my mind freeing. The bubble allows me to be part of a light conversation. Sometimes it’s important to chat about nothing.
The company while cracking peanuts is usually family or close friends. This thought makes me mildly sad. I’ve established a family on this side of the world consisting of an Italian husband and a mixed son. They have yet to appreciate this leisure activity. Cracking peanuts has become my private indulgence. Being a mother I often feel guilty for a prolonged personal relaxation in the shared space. Peanut cracking has become rare, but when I do, I meet myself inside the bubble, doing nothing but a repetitive motion.
My sister-in-law, my brother’s wife, loves a similar type of snacking. She snacks on sunflower, pumpkin and watermelon seeds. She cracks them open between her upper and lower teeth. It takes more work to crack open than to chew it. The mouth is already busy doing two things, but magically you can still talk. Yes, we Chinese manage to do so. Many people, including my sister-in-law, have a distinct upside down “v” shape chipped-off on one of the front teeth, a product of years of cracking seeds. We call it 瓜子门牙 seeds tooth. When she lived with me years ago, the period when both of us were new to the country, I remember hearing the constant cracking sound in her room. I knew she was watching a Chinese TV drama, reading a Chinese newspaper, or just simply enjoying her alone time, with her company—a hill of tiny little seeds—at her hand’s reach. She’s a calmer person when there are seeds to crack. I always wonder how cracking seeds may help reduce anxiety.
When I remember the day with Joseph from Nebraska thirty plus years later, I wonder why the remarks on the size of the peanuts from my brother’s teacher stayed with me. They come to me whenever I see and eat peanuts or peanut butter even. They come to me when I travel and am offered food humbly by the host or hostess. And now I see that whenever peanuts are on the table, they are not only from their cabinet but straight from their heart. It may be my mother’s humble gesture, but she offered her heart whenever she could and no matter how low it was.
Peanuts, big or small, are our way of life. Fifteen-year-old me wondered if there was a bigger way of life out there. Our family was moderately affluent. I never felt poor, but I sensed something larger was out there, out of my understanding of it at that time and for a very long time. The size of that world, a much bigger peanut, was ahead of me by about twenty years, something about geography, that some distance away there were places in the world that are bigger or even better, according to whom I did not know.
Since meeting Joseph from Nebraska in the eighties, China’s peanut production has grown substantially. I have visited China over the years since leaving, noticing the size of the peanuts varies but remain humbly small. We still crack peanuts. I imagine many families cracking peanuts, many more in a town cracking peanuts, and many more all over the country cracking peanuts…not to mention peanuts are used to produce peanut oil, the main source of cooking oil for this country. Although China has become the largest producer of peanuts worldwide, we are still one of the largest importers of peanuts in the world. America exports peanuts to countries like Canada and Mexico but has long wanted to export more to China. Just think about the volume and how it translates to cash.
To sell more peanuts to China, peanut conferences in the US explore strategies. Conversation goes “Chinese consumers like American stuff because they view American stuff as being quality… .” To my ear, it sounds like Look, American peanuts are bigger and better. Want some more? But then I also hear, “One thing we heard loud and clear is Chinese consumers have very low expectations of peanut products. They expect rancid and stale peanuts.” Unsure of my English translation, I searched the images online: old, rotting peanuts, alongside people’s concern about whether eating rancid peanuts harms the body. I wondered how business dealing could be so condescending. Here, the leftover ones, you can have those.
Hearing these, I can’t seem to brush off mental images of skinny hunched-back China men in the Qing Dynasty during the opium invasion that brought down the entire country’s strength. I can’t brush off the Mao Zedong era’s Big Leap Forward, the largest famine in human history that killed millions, and those who survived only with skin and bone. It’s a heavy sense of shame.
But it’s just peanuts, the back of my mind also says. The word peanut in Chinese is a metaphor for insignificant things. An everyday phrase 大事化小,小事化无 literally tells us that “big things can turn small and small things can turn into nothing.” We are the embodiment of this philosophy, striving for the ability to dissolve conflicts. To cope we convince ourselves they are just words. Verbal insults, big or small, humiliating even, can resort to nothing like we will dissolve the peanuts in our mouth. Gnawing it, to turn solid to paste, gnawing more to turn paste to digestible mash, to make disappear. We can even embrace an American’s mantra, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Anything can become small if you think of it like that.
But China today is a very different country compared to the time of my family’s tea table peanut encounter. Back then, China just opened up to the world, timidly observing and absorbing. Now China plays a significant role on the international stage, and has the prominent role in international trading. It’s hard not to hear about China in the news now. But hearing it, what images of Chinese people come to the minds of people on this side of the world? Still skinny malnourished China men? The tiny peanuts we crack continuously in the bubble seems to evoke a sound of firecrackers, that millions and trillions of peanut cracking cause the world to shake, causing an earthquake. I hope this is not what they call the “China threat.”
I wish to live in a world that only compares the size of peanuts without judgment, the sizes of things, not to compare the expansion of power, not to perpetually look down, not to make less than or to toss around. We are the small peanuts, coarse skin outside, low key, and easy to slide into obscurity, but we want to be the unpretentious ones. When cracked open, we are pearls.
Ching Ching Tan is a Chinese immigrant living in the US for sixteen years. Her journey of education and writing began in taking ESL courses in community colleges. She received her BA in Linguistics at UCSD, MA in Communication Studies at SJSU. Currently, she is pursuing MFA in SJSU and writing her first memoir Naturalized.