She scoops out the rice for each of us, always a big scoop followed by a smaller scoop, because only one scoop would signify stinginess of affection. My father gets the first and the biggest two scoops. Although my mother is supposed to serve herself next, she always skips herself and serves my brother, then me, then my sister, and then herself. We wait until everyone has been served, and we pick up our chopsticks only after our father has his first bite.
We sit in our semi circle, the legs of the children dangling from the chairs. The father at the head, mother to his left, his eldest son to his right. The scent of the pickled cabbage and radish infuse the air. Steam from the grilled beef rises in a stream before diffusing under the dangling lamp. Our rights arms rise and chopsticks move like mini swords in the air, criss crossing and clicking, as we reach for a bite of this, a bite of that. An ensemble of utensils ring against the dishes, sounding an unlikely orchestra. In the midst of the chewing, words and ummms are thrown out randomly to fill the silence as others respond with more words and ummms, our minds preoccupied by the task at hand.
In the midst of the chatter, my mother stops chewing, leans down and moves her head closer to mine. For a few seconds, she listens, and turns to me and listens some more.
Are you singing? she asks.
All the heads turn to face me and there is sudden silence.
Me? No, Mom...
We return to our chewing. The chopsticks fly again and words and sounds fill the room once more. After a bite of the beef and a bite of the cabbage, my mother stops chewing once more and leans down again to listen. I can smell the pungent cabbage on her breath.
Are you sure you're not singing?
Hmmm, she says. You're making some sound, do you know that?
I don't think I am...
As she resumes her dinner, she ponders out loud what she had heard because she is the mother and I am her child. It is a mother's job to know her child better than the child knows herself, to know she is cranky because it is feeding time, to know her child needs her sleep even as she protests.
I think you're humming to yourself. Hmmm, I wonder what you're humming. Do you want to sing for all of us? Or maybe you have something to say?
It is an open invitation, but I keep my head down and focus my eyes on my plate. I can feel my cheeks burn and I can feel their eyes waiting for a response. I swing my dangling legs slowly to do something and I finger my chopsticks now resting on the table.
But I wasn't humming...
Ok, that's fine. Why don't we all finish our dinner. Here, have some more beef...
And she plops a big mound of beef on my plate of rice.
Chew slowly, she says.
The noise in the room stirs again. As I start chewing in my little corner, my breathing softens and I stop swinging my legs. My head stills, and I move my jaws up and down slowly, taking care to land my teeth softly on my food. I quiet myself so I can listen secretly, to see if I can hear what she heard. And as I listen, I wonder what it is that I have to say, what it is I want others to hear.