After months without a visit, I finally get a chance to go back home to see my parents. “I will cook every day,” my mom promises over the phone, something she has never said before. Not because she is a stranger to the kitchen, but rather because, when I visit, I already expect that she will cook every day. It is the package deal of being a spoiled daughter. So I shrug off the odd comment and go back to packing. I have bigger concerns on my mind. I have to find a book that my mother will love to read.
I have been recommending books to my mother since I started reading fiction. Every time I finish reading something I think she might like, I pass the book along, and over the years I’ve developed a near-perfect acuity for what she’ll truly enjoy. She likes books about prep schools, about people living decadently and wickedly, books with a Jane Austen vibe, books that are easy to devour, beachy reads, and well-written novels with trashy inclinations. Since she rarely reads English-language books outside of my suggestions, I know all of the books she’s read in the past year — in the past five years, if I really stretch my memory. If every customer who stopped by Literati came with the treasure trove of information that I have on my mother’s reading life, book-selling would be my superpower.
Now that I’ve spent almost half a year book-selling, it takes less than a minute to recommend a book when I’m on the floor at Literati. Whether the customer has a specific question, a more general request (a book that takes place in space; a book for a nephew going to Japan), or a blank check challenge (“I want whatever books you really loved reading.”), I can always find a title that more or less fits the bill. Yet when it came to my own mother, a woman whose literary tastes I have studied for almost two decades, I was suddenly struck by performance anxiety.
I spent the week or so before my visit scanning the fiction shelves during each shift. I looked through new paperbacks, staff recommendations, and still came up short. I picked up a book with a social climbing protagonist, flipped through the first few pages, enjoyed them, and then set it right back down. I looked through the sequel of a book she’d read years ago and went through the exact same cycle. Every book I would normally recommend, she’d already read. Every book I hadn’t yet read, I couldn’t be certain she would love. I’d never been both buyer and bookseller simultaneously. I realized then that I wanted to prove two things at once: that I was a good daughter, and that I was good at my job.
My mom did indeed cook every day that I was back. I quickly understood why she felt the need to announce what had always been implied. She’d gotten, in the last year, into cooking blogs and Youtube channels. In the past, even before I moved away, she’d always rotated through a large but cyclical collection of dishes. My dad was the one who liked to experiment, never quite cooking the same dish twice, always introducing something new to the table, but my mom was Old Faithful. Her cooking is the epitome, for me, of homestyle. Comforting, unchanging, and dutiful, the kind of hearty Chinese meals that someone could cook after a full day of work, that we could eat week after week without getting (too) tired of it.
So you can imagine how surprised I was to watch her pull trays of curry puffs out of the oven, sizzle steak fajita quesadillas, and throw together a giant pan of japchae. I’d never seen her cook like this before, with any kind of fervor or excitement or pride. “It’s been so long since you’ve been back,” she said, each time I remarked on just how much she was cooking and how much she’d branched out. “I need to show you all my signature dishes.”
Needless to say, her signature dishes were delicious. Yet it became strange and almost uncomfortable to see her bent over the stove, night after night, in a way that it never was in the past when I’d seen her, bent over the stove, night after night. One dinner, she stood in the kitchen for what seemed like hours, searing small batches of sweet and salty bulgogi beef. I wanted to tell her to sit down, to relax, but instead, I just ate everything she put in front of me.
I’ve always thought of my mother as a good cook, and yet she cooked that week as though she had something to prove. It reminded me of my own flustered attempts to find her a good book to read. Why was I so nervous? Why were we each trying so hard?
I suppose that both of us, after months of practice, wanted to show off what we could do. What neither of us realized was that the person we were showing off for, while appreciative of the effort, required none of it. I looked at all the new books I’d gotten for her. I shook off all the unnecessary pressure I’d put on myself and imagined what I would recommend if she were a customer, and not my mom. Then I imagined what I would recommend if she were just my mom. The same book came out on top.
“Read this,” I said, slipping my recommendation to her across the kitchen counter. “You’ll like it.”
And she did.
Image: Rockwell, Norman. Detail of “The Gossips.” 1948. Oil on canvas. Normal Rockwell Museum. Stockbridge, Mass.