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  • Yu Gu

My Mom's Kitchen

Reposted from A-Doc

At home in Los Angeles under quarantine, I find myself craving the comfort of the classic Sichuan dishes my mom cooked growing up, like pock-marked woman tofu (mapo tofu). The only problem is, I hate cooking, and the thought of doing it everyday for the foreseeable future fills me with an inexplicable rage.

Staring into the dark soul of my wok. Photo credit: Yu Gu

My mom is a great cook. She has a gift for balancing natural flavor with the fragrant chilies and peppercorn of my birthplace, Chongqing, China. She didn’t go to college and worked since she was in her late teens. After we immigrated to Canada, she worked as a cashier for the iconic Canadian donut shop, Tim Hortons. On top of her full-time job outside the home, she cooked for her family every single day of her life.

My mom working at a café in Canada. Photo credit: Yu Gu

After long shifts on her feet, my mom would come home and make dinner. Still wearing her uniform and smelling like donut grease, she’d walk into our kitchen, put on an apron and get to work—again. While my mom cooked, I was lost in my books, my only goal to excel in school. An artist hustling to make a name for himself, my dad would be locked in his garage studio, painting. Our absence from the kitchen enraged my mom, though she never voiced it directly. All I remember is her profound anger, even as I relished her delicious food.

My parents and I in front of my mom’s dinner spread, waiting for guests. Photo credit: Yu Gu

My dad’s studio was humble yet sacred. My mom’s kitchen was a resentful place that was never her own. She was always beholden to others’ well-being, swallowing her words in a society where your worth is only valid if you claim it out loud. Over the years, her cooking came to represent a devil’s bargain to be a second class citizen. Now, seeking the comfort of her dishes but unable to cook them myself, I’m faced with a hard truth: in my quest to succeed as a creative person, I’ve devalued my own mother and upheld the patriarchy.

My rendition of pock-marked woman tofu aka mapo tofu. Photo credit: Yu Gu

As if cooking her dishes is atonement, I look up a recipe online for mapo tofu. I push myself to focus on the moment, the tactile sensation of a pinch of peppercorn, the sting in my nostrils. A scattering of garlic later, the wok is speaking to me. My intuition takes over. I share some pictures of my Sichuan dishes on our family WeChat thread. My mom replies, “你终于晓得啷个过日子了/ You finally know how to live.”

Mom cooking in her kitchen. Photo credit: Yu Gu


Why I (Yu Gu) wrote the piece:

In strange ways, this pandemic has both exacerbated my generational traumas as well as created space to confront them. I hope this story of my family can contribute to a larger collective Asian American consciousness that is resilient and unafraid to reconsider harmful values.

YU GU is a multinational filmmaker and visual artist whose award-winning films explore the clash between individuals and systems of power. Her latest feature documentary, "A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem," world-premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in competition. Variety hailed the film as, “Defiant...a tale of injustice that should speak to many.” Following screenings at over 15 film festivals, two jury awards and a college impact tour across the United States, the film will be broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens and released digitally in January 2021. Yu co-directed the feature documentary, "Who is Arthur Chu?" (Slamdance 2017, Hot Docs 2017, CAAMfest 2017 Centerpiece). Praised as “Raw, unfiltered and poignant” by Indiewire, the documentary won two festival grand jury awards and was broadcast on World Channel in 2018. She is directing "Interior Migrations," an experimental project documenting the memories of migrant workers in Canada. The first 3-channel short documentary from this project premiered at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s "Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood" exhibit and participated in "The Public – Land and Body," a site-specific installation in Toronto. Yu’s work is supported by the Sundance Institute, ITVS, Tribeca Film Institute, Points North Institute, Hedgebrook, and California Humanities. She was a directing fellow with Firelight Media and Film Independent and was awarded Best Emerging Filmmaker at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Yu received her MFA in film production from the University of Southern California and a BA from the University of British Columbia. She is a lecturer at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film & Media Arts and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Yu is a proud member of Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Film Fatales and the Asian American Documentary Network.


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