Eat Bitter (Sweet)
by Kate Li
In Chinese, there’s a phrase for undergoing hardship: “Chīkǔ,” or, literally, “eat bitter.” Surprisingly enough, the connotations of “chīkǔ” aren’t negative. When you overcome a great ordeal, for example, people say you know how to eat bitter, admiration lapsing at their tongues, like there’s something beautiful about the human capacity to suffer.
Later, I learn these connotations aren’t actually that surprising. A lot of people, Chinese or not, lionize hard work and its inevitable taxation. All the keynote speakers I hear preach about “Pushing yourself!” Slogans like NO DAYS OFF perpetually plaster tees. Every “motivational Monday,” my Spanish teacher shows us videos of men gritting their teeth mid-workout.
This industrious ethic permeates my life. My world is full of parents working overtime, students pulling all-nighters, and societies that measure self-worth through sacrifice.
Some of my friends juggles three sports at a time; others perpetually don their National Qualifier T-shirts. Others still laconically label their Instagram bios with notable achievements. I scroll past images of swimmers standing tall and proud in skintight Speedos, soccer players lurching in indescribable vertigo, gymnasts becoming transcendent in mid-air flips.
I wonder if this is American posturing, a status symbol in guise of a hobby. Then I wonder if it’s wrong of me to think this, if I should instead believe that my peers simply wish to share their proudest moments. Either way, I double tap.
My sister’s hair falls out beginning ninth grade, thick glossy sheets disintegrating into a wispy cover so thin I don’t know if she’ll survive the winter. She brushes my concerns off, tells me it’s natural when I spot our bathroom floor and almost think we have a dog.
Then I notice small things, like the slots of light trapped beneath her door. Late at night, every night. Breakfasts skipped for the bus, dinners delayed for studying. Google says teenage hair loss is caused by hormonal imbalance, in turn triggered by either pregnancy or stress; I wonder what high school is like if its severity is comparable to housing a child in the belly.
Over the dinner table, my mother moans about how terrible it all is. She pats her own head, smoothing the other palm over my sister’s scalp, complaining about the throes of teenage hair loss to her friends. With how frequently she brings it up, you’d think it was a matter of pride.
“Your daughter is so accomplished,” my mother’s friends compliment during a house party for the mid-Autumn festival. I’m sucking mooncake crumbs, sweet and dense, from my fingertips. “How d’you raise her?”
My sister smiles embarrassedly, forms fluttering fingers, a breathless string of denial. My mother just laughs, tucking an arm around my sister’s jutting shoulders and knifelike collarbone. Her touch is unbearably gentle, like the sweep of unsure fingers over a slowly decaying figurine.
“I didn’t do anything,” my mother says, clipped nails glossing over my sister’s flesh. “My daughter, she does it all herself. She was born a hard worker, this one.”
When I begin running cross country in middle school, I realize that the sport centers more around seeing who can outlast who than it does the technicalities of racing. I fear this in a way only middle-schoolers can fear, dreading the inevitable pain running brings before every meet.
At the same time, I’m scared to detach myself from the sport. There’s an unspoken consensus that the pain it inflicts is a gauge of endurance. Thus, running is a testament of character, and each race an opportunity to prove the depth of that character. Shortly after this realization, the fastest runners morph, my own reverence shaping them from athletes into something untouchable. Their performances turn into the epitome of self-discipline before my eyes.
I later learn – secretly, shamefully – that it’s also a way to erase the gluttony glistening around my mother’s fried rice in oily coats. That running erases the shame lurking within glopping cafeteria sandwiches and glossy mooncakes.
A mile, I memorize, burns about 100 calories.
Studies show that employers are less likely to employ the obese. Analysts explain this phenomenon is potentially due to the conception that obese people have less self-control than others around food, thereby implying lower overall levels of discipline.
I think to myself that discipline is such a broad word, it only means that you can force yourself to work hard. Like studying until your hair falls out, running until your lungs burn.
Are obese people not hard workers, then? I don’t know, but I begin studying the nutrition labels of every product I see, anyway. A bag of Cheetos morphs into a symbol of lusty indulgence, a spoonful of peanut butter a dangerous reward that’s rarely ever worth it. Calories turns into what my teacher would call a buzzword, sparking to life on every page and label. I mumble carbs, protein, fats, over and over in my mouth, until their syllables tumble together, melding into the saccharine grit of something sinful.
They say that a sport is an outlet – an escape, of sorts. Running is not that for me. If anything, it’s a cage – the more I run, the more its exhaustion traps me. Sometimes threatens to broil me alive in a prison of swelling heat, burning skin, thumping organs. My thighs flame when I dash over hills, chasing the fleeting backs of my new upperclassmen, faster and faster until my legs go numb, my only motivation the promise of respite as I pass over the hill’s sloping crest.
Then I’m falling to the grass, mud splotches staining my shirt. Sweat is a slip over my skin; pain sears my chest, but pride blooms through it.
The back of my mouth tastes bitter.
My discovery of Adam in ninth grade brings conflicting impressions.
Adam plays violin so well he’s performed in Beijing; math finals give him a top-twelve state title; on top of that, he aces just about every test in class.
He’s also overweight, and is the first and only person I know who brings up this topic shamelessly. On a lecture about the desirability of rotundity in historical Middle Eastern culture, Adam bellows out a laugh in the middle of class, then he grins and yells, “Man, I’d be a snack!”
“Adam!” My teacher chokes out, face caught between unwilling laughter and scandalized shock.
“What?” Adam turns, blinking innocently. “I’m fat! Always have been, always will be. Just because the rest of you guys are too scared to say it doesn’t mean I can’t.”
I stare. Adam returns to his notebook, completely at ease. My teacher manages to recompose herself and begins a new lecture on Genghis Khan, a man who fueled systemic slaughter and founded cultural tolerance, becoming the vision of fear and love in one.
It’s this thought that gets me going on the wonder of contradiction, if it’s possible for somebody to embody one thing and its opposite at the same time, if you could pity and envy the same person. As Adam kicks his legs, I wonder what it’s like being the stereotypical (scoffable) Asian nerd, when just walking into a room merits judgmental gazes on a daily basis.
But I’ve also never stood atop a stretching State stage, or grappled with bows and strings through quicksilver hands in front of thousands of eyes. I’ve also never turned unflattering stares into grudgingly respectful eyes. I’ve never even been good at something and actually enjoyed it.
I wonder which experiences outweigh the others. I wonder if I’d rather be Adam or me.
I get a stress fracture halfway through the cross country season. The PT’s smile is a crack, fracturing his shiny white face as he swaddles my useless tibia in an even more useless encasement of white tape.
He consoles me, voice riddled with a gleam of condescension as he tells me it’s because I began running varsity without the proper summer training. His smile is kind, but I can’t help but think that this room is vindictive. I stumble out, feeling like a cicada shell – just a husk, dried and wispy, cracked underfoot by summer’s end.
In the following weeks, I watch cross country girls warm up on the track every afternoon as I hike up to the bus circle. Anxiety and self-hatred gnaw at me, painfully familiar. They whisper, too, while I sit at home with my useless leg, metabolism slowing, my old teammates burn a minimum of seven hundred calories per long run.
I don’t have enough face to pass by the locker room anymore.
“You’re reading all of them?” Even I can hear the tinge of disbelief in my voice.
“I mean, why not?” Adam shrugs.
We’re standing in the library, the night before two big tests. Adam cradles books in his arms the way an ordinary person might hold a baby; close to the chest, touch infinitely delicate. There’s several of them, ranging from The Little Prince to Complications. None of them are assignments. Something about the fact that he’s free reading while I’m studying for dear life leaves me reeling. Makes me feel almost attacked.
“Shouldn’t you be, I don’t know, reading up on a subject you want to major in?” I chew the side of my mouth. “It’s not all fun and games. You can’t just read things that seem interesting.”
“Says who?” he retorts. “I want to read things I like, too. I don’t like restricting myself.”
The irony of those words aren’t lost on me. My eyes flicker toward his belly, and the words Maybe you should are primed, ready to leap from my tongue. He catches me first.
“I guess I could, but then what’d happen to all this intellectual hunger?” His tone is mockingly lilted, but his next words catch me. “I’m more than just limits.”
Adam ends up beating me in both of our tests. That same day, I miss my bus watching the cross country girls run warm-ups. My sister still skips breakfast every morning. I remain stubbornly set on doing the same thing, until my stomach growls so loudly during third period that everybody in a three-desk radius turns to stare. When Adam throws a granola bar at me during the following class, I rip its wrapper open with my teeth only after he turns around.
I realize with shameful surprise that it’s not as if Adam is a glutton. He eats the appropriate amount for a boy his age – less, in fact, than some of his thinner counterparts. He knows that sugar has creepy implications for the human body, how water boosts the metabolism.
“I listen in Health class,” he snarks during lunch as I eye his plate, rife with spinach, laced with 15-calorie salsa instead of fatty ranch. My cheeks burn.
Later he’ll mention, offhandedly, how his Chinese relatives snicker at him during his visits. That he’s used as an academic specimen by his assessing aunts and uncles, but is turned into the laughingstock of the family when the topic of physique rolls along. His cousins can still be proud that, unlike Adam, they aren’t “Ròuwán” – literally meaning “meatballs.” They can, in one way, deem themselves superior to him, because their chance roll of genetic dice and hormones didn’t doom them to future largeness.
I chew on my thumbnail, thinking about the parallels between racism and body-shaming.
To believe yourself as better than somebody else on the basis of something beyond control. Funny – I’d always hated people who laughed at my yellow skin, but maybe I’ve been just as judgmental.
Halloween approaches fast. Leaves crumble into crisp yellow curls; my mother buys a 150-piece bag of candies from Costco that fingers constantly at my conscience; Spanish club paints Day of the Deadmasks. Grinning skulls, fake graves, and the wispy black shrouds of fake witch’s cloaks begin adorning every residence housing a child between the ages of four and twelve. When the topic of trick-o-treating rolls along, both my Bio and History teachers mention offhandedly that they rather like cookies and candy.
Gears churn visibly in Adam’s head. I snap a “What?” at him, and he confesses he usually gives his teachers gifts at Christmas, but Halloween would work too if he already knows what they like.
I tell him to just make cookies with candy, since it’s Halloween anyways. Despite his objectively superior grades, Adam stares at me in a way he never has before – like I’m dumb.
Ròuwán, some part of my brain whispers, and I guess that, as much as Adam likes to pretend he’s invulnerable to jeering laughs and vindictive eyes, he’s really not. Suddenly, I think of my mother, remembering how her fingers stroked at my sister’s jutting collarbone. I wonder how my parents would react if I was overweight and baking sugary confections. The wave of nausea that curdles my stomach makes Adam’s eyes suddenly difficult to hate.
The words slip inadvertently from my mouth. “You wanna come over Saturday?”
Adam tells his parents he’s going to a friend’s house for a school project.
Saturday arrives so easily that I’m caught off guard – I don’t even have the time to contemplate the moment before Adam’s standing in my kitchen. Instead, I find myself feverishly working the oven’s timer, before Adam can finish pressing chunks of broken Twix bars into gluttonous wads of cookie dough, glistening yellow beneath the kitchen light.
We end up sitting on the kitchen island after pressing the cookies into the oven. Adam stares at the leftover dough for a couple seconds, before thoughtfully scooping up a dollop with his finger and sucking intently. I flick a stray M&M at his face. It ricochets off his cheek. For a second, he’s too stunned to react.
Then he snarls, setting down the bowl of dough. “Don’t start wars you can’t win.”
Adam seizes fistfuls of flour and chocolate-splattered chopsticks that were used as substitute beaters; I arm myself with an array of walnuts and brandish forgotten eggshells. The kitchen derails after that. Months later, my mother will stare disbelievingly at the drizzled remnants of stray chocolate, encrusted onto the wired rim of our lamplight. When the oven’s timer finally pauses our impromptu war, both of our shirts are crumpled and smeared.
There are, however, more than enough cookies to package sleeves for both our teachers.
So Adam picks up a remaining cookie, inspecting it. His eyes are calculating – maybe he’s working out the carbs from the flour, the sum of saturated fat from cups of butter and chocolate.
Instead, he snags a wolfish bite. A grin reveals chocolate swaddling his glistening-white teeth. Before I know it, I’m reaching over, fingers wrapping around a cookie’s still-hot surface.
It’s sweet, so sweet. The M&M shells melt into chocolate membranes; the cracking dough of the cookie sears my mouth, burning the roof to a layer of peeling skin. Adam laughs.
My hand’s reaching out for another before I realize it.
Next Tuesday finds me walking into the girls’ locker room, a week and a half before they race at State. I’m bedecked with cookies, and I hand a sleeve to the coaches before steeling myself for the group of girls in the locker uniform, each armed in a sleek ensemble of Under Armour thermals and Lululemon leggings.
One of them mentions workout, a set of 800 reps. For a heartbeat, my muscles tighten with anticipatory tension – then I remember I am no longer a runner. Just a dropout, with a gluttonous assortment of cookies.
I press my tongue to the roof of my mouth, catch its flap of loose flesh, undone like the hinge of a broken door. I remember Adam’s grin. A runner turns, and I tell myself not to think of my bum leg, but of Adam’s lesson, instead, on how limits don’t constitute people. That, perhaps, the extent to which it takes to destroy somebody isn’t a precise measurement of all that that person is.
I inhale. Peel the Tupperware lid unceremoniously from its plastic container. The smell immediately wafts through the air – chocolate, caramel, condensed sugar. I shove the cookies at the team like an offering, mumbling something about not eating too many before the big race.
The arising mess of excited chatter, interlocked hands, and tight ponytails generates a brief, familiar pang. But then one of them smiles, thanks me. Briefly, I think I can understand why Adam insists on giving gifts to all of his teachers. There’s something about the smile aimed my way that make me feel like I’ve re-compensated – but something about the effusiveness of it all simultaneously makes me think I don’t have to track a pattern of give-and-take anyway.
The team passes the Tupperware container through their forest of bony fingers, protruding wrists, and trim black watches, their thank yous forming a warbling chorus in the air. It’s kind of ridiculous that something as simple as cookies could make them smile this brightly, that the look on their faces could make me feel this happy. That it could produce, inexplicably, a feeling that makes me proud to say I have felt it.
For a moment, I think maybe self-worth can come without pain.