Chinatown Pork and a Story About My Mother

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For as long as I can remember my mom, dad, sister and I would load up in my mother’s blue Chevy pickup truck for a four-hour drive to Toronto for a day trip from our home in Caledonia, NY. My parents would wake us out of a deep slumber to leave before the sun rose in order to maximize daylight time in the city. In the early days we would see the sites that Toronto had to offer; the CN Tower, the Ontario Science Museum, the Toronto Zoo, the Eaton Centre. As I got older we stopped seeing the sites because we had explored them already and the trip solely focused on shopping in Chinatown. Once we drove two hours to the Niagara Falls border all for my mother to realize she had forgotten to bring her naturalization papers and we had to turn around. I thought I was home free until Mom and Dad said that we would head back up. I responded with a temper tantrum and absolutely refused to get back in the truck. I was 11 and it was the first time I ever stayed home by myself.

My father had a debilitating stroke in 2008 and can’t drive anymore. My mother is directionally challenged and easily flummoxed in traffic. Now that they are in their 60s and I am in my 40s, the dependent/caretaker relationship between parent and child is slowly shifting. My relationship with my parents can best be described as functionally dysfunctional. We have never been a demonstrative family but we enjoy time spent with one another and most often engage in light-hearted, playful conversation, that is until things get serious and then our speed goes from 0 to 100 in six seconds flat.

It was the spring of 2010 and it had been years since Mom and Dad made the trek to Toronto so I offered to chauffeur them around Chinatown for the day. They drove 30 minutes to my house in Fairport before dawn and I packed them in my car to go.

I dodged puddles in a blue plastic-wrap poncho on Spadina Avenue in Toronto on that drizzly, cold March afternoon. Chinatown was a place that had become the second best thing to home in Vietnam for my mother. We spent the morning walking the streets, my mother holding my arm as we browsed shops and snacked on sweet rambutan and lychee. Mom would occasionally stop to buy something I had never tried before and she would feed things to me piece by piece as we strolled. We stopped and had a lunch of hot pho and bubble tea at a crowded restaurant and decided that since it didn’t look like the rain would let up anytime soon, we would get what we came for and head home.

We stepped back into the chilly rain and ran into a meat market. It is illegal to bring any produce across the border into the United States so Mom bought 20 banh mi and many pounds of roast pork and roast duck, which is allowed because it is cooked. We loaded everything in the car and headed for the border.

“You not tell dem we haf pork in da back,” my mother commanded.

“No way Mom! All I need is for a Border Patrol Agent to tell me to open up the car after I lied to them about not having anything. I’m not gonna do it. I’m just gonna tell them that we have it. It’s not illegal. It will be fine,” I said defiantly.

We arrived at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge border crossing to find six lines of cars, at least ten cars deep each. The sky was getting darker with more thick cloud cover as we inched our way closer to the agent’s booth. I flipped my windshield wipers on full time. I grew more anxious by the minute as we approached, hoping that the agent wouldn’t give us a difficult time with our purchases.

“What is your citizenship?” the young female agent asked as she scanned our passports.

“U.S.” we replied in unison.

“What was the purpose of your visit?”

“We went shopping in Chinatown,” I answered.

“Did you buy anything that you are bringing back with you?” she asked.

“Yes. My mother bought some roast pork and duck,” I said.

“I need to see that,” the agent insisted.

My father, who was sitting in the back seat, handed me the containers to show the agent.

“This looks raw,” the agent said with a glint of suspicion.

“No, the way they roast it with a glaze makes it look red. It is fully cooked,” I responded.

“Well, I’m gonna need you to pull over there and have your car inspected.” The agent handed me a slip of paper, directing me to the U.S. immigration building just beyond the checkpoint booths.

I slowly drove toward the building, being careful not to cross the paths of other cars trying to enter the U.S., feeling frustrated and annoyed. I felt a pit in my stomach with the uncertainty of what would happen once inside. It was dark, cold and rainy and I did not want to get out of the car.

“I tole you not to tell dem we have anyting!” my mother scolded.

“Mom! I had to tell them! This probably would turn out much worse if I didn’t. I’m gonna go inside and I want you to stay in the car while I am in there.” My father is disabled so getting in and out of the car can be challenging for him, and I wanted to expedite this inconvenience.

I walked into the immigration office filled with rows of molded fiberglass chairs and endless counters guarded by thick panes of glass. Men dressed in fatigues and brandishing weapons were stoically standing guard. I handed one guard my slip of paper and he directed me to have a seat and wait to be called. Fifteen minutes later I saw my parents walking into the building. My mother walked into the room and I whisper-yelled “I told you to stay in the car!”

“Your dad haf to go to da batroom!” she whisper-yelled back at me with a scowl as she walked toward me.

“EVERYONE in your vehicle needs to come in the building,” a deep, brusque voice called out.

I looked over in the direction the command came from to see a tall, hulking officer glaring at me and posturing.

“Oh, my father just needed to go to the bathroom,” I responded with a fake smile hoping to diffuse his aggression toward me.

“EVERYONE IN YOUR VEHICLE needs to come in the building,” he repeated a bit louder.

I didn’t respond to him.

“EVERYONE IN YOUR VEHICLE NEEDS TO COME IN THE BUILDING!” the officer yelled at me.

“OKAY, I HEARD YOU! NOBODY TOLD ME THAT!” I yelled back at him with a stink-eye.

He backed down and assumed his previous position at the counter.

I saw my father walk out of the restroom and waved at him to sit down with us. My mother quietly grumbled, “Dat’s what you get fo shoot yo mout off to yo mudda”.

“Shutup!” I whispered. My heart was pounding through my chest.

There were only a few other parties waiting in the room with us. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for an officer behind the glass to call us forward. I dragged my feet toward the counter anticipating another adverse interaction. My parents trailed behind me.

“So you’re bringing some food into the U.S.?” the officer behind the glass asked me. He was sitting in a chair and had a much kinder demeanor than the officer I had a confrontation with.

“Yes. My mother bought roast pork and roast duck in Chinatown in Toronto,” I answered.

“Ok. Well let’s go out to your car so you can show it to me,” he said with a smile. My blood pressure lowered as I realized this officer was going to make this much less painful than the previous encounter.

The sky was very dark – the resulting combination of the ominous clouds and the late afternoon. The air was frigid and the rain hit my glasses like ice pellets as the four of us walked to my car. I lifted the tailgate of my SUV and used it as my umbrella as I opened the containers of meat for the officer. Satisfied with what he saw, the officer led us back into the building. He directed us back to the counter where we had stood before and he entered a secure door back to his position behind the glass. He handed me an official permission slip for re-entry to the U.S. with his signature on it and sent us on our way.

I got back in the driver’s seat, started the car and turned on the seat heaters to warm our cold, soggy bodies. Mom took position in the passenger’s seat next to me and dad climbed into the second row. I slowly drove toward the highway with my windshield wipers on full blast. It would be another two hours before we got home.

“I tole you not to tell dem anyting and you not listen to me! And you git what you deserve from dat guy when he yell at you! Dat what you get fo shoot yo mout off to yo mudda!” my mother yelled at me.

“MOM! I’m not talking to you about this anymore! I had to tell them! That’s it! Shut up about it!” I yelled back.

“NO! I NOT shut up! You shoot yo mout off to yo mudda and dat’s what you get! I’m so glad he yell at you!” she said.

“SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” I yelled as my blood pressure quickly rose back up. We shouted back and forth at each other, both of us trying to scream over the other’s voice.

I was driving 80 miles-an-hour down the highway. I opened all of the windows in the car and turned up the radio as loud as my ears could tolerate trying to drown out the sound of my mother’s screeching. It was freezing and the left side of my face was getting pelted with rain and road spray. My mother turned back toward my father and with a chuckle she said “Larry, she unroll da window and turn up da radio,” as if he was unaware of the melee that was unfolding.

“C-c-close the windows. It’s c-cold,” my father pleaded with his hands furiously rubbing his arms.

“TELL YOUR WIFE TO SHUT HER MOUTH AND I WILL CLOSE THE WINDOWS!” I yelled over the chaos back to him.

“Sh-shut up!” he shouted to my mother.

“DON’T YOU EVER ASK ME TO FUCKING BRING YOU BACK UP HERE AGAIN! NEVER!” were the last words I spoke to her.

I drove for the next ten minutes down the highway with the windows rolled down and the radio loud, using my makeshift weapons like an insurance policy to keep my mother quiet. My automatic headlights turning on was my cue to close the windows and turn off the stereo. The next hour and a half were filled with the sound of silence.

I pulled into my garage, slammed my car door and walked into my house where my boyfriend Doug cheerfully greeted me with “How was your trip?”. I scowled and said “I’ll tell you after they leave,” as my parents quietly walked in after me to use the bathroom. When my father came out Doug trepidatiously posed the question to him.

“Sooo, how was Toronto?” he said to my father with a nervous giggle.

“Eh. It started out good but these two…” he replied, circling his index finger around his ear indicating that my mother and I were crazy.

My mother came out of the bathroom and grabbed her belongings. My parents made their way out to their car and left. We didn’t speak to one another for two months until Mother’s Day when my sister invited the family to her house for a Mother’s Day Brunch, which was a pleasant, uneventful celebration. We never spoke about the Toronto day trip again. I took a business trip to Toronto in 2013 and told my mother I would be there. She asked me to bring back 20 banh mi and roast pork. I obliged.

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