My tongue is geographic now. Segmented and floating with dark crevices and divides between floating islands coated lightly with white. It has not returned to its prior state, of smoother pinkness. Permanently altered during my pregnancy. I avoid staring too much at it, like the ridges on the sides of my belly that will forever have tiger stripes of skin that had once gotten almost purple with irritation at the stretch they were forced to perform, wrinkled and paler than the skin next to it. My body and mind, the same yet forever altered.
When my daughter was a year and a half, her tongue pulled her forward. Her need for texture and taste overwhelmed her, driving her to her goals.
At that age, there was no filter. When she saw something, thought something, she had to do it. No ego to the id.
She was mobile, alternating between crawling and toppling around like a drunken sailor with her attempts to stand up and propel. Unlike her twin brother, who cautiously stood, searching for his center of gravity, then slowly lowering himself back to the ground; she would instead hoist herself up and fling herself forward, taking two or three steps, ending in a crash to the ground. This normally ended with a scream of frustration at the inefficiency of the world.
I will always remember the one day when her eyes fixated. She wanted something badly. Walking was out, it was too slow. Back to the crawl she went, which she could do with ferocious speed. She zipped across the floor. Glancing down, I noticed her determination, but her goal had not dawned on me. Across the room from her, I watched her and was dumbstruck when I realized her goal.
Finding her father’s shoes across the room, her eyes focused, her tongue dripping with desire. She reached it, her tiny fingers grasping onto something that she yanked with determination. A few yanks and it was off and in her mouth. Chewing with satisfaction, like a truck driver with beef jerky. My brain raced like turkeys running in a circle of panic, trying to understand what had happened.
Then, I shouted to my husband, “Oh good lord. Can you pull that out of her mouth, it’s a dried worm.”
We all sat watching her in wonder and horror. She seemed so pleased with herself. A smacking sound as she chomped away at it.
Before any of us could reach her, the worm was long gone.
The tongue wants what it wants.
My third date with my husband was at a ribs place. I neatly polished off a pile of ribs, managing not to get any sauce on me, each bone, white and smooth with no trace of meat. They laid in a neat pyramid next to his, that were mildly bitten, meat all over them.
“My father would be impressed by how clean your bones are,” he said. His father grew up in Texas during the Great Depression and gave him a lot of crap for not cleaning his bones enough. A unique bridge between the divide of my side, a child of Chinese immigrants and his with a multi-generational white Texan.
His father and I agreed, the meat right next to the bone had the most flavor.
Throughout my life, my mom and I would sit on the couch watching Chinese soap operas while gnawing away at marinated duck wings and chicken feet. Clean bones would pile up on a plate in front of us, as we chewed at the gristle on each end. It was a lot of effort for little content, but exceptionally satisfying.
My grandmother would often poach chicken, dunking it in boiling water and plunging it into cold, to get that perfect texture. Armed with a cleaver and no regard for where the bones were in the chicken, she could be heard all through the house, whacking away at it, until it laid in pieces perfect to be picked up by chopsticks.
Once in high school, a blond-haired girl said to me with disdain, “Oh, I don’t eat any meat with bones in it.”
I remember thinking, if you grew up in my house, you would have starved.
The horror in my teenage years of liking something that others did not was palpable. The comments that meat in Chinese food was cut small so you couldn’t identify the source. The judgement was vivid, painful, insidious. The association of poverty and race all mixed together. A mass of complex emotions and judgment formed around the deeply embedded parts of myself that were taught to hate myself, and it would take decades to untwine.
In response, I learned how to be very presentable. Depending on your generational reference, Pygmallion’d, My Fair Lady’d, Pretty Woman’d myself. Thank goodness the newest generation seems to be breaking from this. I learned how to cut meat flawlessly off a bone without ever having to lift it. For proper etiquette, I learned what fork to use, how to sit properly, how to appear perfectly. Though honestly it always left me feeling uncomfortable, a bit out of place, regardless of how good I could pull it off. It took much later in life to learn to embrace the part of me that was lost in the process. To return to the part of me that found such joy and happiness in cleaning a bone thoroughly while sitting next to my mom. The shift is a continual process, but on good days, it leaves me feeling more comfortable anywhere I am, as who I am, not trying to contort myself into meeting someone else’s expectation.
When my daughter was two, shortly after she had a taste of worm, she would glare at me as I ate ribs or drumsticks in front of her. Her eyes would get that same glint of determination she had when she went after that worm.
Finally, relenting, I searched out a rib that had no end cap and handed it to her. She quickly and efficiently polished the entire thing off, leaving a perfectly clean bone. Her brother was wholly uninterested, more content to keep chewing on bread and fruit.
My daughter now sits with me, as we watch tv, eating marinated duck wings that I acquired from the Chinese grocery store. Our pile of bones in front of us.
I asked my dentist about my tongue. She said it is called “geographic tongue” and there isn’t much that can be done about it. Its fissures permanently in place, its outward appearance forever changed. It has not affected my ability to taste. She asked me if it bothers me and I don’t know how to answer. It’s different. Less aesthetically attractive to some, it feels uniquely mine. It feels earned. A post pregnancy complication, but also a badge of honor. Like eating the bones with my mother and daughter, it is mine in a way that nothing else is. The shift is deep and internal, yet also shallow and external. The future shines a light where all these things are integrated.
Alice Fong-Yi Liu is a Chinese-American author whose writing focuses on identity, growing up with immigrant parents, parenting, caretaking, and a career in cybersecurity. Her writing explores vulnerability, trauma, and healing, often through food, family, and technology. alice-liu.com.