Whether it’s slices of apples and pears left out for you after classes, wedges of oranges fed to you when you’re feeling under the weather, or just a bowl of painstakingly peeled grapes left on your desk as you’re cramming for an exam, it’s all love.
When I was growing up as a third-generation Malaysian-Chinese, my mom had strict rules and expectations for me. This is an all-too-common occurrence, and even stereotype, amongst the children of Asian immigrants. Piano lessons and extra Mandarin classes were compulsory, sleepovers were strictly forbidden, and good grades and achievements were superseded by demands for better grades and more achievements. To an outsider, this may seem cold and devoid of affection, but I knew all along that I was still being lavished with love. Because instead of hugs, kisses, and words of encouragement, my mom loved through bowls of cut-up fruit.
A simple bowl of cut fruits is the purest, most common expression of an Asian mom’s love. I fondly remember afternoons coming home from primary school, when Mom would leave out wedges of apples for me to snack on. The Fujis were crunchy and sweet, each one laced with a squeeze of lemon juice—a zing of acid to slow the browning. The tang caught me by surprise each time; that contrast of sweet apple and sour citrus embodying her tough love—rare, tender moments of love, praise, and affection interspersed with her stinging wit and whips of the cane that made me pucker and flinch.
But it wasn’t just apples and pears. On the weekends, when I wasn’t practicing badminton or studying Mandarin, she’d call me from the front yard for freshly peeled segments of oranges and pomelos as I toyed with garden snails and pulled apart ixoras to get at their nectar. In high school, when I was trying to wrap my head around the imaginary numbers for an Additional Mathematics paper, I’d find a plate of papayas stealthily left on my desk even if I said I wasn’t hungry. I’d hold a pen in one hand, a baton of papaya in the other, and proceed to drip juice all over the numbers on the paper, imaginary or otherwise. But most of all, when we argued—whether I’d been caught lying about my grades or had refused to practice Chopin’s Waltz No. 9 for the 28th time in a day—the simple utterance of “Come eat fruits” was a signal of a truce being drawn. And when dinner ended with an extra plate of cut fruits, those harsh words and hot tears didn’t sting so much.
This is hardly an idiosyncrasy of my family, but rather a sort of unspoken rule in Asian families. Back when I was studying at Cambridge, I’d overhear my Singaporean roommate’s mom starting off their Skype calls with “Did you eat fruits tonight?” before even saying hello. Chinese-American YouTubers bring up the trope in their videos, highlighting how “dessert” after dinner is often just a plate of sliced apples and oranges. And if you think cutting up fruits is laborious enough, my friend Nicole Kow tells me her mom painstakingly peeled the skin off of grapes for her.
Understanding the complexities of an Asian mother’s love is no easy feat. In fact, it’s a particularly popular subject among younger generations of the Asian diaspora. Enter Subtle Asian Traits, a Facebook group that has amassed over 1.2 million members and serves as a meme-centric forum highlighting the joys and struggles of second- and third-generation immigrants. It’s how we share our experiences growing up as Asians, in Asian households, laden with the complicated love of Asian moms, and feel thoroughly understood. And when we read a post about how mom would “[cut us] apples and fruits to eat after dinner and [we] catch her eating the core in the kitchen,” we understand all too well the love and sacrifice we Asians were showered with.
All Asian kids know that our moms do love us, despite their cold demeanor, tough exterior, and sky-high expectations. They just show it in different ways.
Nowadays, as is expected of a fully functioning adult, I cut my own apples, segment my own oranges, slice my own papayas, and sometimes even peel my own grapes if I feel like it. But somehow, they never taste quite as sweet.