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Hungry Child

I don’t know about you but the idea of hunger—and food—looms extremely large in my mind. Often times I have conflicts with my husband, who does not seem to be bothered by not eating for a long stretch of time.

Besides the fact that physically we are so different—he having Type A blood and I being a Type O, which means that I have much more stomach acid than him and that I am naturally hungry a lot more frequently than him—our upbringings also play a very important role in our differences.

Growing up in the Chinese culture and after an era when Chinese people suffered from a massive scale of famine, I have inherited an unfortunate collective memory in my subconscious mind. My parents’ generation experienced the “Great Famine” in the 60s in mainland China. They had very little to eat. Food was “allocated” to each family in the form of rations. My parents would use the food stamps they got from the government and had to line up at 3 in the morning to get a piece of meat. If they were lucky to get an apple, they would eat the peel and save the fruit for me and my brother. Whenever hunger stroke, my parents would tighten up their belts—literally, to stop the hollow growls.

Because food was so scarce, it had taken on a venerable position in our society, especially among those who had experienced extreme hunger, like my parents. As a result, the ritual of sharing a complete meal together with the whole family also became something holy. Dinner time must be duly respected. If, for example, you are engrossed in studying or another activity that you delay your arrival at the dinner table, you’d stand the risk of being severely scolded or ridiculed. After each dinner, a few words of appreciation and compliment to the cook—usually the mother—would be expected. Such is the scenario that played out at my home throughout my childhood.

Food is often used as a reward for children in my culture—and it could also be used as a form of punishment in the act of withholding. One often hears the chiding of mothers in a threatening tone: “If you are naughty, you will not get rice!” Rice in this case actually means meal. So kids in my generation were often threatened to go hungry as a result of not obeying the parents. I don’t know if this kind of language is still used in today’s Chinese society, as I am not in touch with the parenting world, being childless myself. But I can imagine this threat does not go along with today’s affluent society anymore.

Anyway, what I’m trying to analyze, is how this threat has been etched in our psyche… so much so that the fear of hunger has become something larger than life! Irrational as it may be, my subconscious mind still holds on to this false belief that if I skip a meal or two I’d be very sick and even die. In the Chinese vocabulary, we have this phrase, “hungry to death” (餓死了), which is an exaggerated way of describing the feeling of extreme hunger. Perhaps this kind of expression shapes the way we think as well.

I guess this is a long-winded explanation of why I turn into a beast when I am confronted with hunger. It’s something really difficult for my husband to relate, as he grew up in affluent Europe and has never inherited this kind of cultural and collectivist burden associated with hunger and famine. Well, his ancestors in Sweden also experienced famine, but the latest one happened in the mid-19th century, so the memory of famine is not in his genes.

By contrast, I have inherited the stress chemicals flowing in my grandmother and mother’s blood—my grandmother having experienced the Japanese occupation and my mother, the Great Famine. Did you know that environmental stress affects unborn babies and goes down through as many as four generations? So, isn’t it not that strange that there is a fear of hunger running through my veins?

Having analyzed this now, I am ready to work on my subconscious mind and erase those genetic memory. Exactly how, I don’t know. But I am confident that I’ll find a creative solution one day.