How I found comfort during my dark days
“Fat f*ck.” One of the boys said, laughing. I stood alone as boys, also my age, unleashed an avalanche of soaked toilet papers at me in the student washroom. Classmates whom I thought were my friends either laughed along, or took a quick glance before walking away. My younger self was always bullied for the way I looked and my (rather noticeable) size and all of it continued to hurt for a very long time.
Fifteen years later, despite being fitter, better and stronger in all ways, every time I hear those words, even if jokingly, it stings. Looking back, I realised I found comfort in food during those dark days. Specifically, food prepared by my family. That’s when I realised that food was how my family showed their love. And it was that selfless display that helped me get through those dark days.
Grandma’s Iced Milo
There was one afternoon I vividly remember holding back tears as I first entered home after school. I believe my grandma knew, as she handed me a sturdy plastic cup filled with Milo. It wasn’t particularly tasty. In fact, it was even slightly diluted because of the melted ice cubes that she had left in the cup the past few hours or so. This became her daily routine as I disliked warm or hot drinks in the day.
Even though it didn’t change the fact that a group of classmates likened me to George from Peppa Pig, it felt better.
It might just a cup of Milo, but it was my grandma’s way of showing love, care and concern. It was how she knew to comfort me.
Maybe it’s how my grandma remembered the way I’d like my Milo, but till today, I love all things Milo: be it in pastries, desserts, or even just on its own (preferably iced).
My Grandpa has a knack for preparing tea in the early morning. I was about 10 when I happened to wake up early and for the very first time, saw him brewing handfuls of tea leaves in our traditional pot in the kitchen. It was 4:30am. To be frank, up till that point in time, I actually didn’t even like tea – they felt meaninglessly flavourless and had a weird, lingering aftertaste.
Grandpa was very nimble and not that strong yet he lifted a heavy-looking kettle, filled it with water, and limped across the kitchen holding it. While he was evidently struggling, he caught a glimpse of me and smiled, still. As a kid, I remember feeling an overwhelming glow of warmth that filled my heart.
Tea eventually became a go-to that soothed my nerves and a reminder of strength that inspired me as I navigated life.
My Mum’s Kaya Bread
My designated “breakfast” as a student. For more than ten years in my life, bread with kaya was a common meal. On slightly fancier days, I would get Nutella fillings instead. I wasn’t part of the rich-fam club – and that meant hand-me-downs, second-hand books, un-ironed clothes, and along with that, a whole lot of bullying. It also meant that Nutella, which was just a dollar or two more costly than most household spreads, was a luxury.
Perhaps I was a slow-eater, but my mother would always pass me mine first. As she spread hers and nagged for me to finish all of it, even the crumbs, I noticed that she had passed me two servings and only had one on her own. We simply didn’t have enough bread to go around.
Over time, bread has evolved into my go-to snack and I love local pastries. On top of it being a comfort food and a quick fix, bread reminds me of how selfless my parents were, which unflaggingly gets me all fuzzy. To top it off, it’s also perfect for exam periods, sorrowful breakdowns, and even when your stomach’s grumbling hours into the night.
My Dad’s Ice Pop
The first time I had a popsicle was when my father bought me one. There was this day he walked me home from school, and I could feel my eyes well up as I told him about the e-dictionary that broke earlier in class. What I didn’t mention was how classmates felt it would be hilarious to toss my bag from the second floor, or how they did.
My father has never been good with words and on that day, he was quiet. I thought he was perhaps fuming, as money did not come by easily and replacing an e-dictionary would be costly. About two streets down, we stopped at this mamak shop and he proceeded to buy a popsicle.
I was shocked because I was expecting a punishment, scolding, or, at the very least, the golden “silent treatment”. I think all parents know, somehow. And even though it was just a twenty-cent popsicle, my first bite into one helped me forget about all the hurt I felt that day (even if it was just for five minutes).
A meal I used to find was too plain, and even hated a little. My daily afternoon meal without fail was plain porridge with canned minced pork (or bar jiu) or with pork floss and century eggs on good days. After everything that happened in school, going home only to dig into a simple bowl of porridge can be demoralising.
That said, I couldn’t fathom the warmth I felt with every mouthful. My grandparents tend to wait for me to have lunch together, and sitting next to them as I gobbled up would always make me forget about school for a while. As they aged, cooking became more infrequent and this routine eventually ceased.
There was a place I chanced upon a few years ago that I felt closely resembled their cooking. The underrated bowl of porridge with century eggs at Weng Kiang Kee is not the most popular order, but to me, it deserves a local congee-niality award. It has pieces of minced and lean meat, with the congee retaining a minimal level of sweetness – just like how my grandparents made it.
Food that made things better, even for a little while
Looking back, I ran a lot. I didn’t fight back either. Eventually, I realised that the way to break out of the cycle is to learn how to be comfortable with being alone. You don’t have to feel lonely when you’re alone. Stick to your beliefs, stand your ground with your own passion, and interests; let these be fuel to your strength in being unapologetically yourself.
While these items will always remind me of my difficult childhood experiences, they also have pushed me through the toughest of times and I believe will continue to.