38: A Suitcase Full of Love

38: A Suitcase Full of Love

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

A Suitcase Full of Love

Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate.

~Alan D. Wolfelt

The early April breeze was chillier than I expected as I walked anxiously toward the front entrance of the Holiday Inn at Union Square in San Francisco. With every step I took, I heard my mother’s words: “Johnny, I am all packed and looking forward to seeing you!” She had sounded so excited when we talked over the phone a few days earlier.

After five years of trying to get a visa to the United States to visit me, she finally succeeded on the third attempt. The tedious process, while at times heartbreaking and emotionally draining for both of us, could not dissuade my mom from her desire to make the trip. Despite being only five feet, three inches tall, Mom had always been the pillar of the Tan family. Her ingenious solutions to the visa challenge proved once again that no obstacle was a match for Mom’s steadfast determination and love for her family—in this case, me!

Although excited, I was extremely nervous. Mom and I had not seen each other in more than eight years, since I left Malaysia at eighteen to attend college in the U.S. Due to a glitch in the federal immigration system, my application for permanent residency was in limbo. In spite of being gainfully employed and a homeowner, I could not leave the country until my paperwork was resolved.

In the beginning, our only source of communication was through letters. Later, it evolved to lengthy phone conversations. Much had happened during the eight years while I was absent. My father passed away a year after I went abroad. Our family dog died five months later. Observing our Chinese tradition, my sister and her fiancé waited until a couple of months after the anniversary of Dad’s death to get married. Eventually, my mom became a grandmother. These were all the things I missed back home while becoming a young adult working in corporate America.

By this point, Mom was an accomplished globetrotter, exploring countries near and far. From Thailand to Australia, Egypt, Turkey, Japan, and New Zealand, she had experienced many cultures firsthand with her traveling buddies. However, the United States would be her farthest journey yet.

During the months preceding her U.S. trip, I tried to prepare my mom regarding what she needed to pack. We planned for her to stay with me for four months, during which time we would be traveling throughout the United States. Her reply was always, “Don’t you worry about me. I know what I need. How about you? What would you like me to bring you from Malaysia?” My answer never wavered. All I wanted was a couple bags of authentic curry powder and two bags of chili powder from our hometown of Melaka, as I was running low on these treasured spices.

I had started cooking in my sophomore year while living off campus due to my tight budget and a yearning for my favorite Malaysian dishes. Upon request, Mom eagerly would send me the curry and chili powder. Finally, after all these years, I was looking forward to eating my mom’s cooking once again!

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. A tour bus pulled up right in front of the hotel as I made my way to the main door. Intuitively, I sensed Mom was on the bus. I stood nervously in anticipation. One by one, passengers exited the bus. Suddenly, I saw a woman who looked like my mom stepping off. She was not the same person I left behind in Malaysia, but an older version of herself, seemingly smaller in size. Perhaps I had grown taller and more muscular, and she was viewing me the same way—as an older version of myself. We made eye contact, and immediately I saw tears in her eyes followed by that familiar loving smile.

As I walked toward her, I felt numb. No words could express my happiness, so I gave her a very long bear hug. Much to my surprise, she hugged me back. Hugging was not the norm for us in Asian culture, but I had assimilated to American customs by then. Soon, a curious and friendly crowd was upon us. Apparently, Mom had told her traveling group that her time with them would end in San Francisco upon a reunion with her son. That night, we dined in Chinatown, talking about family and celebrating our long-awaited time together.

The next morning, we were up bright and early for our 7:00 a.m. flight to Louisiana. I helped Mom check in her ample luggage, amazed that she had managed it this far by herself. She was obviously well packed for the trip with a heavy, oversized suitcase, carry-on luggage, and an extra-large shoulder bag. Perhaps I had over-prepared her for the trip!

It was late afternoon by the time we reached my house in Baton Rouge. I gave Mom a quick tour of my garden home. She was pleased with what I had accomplished in eight years. As she sat down on her bed to rest, I offered to bring her luggage upstairs. She quickly directed me to bring only the carry-on and shoulder bags, and to leave the largest suitcase downstairs. Mom mentioned casually that there was no clothing in that suitcase, just items she had brought for me.

How could she have packed all her clothes for four months in just two small bags? In disbelief, I hurried downstairs and opened the huge suitcase. Inside, I discovered bags of curry and chili powder, bags of wet Malaysian satay spice mix, dried herbs, special Asian herb plants packed with ice, dried anchovies and Chinese sausage, pastries, cooking utensils, and home-decor items she and my sister had bought as housewarming gifts. Although the ice had melted down, the herb plants with roots looked fresh and healthy. Overwhelmed with her gesture of love, I realized my mom had planned for this trip better than I did. For weeks, she had painstakingly gathered these gifts and methodically secured each item to endure the long, arduous trip.

I asked Mom how she managed to carry these contraband items through U.S. customs. She said, “I knew I was taking a big risk, but the worst that could have happened was the officials would take everything and throw it away. I prayed as I was walking through the checkpoint and did not look anyone in the eye. When the final officer smiled at me, I smiled back. Since she did not stop me, I calmly walked toward our tour group leader who was waiting by the exit door.”

As I sat beside Mom, my thoughts drifted to the contents of the suitcase downstairs. They were no longer food, spices, and gifts, but rather love itself . . . the unconditional motherly love that transcends time and distance. I rose and smiled at Mom, saying, “Well, okay then, I look forward to gaining a few pounds eating all your delicious cooking over the next few months and learning some new recipes along the way.” I left her to unpack and recuperate for a while before dinner, which we would prepare with the ingredients she had brought from Malaysia. I could not think of a more perfect way to commemorate our first meal together in my kitchen!

~Johnny Tan

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