Illustration by Jessai Flores

I wasn’t expecting authenticity at the dining hall’s Chinese New Year dinner. But next to the vessels of artificial almond extract labeled “almond cookies” and empty mooncake tins sat a bowl of cut fruit. Cantaloupe, honeydew, and pineapple –– usually delivered in gargantuan wedges fit for giants –– were now diced affectionately in chubby cubes. Quarters of strawberries flashed their pastel pink interiors (a berry in the dining hall?). I doubled back in shock, not only at the presence of fruits outside breakfast hours, but their form: washed, cut and mixed in a medley. 

I searched for the right words to express my delight at this long-held Pan-Asian tradition, which was now gaining visibility in the white culinary gaze that is an American college dining hall. My non-Asian friends didn’t understand my excitement: they saw fruit as too healthy and simple for dessert. Meanwhile, Asian kids shoveled spoonfuls of fruit into to-go cups, for only they knew the symbolic weight. We didn’t grow up with pies or cakes or scoops of ice cream after dinner. We grew up with cut fruit.

In America, fruit represents a standard component of a meal. One of the mainstays of a Yale breakfast is a ginormous, cold slice of melon that sends pain waves into your teeth. For the leaf-averse, fruit also plays a crucial role in filling the recommended daily fiber intake. Further, fruit often only stands in as an accessory: berries as the sidekick to a bowl of oatmeal, gelatinized cranberries slabbed on a slice of turkey breast, or––most controversially known––pineapple on pizza. But for Asian families, fruit is a meal on its own, not necessarily because of its nutritional value or taste (though those are relevant factors) but for their potential as a language of love and devotion. 

Growing up in a Taiwanese-Chinese immigrant household, I found my parents’ love hard to characterize: not as harsh as stereotypical tiger parents, nor as warm and reassuring as the white parents on the Disney Channel. Sure, they had strict rules and expectations for me. Extra workbooks after school were my “real” school. Streams of tears were shed on the piano bench. Wounds from failures or mistakes were mostly met with salt, not a bandage. But they also lavished me with a love I had to interpret and extract from actions––the most memorable of which was a bowl of fresh-cut fruit after dinner. Looking back, I didn’t need my parents to tell me they loved me; watching them eat the leftover rinds of the watermelon was more than enough. 

My parents ameliorated my hard, sweaty summers of ACT prep and sports camp with tropical fruit scrupulously picked at the grocery store and laboriously washed and cut. Imagine pineapple with interior flesh so golden, so sweet that each bite emits at least a tablespoon of Dole’s pineapple juice. Perfectly ripe mango chunks so smooth and non-fibrous, you could almost suck them down with a straw. Soft, creamy papayas that, once hollowed, could serve as a bowl for milk, creating a simple yet decadent treat. 

My mom has a rule to assess the ripeness of every fruit. She pushes her thumb around the stem of cantaloupe and honeydew, feeling for softness. When ripe, the flesh should bounce back like a trampoline. Watermelon presented a more laborious task. She’d tip-toe in her summer sandals, doubling over the crate’s edges to reach the watermelon at the bottom of the crate –– the more untouched, the better. Her right hand delivered several blows to one stem, while her left hand cupped the other, feeling for vibrations. The successful journey of sound waves indicates that the core is juicy yet cavernous. I’ve tried my hand at these , but I end up looking like some random person aimlessly slapping fruits in the produce aisle. 

After long, lazy summer barbecues, my mom would drift away from the table, emerging from the garage and hauling the watermelon at her waist like an overdue pregnant woman. All of a sudden, we’d hear a loud thump as she dropped the melon onto the cutting board, an alarm clock that snapped us out of our post-meal lull. Cutting the watermelon itself was an all-body experience; she’d stab the watermelon down the center with a sharpened chef’s knife, tearing the bright pink flesh apart: the music of summer. She sliced the watermelon into triangles before dicing them into smaller, uniform cubes. Juice pooled on the cutting board and leaked onto the floor, where it’d be savored by ants. After hours of studying, I’d stumble to the fridge to find a Saran-wrapped bowl with my Chinese nickname labeled on a post-it note, chilled for maximum satisfaction.

During the transitional seasons when the fruit at the store looked like sad, underripe lab-grown organisms, my mom would deploy some supplements. When the strawberries exuded that light yellow underripe color despite sitting out for weeks, she’d carve out the stems like a surgeon and sprinkle a generous heap of cane sugar; on special occasions, she’d pile on pillars of Reddi-Wip. When our pantry lacked anything reasonably acceptable as fruit, my mom doused a bowl of diced tomatoes with a generous spoon of cane sugar, which unlocked the tomato’s potential for sweetness. 

In the winter, when my mother heard even the slightest inkling of a cough, she’d emerge from the garage –– the winter fruit storage space –– with a heavy netted bag of citruses. For citrus, she relies on a savvy kitchen gadget discovered in the Marshall’s kitchen appliance aisle, a tiny circle with a thick hook shaped like a toucan’s beak. She drags the small but mighty edge down the skin from stem to stem, powdered juices exploding in puffs of perfume. After making several abrasions in the skin, she’d stick her index finger under and rip off the quadrants one by one. Afterward, she’d painstakingly peel off the white stringy membrane, rendering each bite into a million tiny pockets of juice. She chose the burdensome path to give us the best of everything.

I didn’t realize what cut fruit meant to me until I was deprived of it. During one of my first breakfasts at Yale, I resisted the idea of eating fruit: how could my stomach tolerate such a cold spike of sugar in the morning? But ravenous for any semblance of fresh fruit, I gave in, gnawing like a savage until each dimple-to-dimple-sized wedge tickled my cheeks with their cold, sticky juice. I soon learned to attack each slice with a fork and knife, cutting at the border between rind and fruit and rendering the wedges into uniform rectangles––a now daily morning routine mimicking my mother, constructing an artificial sense of maternal love for myself. But it never quite tastes as sweet.

Michaela Wang is a member of the Class of 2025 in Berkeley College. She majors in Anthropology and is involved in the Education Studies Program. She loves writing about places, Asian America, immigration, and food. You can read her work in the Yale Daily News, the Yale Herald, and her secret diary which she keeps very, very hidden in her room.