Meat as Love, The Remix
I grew up with eating meat as a love language. My childhood story books tell centuries-old tales of parents feeding meat to their kids as rewards for good grades, gestures of love, and bribes for tantrums. Growing up, my Mom’s face would be glowing with pride putting meat on our plates, telling us this was a luxury item in her childhood.
The way these stories were told became an integral part of how my family showed love. In Taiwan, Mom and little me made the kitchen the stage where we performed this family dance of Meat as Love. I would be coming back from school, stopping at the kitchen entrance, my face leaning into the space perfumed with that night’s dinner. Mom would notice me, return my gaze, and we stood like two dancers in position. She would begin with a swift step to the stove, chopsticks picking up a chicken drumstick, richly brown and dripping from hours of braising in spiced soy sauce. With a flourish, she wrapped a napkin around its base, the perfect bow on a present that was destined for my eager hand. On cue, I would grasp the gift, and bite into the sweet and salty offering with precision. Our numerous performances of this routine cemented in our consciousness of how we are in relationship to each other: that to know how to satisfy, and be satisfied in turn, was a way to connection.
Like all performances, changing the stage can often disrupt the dancers’ flow. After immigrating to Canada in my teens, Mom and I tried to dance to Meat as Love again, without realizing our new lives had forever changed the dance and how we connected. With the hardship of adjusting to a new country, I was hungering for a parent who could help me with friends and school. I was no longer satisfied with the usual drumstick offering, for I wanted answers about how to make sense of this new life. My body could not help but move to my desired new way of being loved, and I began to dance differently in our old repertoire. On the other end of the stage, Mom was altered by the demands of running a home and parenting in a foreign land, with her children’s needs rapidly outpacing her capacity. So she could only respond to my new found hunger with the practiced gift of drumstick, and felt increasingly frustrated that this offering was no longer being grasped at and producing the same satisfaction.
This disconnection in our routine created a lot of pain for both of us.
My young self took from it that changing needs in a relationship meant hurting it. Feeling lonely and lost, I told myself that the only way to a stable relationship was never changing my needs.
Longing for love, I started looking to create the ritual with someone else. I was told that the next biggest love besides that of a parent was that of a romantic partner. So that’s where I placed my effort in finding a partner to develop Meat as Love, 2.0.
My partner and I met in our twenties while trying to navigate the endless hurdles of the young immigrant life: get the grades, get the job, and climb the ladder. Companionship and food soothed the strain of trying to build a stable life in a foreign land. We both shared the family culture of enjoying meat, and we created our own Meat as Love song at Asian barbeque restaurants across the city.
The ritual is often performed on a Friday night. Amidst a bustling and hazy dining room, tired from the week, we would stumble into a booth, our hands settling on tables worn with the patina of endless smoke and sweat. When the orders arrive, with synchronous flourish of the tongs, we would lay out the meats on the grill, sounding off our ritual with a cathartic sizzle. Among smoke and fire, one of us would select the first glistening piece, and gently lay it on the other’s plate. The offering was eagerly received and ingested, melting away days of stress while a smile bloomed across the receiver’s face. Without conscious awareness, Meat as Love 2.0 was created, and I heard in it the familiar lyrics of its predecessor: that knowing how to satisfy, and in turn being satisfied, was a part of connection. But in this version, came attached the lyrics borne out of my loss with Mom; said by my heart: “This is too good to lose again. Let this never change. Let me never change.”
In the time of being around many LGBTQ+ immigrants in my life, I saw in us a common trajectory.
The first decade of settling were about survival and holding onto previous rituals as reprieve. Then with increasing stability that comes in the form of employment, livable salary, and the granting of permanent immigration status, other desires begin to well up in us.
We no longer just want stolen moments of comforting rituals, but a living that sustainably fulfilled our desires. These desires that were seen as luxuries in the early days of gaining independence, become a necessity in this new chapter of our lives.
This is how it happened for me.
After finishing graduate school, it took me several years to make stable income. By this point me and my partner had been a couple for well over a decade and were married. I thought we would live the life of our parents: save up, buy more square footage to live in, and settle into a predictable routine. But with stable income and increasing participation in the LGBTQ+ immigrant of colour space, I had fostered a desire for a life different from that set out by my parents. More than stability for myself, I wanted to contribute to building an equitable world. I want to eat less meat to decrease my environmental footprint. I want to explore who I am beyond the gender and sexual orientation I was assigned at birth. At first I did not understand why after a decade of hard work, and a blue print of the “good life” laid out before me, I was not satisfied. A warning was playing it my ears: that if I go after my now-changed needs, it will strain my marriage and I may lose it. I was also riddled with guilt that these were needs my partner could not meet, however many slices of sizzling pork belly he laid on my plate. I tried to tell myself what I wanted wasn’t important, but desires found their way and still could be heard while I tried to keep enjoying Meat as Love 2.0.
It took help from both my friends and therapy for me to realize that the problem wasn’t my desires, but rather that I didn’t know how to navigate changing needs in a healthy way in relationships.
It took therapy to help me realize, it was not my changing needs that strained me and Mom’s connection, but that we didn’t have the shepherding needed to evolve our rituals to our changing lives. We were like dancers who during a performance, panicked when we missed a cue, and instead of taking a break to regroup, we got lost in our own pain, so much that we didn’t have the capacity to reflect on what could be improved. We also took it upon ourselves that if we couldn't meet each other’s needs, there was no other way to have them met. I realized if we had guidance to take it slow, be patient, and work together to understand ourselves and each other, our ritual could have evolved to bring us closer.
So that’s what I did in my relationship. In slowing down and not overly react to what the other says and does, my partner and I were able to understand each other, and realized that there were still commonalities in what we desired. We wanted freedom. We wanted to grow. We may outgrow our earlier rituals, but we still want to be together.
Instead of trying to hold onto the old Meat as Love song, we had to work together to make another remix that worked for who we are now, all while not knowing what the finished product could look like.
This was the biggest lesson for me as a part of a couple, and as a couples therapist: to be able to sit in the unknown with your partner, and not panic, freak out, fight, or get critical of ourselves and the other is essential to ongoing connection and understanding.If you can be patient with yourselves and each other in times of uncertainty, you will be well poised to figure out an amicable future together.
Overtime, we were able to look at what were the components of Meat as Love 1.0 and 2.0 that we wanted to sample, honour, and develop into a routine. My partner and I may no longer frequent Asian BBQs for our connection, but we have developed in these new routines the space for him to have BBQ with enthusiastic others, and me going to my queer and gender diverse community for my identity development and support. Our connection is now about Allowing the Other to Change as Love, and Tell Me What Fun You Had without Me as Love. We learned that changes, pauses, and missed cues in our rituals are a natural part of any dance and provide opportunities to regroup, reflect, and remix the music with other things we may need. And often the remix can really outdo the original.
How this connects to therapy:
I see it time and time again in my clients how they struggle with changing needs as a couple. In fearing the unknown, people often panic and respond to change in unhelpful ways. This is a natural part of any struggle, but often people hesitate to seek therapy to help their relationship evolve, due to the stigma associated with asking for help. The reality is change is part of life and hence part of any relationship. I have lived through the pain, and understand how scary it can be, especially if you don’t have friends or family to support you. I want you to know that you do not have to suffer the pain and struggle alone.
To have a sustainable and fulfilling relationship as a couple, your way of how to love yourself and your partner need to be updated as you grow together. Even a professional like me needed help, and I see it as a kindness and care to my relationship. You have learned many skills to achieve the life you have so far, this is one more skill you need to build the life you want. My clients struggle just like you when they first come in, riddled with confusion, guilt, anger, and self-blame. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can learn the life-long skill of evolving your relationship and find connection and understanding again. You too can be like my clients, leaving my practice with life-long skills that will help you adapt to changing desires in your relationship. I would love to help you achieve that.