Carry-on Chicken: An Essay by MaiThao Xiong

Illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen

Illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen

My mom used to say, “Peb ruam ruam,” meaning “We are stupid,” to describe herself and my father. At the time, I wasn’t aware that she didn’t mean this literally—it was her way to motivate us to work harder than her and to be more than she could be. Her encouragement and love are not expressed through her words, but through her actions, and of course, food.

A few years ago, we arrived exhausted at Denver International Airport to visit one of my sisters. Outside baggage claim, my older sister, Vai, was busy keeping track of her four- and five-year-olds, Madelyn and Adam, both restless and jubilant after their first ever airplane ride. Panou, MaiYang, and MaiVue—my other sisters—directed their attention to complaining about our ride being late. My younger brother, Chong, the only adult male on the trip, sat outside of our circle, thumbs attacking a phone screen.

As we sat, waiting, Mom pulled a lump of aluminum foil the size of a soccer ball from the plastic bag that she had stowed in her carry-on backpack. Slowly, she peeled back the layers of foil, revealing the center of the lump—a white, unchopped, full-sized, boiled chicken. Seasoned in black pepper and salt, the aroma of moist meat permeated the arrival area.

“Nej puas noj?” “Do you want to eat?” she asked loudly. Non-Hmong passengers arriving from baggage claim slowed and cast glances toward the Hmong woman in a leopard print blouse and black dress pants that clashed with tennis shoes and a fake leather cross-body purse, fat protruding out like a pregnant woman’s belly, waving the naked chicken at our faces. Tall, smartly dressed men and women hurried away from the group of eight, smelling like chicken, spread out across the floor. But Mom wasn’t concerned with anything but her chicken and the thought of feeding her children.

“Nej puas noj?” Mom asked again. We shook our heads, “No,” to eating boiled chicken at the airport.

“Suit yourself,” Mom said. Her hands, wrinkled and calloused from too many hours in the garden, tore a leg from the chicken. A satisfying snap of the bones. She grinned. “Mmm, so good.”

I don’t know why I felt self-conscious to eat Hmong food in that public space. I had learned to embrace my Hmong-American identity, but I guess Denver was not like Minnesota where most folks knew about Hmong people and our foods. Maybe it was the day—people had been staring at our group the whole day, the flight took longer than expected, it was 4pm and we had not eaten since 10am, our ride was late, people were still staring at us. And there was Mom, who had casually packed a full boiled chicken for a two-hour flight.

Mom, whose own mother passed away when she was a younger girl, took care of her siblings until she married. She and my father were slash-and-burn farmers with land and livestock in Laos, but fled due to threats of Hmong genocide after the Vietnam War. They later came to America with my five older sisters and me in 1992. Whenever things went wrong, she relied on what she knew in order to survive. She always packed boiled chicken to travel—that was the food she could rely on.

To most travelers, the process at the airport goes: check-in, security, boarding. For my mother the process is check-in, security, security pulls you aside, security checks your boiled chicken, security is confused but ultimately okays boiled chicken, and then boarding. The TSA officers in Minneapolis stopped Mom that day. Vai, Panou, MaiYang, MaiVue, Chong, Madelyn, Adam, and I crowded around Mom and the TSA officer, forming a conspicuous group that attracted curious eyes. She didn’t understand what the officer was saying, but instead of feeling uncomfortable, like I did, Mom was steady and unthreatened, linking her hands together in front of her and waiting patiently during the search.

I realized my mother was used to this process because she had flown by herself many times. She was able to navigate the airports without knowing how to read or speak a single word of English. And she knew the pitfalls of traveling: it drains energy, and if you don’t know how to order food in that country, you starved. If you did manage to order, you may struggle with the price. It was much like that when she first arrived in America.

At the Denver International Airport, even when we refused, we watched the boiled chicken. It found its way into the hands of Madelyn, who took it without a second thought. Another snap, and Mom shoved the leg into Adam’s palms. His teeth shredding the meat, lips smacking in satisfaction.

Keeping her eyes on her children’s reactions, Mom said, “I also brought kua txob,” producing a snack-size Ziploc bag packed with a red and yellow Thai pepper sauce that had been ground and seasoned with salt, lime juice, and fish sauce.

That was when we gave in.

She couldn’t stop grinning, amused at her stupid children for refusing a meal when they were starving. “I thought you guys didn’t want to eat?”

Vai fetched her children and ushered them to the bathroom across the hall to wash their hands. Nou, MaiYang and MaiVue abandoned their conversation, my brother joined the group, and, we assured each other that we would only eat a little because Mom had already pulled it out and we didn’t want her to feel bad for eating alone. We sped to the bathroom, washed our hands, and raced back. All five of my siblings, hands vigorously traveling from all directions, dismembered Mom’s boiled chicken. As the meat was furiously stripped from every bone, Mom laughed, “I packed sticky rice too.” She passed out purple sticky rice, already packaged in individual snack-sized Ziploc bags. She couldn’t stop grinning, amused at her stupid children for refusing a meal when they were starving. “I thought you guys didn’t want to eat?”

I had grown up on the taste of plain, boiled organic chicken dipped in Thai pepper sauce. Living away from home for the last two years, I’d been eating frozen Tyson chicken strips without the pepper sauce. There’s a joke in the family—and maybe among other Hmong families too—that lazy people don’t have freshly ground Thai pepper sauce because it’s a dish that you have to put a lot of effort into. First you have to use a mortar and pestle to smash the peppers. Then it requires little amounts of ingredients—garlic, lime juice, salt, sugar, and whatever other seasonings—that, added carefully, make a big difference. The cleanup can burn your eyes if you are sensitive to the sting of pepper, and the essence of garlic pulp remained at your fingertips for days.

I smeared the breast meat with the Thai pepper sauce. It tasted like heaven.

It took me back to when I was 19, about to study abroad in Seoul, South Korea. Before leaving, Mom bought some beef jerky from an Asian grocery store and stuffed it into my checked luggage along with a plastic bag loaded with sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves into my carry-on. I thought it was a bother and unnecessary because I had imagined that after I arrived, I would be self-grilling barbecue beef and slurping on kimchi jjigae. I traveled with four other classmates, and carried the stench of the banana leaves and sticky rice onto the plane all throughout the 20-hour flight. I didn’t dare open my bag because it would contaminate the airplane with its sweet, overly ripened banana smell.

In Seoul, we got separated, resulting in a whole afternoon searching for each other. By the time we finally regrouped, most shops were closed. The few that were open didn’t have menus and we didn’t know how to ask for food. That evening, starving at our hostel, I unpacked Mom’s smelly sticky rice and rubbery beef jerky to share with the group. The group squealed with excitement upon seeing the food and asked whose smart idea was it to have brought the food. I ballooned with pride and said, “My mother.”

That day at the Denver airport, I swelled with the same pride. Frustration and fatigue melted away with each bite of chicken. I don’t know how Mom had the time to boil a chicken, make the pepper sauce, and steam fresh sticky rice—enough for eight travelers—all within the morning before the flight. She’s resilient and unapologetically herself. I can’t imagine why I believed her when she called herself stupid.