After the Spanish came, corn became the dominant crop on Guam. After the Americans came, imported white rice dominated. White rice was convenient, storable, and easy to cook. White rice was, as my grandma says, “manna from heaven.”
I confess: despite the best efforts by my grandma to raise me Catholic, I no longer practice the colonial religion. I remember reading the Bible in Catholic school and thinking: these people never eat rice. A wood carving of the last supper hung above my family’s dining table. I stared at it during meals and felt so sorry for Jesus—not because he would soon be crucified, but because he didn’t have any white rice to eat.
To all the Catholic islanders out there, forgive me. The only body that I am willing to sink my teeth (and faith) into must be transubstantiated from the holy sacrament of rice.
During the industrialization of our global food system, new technologies and machines made it easier to transubstantiate brown rice into white rice. They call this “refining” or “polishing” the savage whole grain.
White rice is prettier and “enriched”; it has a longer shelf life; it’s easier to digest; it takes less time to cook. Plus, our bodies love white rice because the starch turns to glucose (sugar and energy!) much faster without the brown fiber.
By “enriched,” I mean that the natural vitamins and minerals in brown rice are removed to make the rice white, and then artificial vitamins have to be added to the white rice so people don’t get sick. #whiteworldproblems.
Despite these enrichments, studies have shown that daily consumption of white rice is linked to chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Many people on Guam, Hawaiʻi, and across the Pacific suffer from these diseases.
Due to colonial diseases, the Hawaiian population had collapsed to around 50,000 people by the 1850s. Many taro patches became fallow. Many farmers began planting rice in taro patches to market to a growing population of Chinese migrant workers.
By 1887, Hawaiʻi exported nearly 14 million pounds of rice. By 1899, there were at least 500 rice farms in Hawaiʻi; it was the second largest crop behind sugar. By 1909, 5,000 people worked nearly 10,000 acres of rice fields, yielding more than 40 million pounds of rice.
(rice field in Hawai’i)
The rice industry in Hawaiʻi collapsed for a number of reasons: the Chinese Exclusion Act, the different rice preferences of newly arrived Japanese workers, the industrialized boom of the California rice industry, the rising price of land in Hawaiʻi. By 1934, Hawaiʻi exported less than 5,000 pounds of rice. By 1960, the last rice farm and mill closed.
Rice is war. When the empire of Japan occupied Guam during World War II, they aimed to transform Guam into a major rice grower in the region. Land was taken and cultivated into rice paddies. Thousands of Chamorro people were violently forced to labor in these rice plantations in order to provide food for Japan’s soldiers.
The Malesso Japanese Rice Mill was constructed on December 24, 1943, to store rice and house the Chamorro people who were forced to work the rice. This rice mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The last rice mill in Hawaiʻi, the Haraguchi Rice Mill, is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Cultures of food commemoration.
(rice field, forced labor, Guam)
September is “National Rice Month,” sponsored by the USA Rice Federation. There was an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the world’s Largest SPAM musubi (nearly three hundred pounds) during the 2012 “Rice Festival” in Hawaiʻi last September.
I’ve probably eaten several of those record breaking SPAM musubi’s over my lifetime of rice and SPAM eating. Two scoops. Imported enriched white rice. from California. Everyday. I remember going shopping with my mom; I would carry the bag of rice and plop it into the trunk of her Toyota car. Toyota used to be named “Toyoda,” which means “abundant rice field.”
(SPAM musubi, Rice Festival)
For the past two years, I’ve been trying to decolonize my body by eating healthier and more conscientiously. I knew I had to divest from imported white rice, a food that had been stapled to my body for decades. The problem: I love rice. I love its taste and texture, its affordability and convenience.
So I reluctantly switched to brown rice. Aside: I didn’t know brown rice existed until I attended college (in California). I had never seen rice grown, so I just assumed rice was naturally white (perhaps the “G” in the Diamond “G” brand stands for “gastrocolonialism”).
Brown rice isn’t easy. You have to soak it. You need more water to cook it. And it takes longer. It’s also more filling (so you eat less). And, it, digests, more, slowly, fiber, brown. Yes, the taste is different, but I personally like the taste.
My partner and I buy imported brown rice in bulk (to save money) at a grocery store in Honolulu. The rice comes from Lundberg Family Farms (cue the “Supermarket Pastoral” soundtrack). The rice is an organic, non-GMO, “rose.” And yes, it comes from California. We carry the rice home in our Honda CRV. “Honda” means “main rice field.”
I’m trying to learn more about, and support, food sovereignty movements. So I recently purchased a 16 ounce package of Native Harvest Mahnomin, or wild rice. Native Harvest is part of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, whose mission is “to facilitate recovery of the original land base of the White Earth Indian Reservation, while preserving and restoring traditional practices of sound land stewardship, language fluency, community development, and strengthening our spiritual and cultural heritage.” Tribal members use traditional methods to hand harvest and wood parch the wild rice, which grows in the lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota.
This wild rice ($12.50 for 16 ounces of rice, plus $5.95 shipping) is more expensive than the brown rice, but I feel good that the money will support indigenous peoples. Of course, I don’t feel good about importing and shipping the rice. And i’m not entirely comfortable with the feeling of wealth that buying this rice brings, even if it benefits a good cause (I heart Winona LaDuke).
Since we started eating more poi, we eat less rice, just about twice a week now. Eating rice is a special occasion now. Whether I make the brown or the wild rice, I still think of my dad.
As I wash the rice, I think about my distant ancestors and their hands: harvesting, husking, offering rice. Hineksa’ Sinagan: gift of rice. I think about my ancestors who were alive when their hands were torn from rice to produce corn. I think about my grandparents and the war generation, their hands and tears sown into the rice fields of empire. I think about the hands of all islanders washing white rice to feed their families. Those islander hands without rice, today. Tomorrow.
I still wash the rice as carefully and respectfully as my dad did, but the finger trick doesn’t really work anymore. I have tried, and failed, to convince my parents to try brown rice. I tell my dad about the dangers of white rice and he jokes: I don’t eat white rice, I eat red rice! (That joke only makes sense if you know Chamorro food.)
Listen, I’m no fool. I know that in daily life Pacific islanders shouldn’t be going round talking stink about white rice, our staple, especially since so many don’t have enough food to eat or water to drink. I know Pacific Islanders shouldn’t be going round chanting, “Calrose is calrose is calrose is calrose.” I know Pacific Islanders shouldn’t be biting the colonial hand that feeds us.
But when I wrote this I wanted to wash completely wash and cook a noun. I wanted to see the whiteness of the rice for the first time. To rise, a thousand arrows.