Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 14, 2024

Swallowing vinegar

By ALIZA LI | December 3, 2021


Once when I was young my mother brought home a bag of kumquats, a dozen of them, small and ripe, picked from a friend’s tree.

I ate quickly, swallowing chunk after chunk of fruit until one of the chunks was a little too large for my throat. It stayed lodged in there, not enough to choke me but still very uncomfortable — bordering on the edge of painful.

My mother, after chastising me, searched the corners of our pantry and pulled out a tinted glass bottle. She tilted the lip of the bottle over a spoon and out poured a thin, translucent liquid, smooth like a mirror. Then she pinched my nose and made me swallow the spoonful.

It was bitter and acidic, a noxious concoction with a sour bite. I almost gagged, but my mother’s stern look made me force it down. Lo and behold, as I swallowed the liquid, the kumquat chunk stuck in my throat went down with it.

I marveled at the drink, wondering if it was some ancient medicinal elixir. Later, my mother told me it was nothing but a simple bottle of vinegar.

In Chinese, we have a phrase, 吃醋 — chi cu in Mandarin or hek cou in my family’s dialect. Its literal translation is “to eat vinegar,” but the phrase has an idiomatic meaning too which means “to be jealous.”

When I think back to that spoonful of vinegar I drank as a child, I understand why this translation exists.

Jealousy is acidic. It burns in the lungs. It is difficult to swallow down and even more difficult to let go. It feels like a stone lodged in your esophagus and hot oil in your veins. It is painful and sweet in its resentment.

It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I can be prone to jealousy and that some of my closest friendships have been tinged with this bitter feeling. Good, well-meaning people whom I love and hold dear to my heart have also been the objects of my envy. I was and still am very prideful. I want everything that someone has to offer.

In some sense jealousy is an extension of admiration, a belief in the good and desirable qualities of another person. But rather than remaining as admiration, it instead becomes warped by an inner sense of self-loathing and insecurity.

The uncomfortable fact was that I was not happy with myself, as many can relate, and I still feel much of that today. Hearing people praise some of my friends, I found myself forming a list in my head. How much of myself matched the good qualities in my friends? Very few, I realized.

Well, what kind of list would others have for me?

The traits I enumerated were far from admirable: laziness, pride, impatience, a gossiping mouth, cowardice, greed. There was so much I seemed to struggle with that others excelled in. I felt myself spiraling, sinking down into a nest of self-pity and loneliness.

In the midst of this, I started growing closer to a friend of mine, someone I cared for and yet still envied. Our interactions were always mixed for me: happy and fun but also marked by a feeling of comparison.

During the exam season, when I felt inundated by work and essays, my friend stopped by and dropped off my favorite drink and gave me a word of encouragement. This simple act of consideration felt like a wake-up call. While I was here feeling resentful and bitter, this person was wholeheartedly caring for me.

I would like to say my jealousy disappeared after that day, but it was a much slower process than that. I also can’t say it’s completely gone, just like the feelings of inadequacy have yet to completely disappear. But I recognize that much of my heartache comes from a sense of self-absorption. When I instead start to focus my thoughts on others, and in essence “forget” myself, I think less about my own problems and am able to be a much more loving and genuine person to my friends.

Jealousy is a lot like swallowing vinegar. It’s also like getting a chunk of kumquat stuck in your esophagus — uncomfortable and nagging and painful.

Sometimes, rather than pretending your jealousy doesn’t exist, it is necessary to swallow something bad and acidic. It is necessary to admit you have ugly feelings inside before you can finally liberate yourself from the stone lodged in your throat.

Aliza Li is a sophomore from Houston, Texas studying Writing Seminars and Cognitive Science. Her column explores how her relationships with others are continuously transforming her and her college experience.

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