When I was growing up in the suburbs east of San Francisco, our teachers used to say, “Don’t put anything in your ear except for your elbow.” No matter how much our ears itched, we were told, we shouldn’t poke in a pen cap, the pink eraser on a No. 2 pencil or a cotton swab; doing so risked puncturing our eardrums.
True enough — and yet what our teachers said didn’t reflect the practices of my Chinese grandmother, who had immigrated to the United States and moved into our house to help care for me and my siblings while my parents worked. Waipo, as we called her, would cozily tuck our heads into her capacious lap to clean our ears. Her grooming introduced me to the ear spoon — a long-handled curette, also known as an ear pick, ear picker or ear scoop, that is a common implement in Asian households.
Traditional ear spoons can be made of silver, brass, plastic, bamboo or another smooth, sturdy material; the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco owns an ornate jade hair ornament from the Qing dynasty that doubles as an ear spoon. I don’t recall what Waipo’s looked like, only that sitting in her bedroom — where I remember the glow of the lamp, with the crinkly clear plastic left on the shade, and her bottle of Oil of Olay on the dresser — she made us feel cherished.
传统耳勺可以由银、铜、塑料、竹子或其他光滑坚硬的材料制成；旧金山亚洲艺术博物馆(Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)就藏有一件精美的清代翡翠发饰，可兼做耳勺。我已经记不清外婆的长相，只记得她坐在自己卧室里的样子——我记得那里的灯光，灯罩上皱巴巴的透明塑料，以及梳妆台上她那瓶玉兰油(Oil of Olay)护肤品——她让我们感受到了珍爱。
Waipo had other rituals that I knew our white neighbors might find strange or unusual. She hung meat from the rafters of our garage to cure it and rolled whole walnuts in her hand to keep her fingers strong and nimble. But she also loved “The Price is Right,” and together with the host, Bob Barker, we’d shout “A new car!” — one of the phrases she could say in English. Eventually, when I was 8 or 9, she moved in with my aunt in Southern California.
我知道，外婆的其他习惯可能会让我们的白人邻居觉得奇怪或反常。她把肉挂在我家车库的房檐上风干，手里握着核桃以保持手指的强壮灵活。她还爱看《价格猜猜猜》(The Price is Right)，我们会跟着主持人鲍勃·巴克尔(Bob Barker)一起喊“一辆新车！”——这是她能用英语说出的短语之一。最后，到我八九岁的时候，她就搬到南加州和我姨妈住在一起了。
Sometime later in my girlhood, I picked up ear cleaning again, this time making do with a bobby pin. Though I knew it was forbidden, I couldn’t stop myself from easing out the pale flakes. What I excavated had the look of dried mushrooms, crumbling when I rubbed it between my fingers. It was as satisfying as a gigantic sneeze.
I kept the habit, on and off, if I happened to have a bobby pin. I always did it alone; I didn’t want to get distracted, and besides, the grooming felt private. I’d no sooner clip my toenails in my dorm lounge than clean my ears there. But I don’t want to suggest it was a chore. Over time I came to recognize the practice as something more profound: a form of meditation, of mindfulness. You have to be fully conscious, fully present in a world with ever spiraling demands.
A few years ago, I realized I could get a proper tool, and I found one for sale online. It fits in the palm of my hand, its dull steel embodying a no-frills, old-country utility, and rests on top of my jewelry box. I use it on myself every week or so when an itch — or curiosity — strikes, and, less often, on one of my twin sons.
It’s an intimate trust exercise, because the ear canal is only about one inch long in adults; in children, it varies by age and head size. The movements must be slow and delicate against thin skin packed with nerve endings and blood vessels.
My younger son, born 26 minutes after his brother, would say that my touch has never been light enough. He used to tolerate having his ear cleaned, the both of us peering afterward at my finds, each flake as fragile as a moth’s wing. Now, at age 9, he refuses. He swats at me as if I’m a mosquito, irritated if I try to position his head in front of a lamp. He’d much rather watch a video on how to build nuclear weapons in Minecraft or work on a business plan for his lemonade-and-muffin stand.
He inherited my dry earwax, the sort that East Asians tend to produce. It’s strikingly different from the wet earwax, with the consistency of peanut butter, typically secreted by people of European and African descent. I never tried to groom his brother in this way; the ear spoon isn’t effective on the waxy film passed down from my husband, who is white.
All manner of earwax can be found on TikTok, where enthusiasts of BeBird — a high-tech “cleaning rod” with an app-enabled camera, LED lights and a gyroscope — have tallied more than 46 million voyeuristic views of videos titled “oddly satisfying” and “warning: may gross you out.” Not long ago, an ear spoon also appeared on the silver screen in a rare mainstream American depiction: I gasped when I saw my grandmother’s tender gestures replicated in “Minari,” the Oscar-winning film about a Korean immigrant family in rural Arkansas.
Otolaryngologists strongly discourage people from scraping inside their ears. But knowing better, and doing it anyway, is part of what makes us human. Decades after I first began cleaning my ears, it still seems vaguely illicit, like smoking cigarettes. Yet it also feels virtuous and productive, akin to what I’ve experienced at Korean baths, where the ajummas scrub me hard enough to slough off rolls of dead skin. I view the detritus with disgust, fascination and pride: I made that.