My beloved lemon squeezer

A simple tool becomes a form of self-defense.

The summer of my son Jason’s 16th year, we found ourselves driving west. We’d learned about a noninvasive brain treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation that showed promise for children with autism. Our son’s disability was so severe that he had screaming fits and was often violent with himself and others. Experts recommended institutionalizing him; we decided instead to give TMS a try.


And so we drove across country, from our apartment in Manhattan to the Brain Treatment Center in Los Angeles. We spent almost a week in a car with someone who couldn’t communicate and was easily bored. Jason is a handsome boy who looks “normal” on the outside. But he had meltdowns during bathroom stops, and when my husband tried to calm him down, bystanders sometimes misconstrued his behavior as sexual or abusive. Jason has other medical issues, too; every square inch of our car is stuffed with his hypoallergenic food and medical essentials. I’d pared down everything in my own small backpack to make room for an implement that seemed at once ridiculously specialized and superfluous: my lemon squeezer. 

Jason was diagnosed with autism at age 3, around the time we learned he had an autoimmune gut disease that required medication. Doctors, thinking that he’d never learn to swallow pills, told us to open the capsules and stir the contents into a glass of water. The hydrochloric acid pills that helped his digestion were the worst; they smelled and tasted, not surprisingly, like vomit. How grateful I was when I learned that the pills could be replaced with lemon juice in water. 

But squeezing a slippery, seedy lemon to get the juice out wasn’t easy; it added another stressful extra step to an already fraught routine.  

On an earlier road trip, pre-Jason, we’d stopped at my grandparents-in-law’s house in Mexico, where I delighted in their sun-yellow citrus squeezer. Mexican food is not complete without a squeeze of lime, and it was fascinating to see how thoroughly the contraption separated the juice from the fruit. 

In America, I thought of lemon squeezers as specialized equipment designed for bartenders. Most were the kind I’d seen in Mexico, made of painted plastic or aluminum — two substances our son needed to avoid. But eventually, after searching restaurant supply stores and online, I found one made entirely of stainless steel. 



I never imagined how much glee an appliance could bring. When I was angry, I could squeeze out my frustrations. It also settled my immigrant-kid soul to know that I could extract every drop of that organic juice, wasting nothing. Once the novelty wore off, juicing settled into ritual; ironically, the appliance I bought to save time helped me learn to slow down. After I pressed the fruit, I got into the habit of pausing to put my nose to the rind, which released a fleeting whiff of lemon or lime bloom.

Aesthetically, the squeezer’s sculptural curves felt good in my hand. Its clublike shape and heft made me feel like I could ward off a bear, Hugh-Glass-style, to protect my family if I needed to. Its fulcrum-and-lever hinge made me think about human ingenuity going back to Archimedes. Some things don’t need to be “disrupted.” 

The design for my squeezer was patented in 1860. In the late 18th century, lemons and limes were found to cure scurvy, a mysterious ailment that had long cursed sailors at sea (as well as the pocketbooks of the shipping company investors). So inventors got busy, submitting more than 200 patents for devices that extracted medicinal lemon and lime juice. Now, like modern-day sailors warding off scurvy, my family would set sail across our country’s interior, a bag of organic lemons ready in the car’s “hold.” 

As we drove across the vastness of Oklahoma and Texas, past oversized statues of pioneers and cowboys celebrating American empire and the erasure of Indigenous people, I occasionally felt beams of hostility directed at our multiracial, neurodiverse family. In Amarillo, a storeowner took one look at Jason and said to us — right in front of him — that he was sorry that “you’ll have to be taking care of him for the rest of your life.” I squeezed out my frustrations later. But I was mollified to discover that a barbeque joint near our Airbnb offered a beautifully smoky brisket seasoned only with salt and pepper — no allergens. The staff good-naturedly shrugged at us kooky out-of-towners, who returned repeatedly to procure pounds of plain meat for our son — no sides, not even BBQ sauce.

Our last overnight stay was in Lake Havasu, Arizona, where the party boats were crowded so closely together you could have walked across the lake without wetting a toe. Outside our Airbnb (whose sole reading material consisted of American Rifleman and Diabetes Today) the owner pointedly refused to return my hello. Yet later, in almost the exact spot, he readily engaged my white husband with a friendly, “Hey, man,” and a brief chat. 

At a gas station, as I pulled the car to a pump, a red-headed man in a pickup pulling a motorboat screamed at me so ferociously that my husband said to not make eye contact with him. It was so hot that both cars’ windows were closed, so I couldn’t really hear him. But having grown up Asian in a rural, all-white area, I recognized that look — a white person affronted by having an Asian person in his sightline, a man who believes the Americana of the red barns belongs to him but not to me.  

It reminded me that in 1871, shortly after my beloved lemon squeezer was invented, one of the nation’s worst race-based massacre occurred in Los Angeles: 500 white people and a few Mexicans lynched 18 Chinese — 10% of the city’s Chinese population at the time. Years ago, on a post-college road trip with my then-boyfriend, now my husband, the romance of the “wild West” curdled as my Asianness drew unwanted attention in places like Logan, Utah. When we stopped in Rock Springs, Wyoming, on that trip, we stumbled on an easily missed historical marker near our campsite. The weather-worn marker was difficult to read, but it documented the 1885 murder of 28 Chinese coal miners by white men who believed they were “stealing” their jobs. 

Rattled by our Lake Havasu encounter, we were relieved to reach LA, to be in a city where being Asian didn’t immediately make you stand out.

But having grown up Asian in a rural, all-white area, I recognized that look — a white person affronted by having an Asian person in his sightline, a man who believes the Americana of the red barns belongs to him but not to me.  

But the past is everywhere. Just minutes away from our rental in Venice, we passed a nine-foot black obelisk at the busy intersection of Lincoln and Venice boulevards. It looked strange enough that we returned to find out what it was. It turned out to mark the spot where more than a thousand Japanese Americans from addresses that now sound fancy — Venice, Malibu and Santa Monica — were lined up to be taken to internment camps in 1942. 

Still, we’d made it; we’d reached a place of lemons so fresh they didn’t need to be cleansed of the usual preservative wax coatings. Our LA Airbnb was in a walkway from which the thinnest scrim of sea was visible. We were on a different coast now, but we had the same trusty implement, same hopes for a better life for our son. Squish.   

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is the author of The Evening Hero and Hurt You, a retelling of Of Mice and Men inspired by her son. A founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, she teaches fiction at Columbia.