When I first moved back to America, I struggled with acting like an American. I am ethnically what I refer to as “macaroni and cheese American” (my family’s pre-U.S. heritage was lost generations ago.) The only “ethnic” traditions we have are those that my mom read about in magazines or learned from friends and so we do them. We do not celebrate St. Nick’s Day because we are German. We celebrate it because the first year we lived in Wisconsin, we were the only kids who didn’t know what anyone else was talking about…
All this to say, if you looked at me, it would probably never occur to you that I was struggling to remember seemingly obvious things like, “We stop and wait for the red light to turn green,” and “We do not need to touch the person in front of us to prove that we are a part of this line.” Or even worse, “We speak in English to people behind counters at stores.” (True story: Newly arrived from Kunming, I walked up to a counter and asked the very blonde girl at the cash register for a knife. In Chinese. She looked totally lost and I realized my mistake. I didn’t even try to explain myself. I just walked away.) These little–idiosyncrasies, we’ll call them–made me stick out like a the only bowl of rice in a room full of pizza, and I was wildly self-conscious.
I did my best to laugh it off; I’d say that “my China was showing” at the latest faux pas I managed to pull off. I’m not Chinese, after all, but it was my China self–the me that was successful living in China–made me a hot mess in the United States. My China self also didn’t have the good sense to know when to keep its fat nose out of what was going on in my American life.
Yes, I have become inexplicably angry with the fact that I have to pay more than 20 cents for fresh vegetables and fought the urge to yell at the cashier like they can do anything about this. I have cried watching Kung Fu Panda. I have completely gone to pieces in a grocery store because there were too many different kinds of cereal to choose from.
These days, I don’t feel like I’m “faking” at being an American most of the time. I know what I’m supposed to say, how I’m supposed to talk, and when it is appropriate pick up a bowl from the table (in case you’re wondering, the only time that’s kosher in America is when you’re going to put them into the sink…)
But there are still days I get really homesick for my China home. I explain it to people this way: when you live in a place, you leave a part of your heart behind you. I left my heart in the Yunnan hills, the Kunming streets, the hearts of so many very special students. I know that being Stateside is where I’m supposed to be, but it doesn’t make me less lonely for the pieces of my heart on the other side of the world.
Kung Fu Panda still makes me teary. I still get mad that nobody around here lights fireworks on Chun Jie (Chinese New Year.) I still long–oh, how I long!–for some good ol’ Chinese street food.
But I’ve learned to combat the loneliness. I fight the tide. One of the ways I do it is by making some of the dishes I ate all the time in Kunming. A favorite dish (that makes a super great American appetizer) is this spicy cucumber salad thing that you’d get all the time at this restaurant down the street from our apartment complex. It’s really easy and a big hit with “foreigners” (read: people who live here in America) because it’s super good for you and also not the same potato salads and coleslaw that everyone makes.
I love this recipe. It makes me think of my China friends and sitting around on short little stools eating family style Chinese at this little hole-in-the-wall place. It makes me think of my China roommate, Megan, who spent probably two years experimenting to get it just right. It makes me remember the good times, and the insane things we did to achieve our own breed of “normal.”
I love food and recipes because they’re all tied up in history and memories. I love this recipe because of the people and places it makes me think of. We called it “That Spicy Cucumber Thing Like the One You Get At the Chinese Restaurant on Guang Fu Lu.” You can call it “That Cucumber Salad That One Girl From Slice of Life Talked About,” or “That One Weird Chinese Cucumber Salad.” Or you can make your own name. Create your own memories. Share the food around your own table.
To try “That Spicy Cucumber Thing LIke the One You Get At The Chinese Restaurant On Guang Fu Lu,” check it out on the drop down tab under “Recipes.”