China · Cooking · Culture · Recipes

My China is showing…

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.”   

China · Cooking · Kitchen Culture · Kitchenware

Rock the Retro

FullSizeRenderWhen I moved back to the United States three years ago, I had to make some tough choices about what was going to go into the three suitcases I got to bring with me.  Though I love cooking and the “food” experience, very few of my kitchen items made the cut.  I left behind, among others, my Aeropress coffeemaker and beloved immersion blender.  Only four cookbooks made it back Stateside intact.  The rest were ruthlessly rooted through by my roommate and I as we cut out any recipes we thought we may ever make and tossed the dross.  (When you’re trying to get four profoundly formative years of your life down to 150 pounds, you can’t afford to be kind.)

An often overlooked side effect of spending your late twenties having this life-changing experience in the developing world is that you get back to the U.S. with like $600 in your bank account–a bunch of money for China, not a bunch of money for the States.  So I had to go about rebuilding my life on a shoestring.

You don’t think about how all the stuff you’ve amassed in your kitchen cost an accumulative bundle because most people’s kitchens are slowly populated with every spoon on the planet over a course of months or years.  (Lots of people also get cool things called “wedding showers,” of which I didn’t have the benefit, but I digress…)

So what does a poor, at the time only partially-employed teacher do?  She becomes best friends with her friendly neighborhood Goodwill, that’s what.

This is the way I got my dishes, silverware, mixing bowls, casserole dishes, pans, pots, mixing spoons, storage containers and measuring spoons–in fact, as I catalogue my kitchen in my head, I can think of only three or four things that were actually new when I bought them.

It means I saved a bunch of money.

It also means my kitchen paraphernalia has a strongly ’70’s gold vibe about it.

I’m now in a much more stable financial place, and could probably afford to upgrade a lot of my Poor Girl Kitchen.  I could replace my mismatched kitsch-fest with something chic.  But I realize I’ve grown attached.

Nobody else has my old, white-with-royal-blue-trim Correllware.  I never have to worry about anyone “accidentally” taking my aqua-blue Pyrex bowl home from a potluck by mistake.  I am the only person I know under 60 who can claim her kitchen counter is graced by a vintage, 1980 CrockPot with orange flowers on it and a bread making canister.  (Yes.  I can, in fact, make bread from scratch in my CrockPot.  You can be jealous.  It’s okay. I understand.)  I also don’t know anyone else who can claim her salt and pepper shakers were made in West Germany (back when West Germany was still a thing…)

My kitchen has history.  Generations of cooks and bakers are represented in my kitchenware–my 1950’s Pyrex, my 1960’s flour and sugar canisters, my 1970’s Tupperware, my 1980’s CrockPot, my 1990’s lemon-shaped egg timer–all the cooking fads, all the kitchen disasters, all the families who gathered around tables and stood around  while people washed dishes, are all represented and remembered my little kitchen.  I like the one-of-a-kind uniqueness of it.  My kitchen has the “be your own person” personality we always tell kids is important but so often shy away from in our adult lives.  And I think that counts for something.

So you can keep your fancy-shmancy, polished silver coffee storage containers.  I like the green pepper and squash design on my old glass one just fine.

China · Culture

Telling my story

This is not actually a “first time” story, so much as a “first time in a long time” story.

It is difficult to explain to people who have spent their whole lives in the comfort of their home cultures how profoundly living abroad can change you.  When I first moved back to the United States, I spent a lot of time trying to get the people who knew me and the people I met to understand how completely this revolutionized everything about how I thought and how I saw the world.

And while those people to whom I’m closest made a concerted effort to understand and appreciate it because they cared about me and they knew that cared, the honest reality is that most people really don’t.  It’s so other and foreign and they write it off with the blunt stroke of “something crazy that other people do,” or (worse) “Oh…well, that’s nice.”

So as time’s gone on, and my Chinese-isms have become increasingly hidden beneath the layers of me who once again understands people don’t pick up bowls off the table when they eat and that it is socially unacceptable to wander into the street without checking for cars first, I have stopped feeling compelled to share my story.  It is no less important or defining, but I’ve found that it’s something that makes me unappealingly different and it’s easier to let people think I’ve “always been from around here.”

But last weekend, I was working with my choir director on the pronunciations for several Chinese folk songs for an upcoming concert (songs that, singing them, got me a little misty–but that’s a tale for another day,) and the whole “So, how did you end up in China and what were you doing there, anyway?” ended up on the table.

And so, for the first time in a long time, I really told my whole story, start to finish, with a lot of the anecdotes I’ve learned to leave out, with all of the parts that Americans struggle to hear–that there are times when I desperately miss my China home, the students I left behind that I know I will never replace, relationships I had that are impossible to have in a mono-cultural setting.  For the first time in a long time, I told my story.

And for the first time in a long time, I remembered that part of myself.


Roots and Wings

My route to visit my friend in Oklahoma took me, incredibly enough, directly through my childhood hometown.  We moved the summer before I began the eighth grade, and without any family in Marion, Iowa, there was no reason to go back and visit once we left.  So I hadn’t been back in over fifteen years.  Completely thrilled at the prospect of seeing “the old homestead,” I rerouted my trip a little and added an extra hour and a half to what was already a fifteen hour drive to eat at one of the best pizzerias I’ve ever been to (If you’re ever near Marion, make sure you stop by Zoey’s Pizzeria–their Chicago-style deep dish is absolutely amazing!)  and drove wanderingly (and, in all probability, dangerously) around the streets to see what I remembered.

I remembered, as it turns out, a remarkable amount.  I almost killed myself in a very Chinese traffic move of veering across three lanes of traffic in fifty feet to make a right turn when I realized I was right by my old subdivision.  I drove up and down the streets, stopped and took pictures of our old house, and the tree that my mom planted 21 years ago when my little brother was born…needless to say, it’s huge now!  While there were a lot more buildings, businesses had changed, but the neighborhood itself was remarkably the same.  It was like we’d left just a few days ago, not 15 years.  After I’d taken my pictures, and before the neighbors could call the police about some crazy woman, snapping pictures with her cellphone and giggling inexplicably, I headed out and got my deep dish pizza at Zoey’s, then made my way back onto the Interstate.

As the miles started whizzing by again, and I watched the landscape, no longer the rolling, Kelly-green hills that the past fifteen years have taught me to think of as “home”, but the vast, unending expanse of the Great Plains flash by my windows, I started wondering how different my life would have been if we’d never moved.  If I had spent the entirety of my living memory calling one place “home.”  If my root ran deep in this place that was now both nostalgic and incredibly foreign.

I have always had a wanderer’s soul.  I have never felt a strong pull to a specific place.  I have ties to people–to family, mostly, though on rare occasion, friends, as well.  I have always dreamed of going far, exploring, learning new languages and cultures, seeing the places and things I’ve only ever read about in books.  I have always dreamed of wings.  To me, the idea of living in one place for generations, of living and dying in the same town, sounds horrible and cloistering.

But walking down memory lane, reliving old memories on the admittedly unexceptional streets of Marion, Iowa, I wondered if maybe there is merit in those roots, if living a small, but extraordinarily connected life has its own merits that I have missed in my quest to fly.

I think about my siblings, all of whom remain within an hour of my parents’ house, and I know that we are fundamentally different.  They, more than I, am tied to the land where I spent my adolescence and they, their childhood.  They have roots that are deeper than mine.  For them to pick up and leave the way I did would be more difficult.  The roots they would have to pull up would be significantly more painful.

Which is better?  I don’t know.  I think some of what I face in the next year is trying to balance the wings of my soul with that need for, and desire for roots, for ties.  Trying to figure out how to marry two ideas that are, fundamentally, different and at odds.  To make sense of roots when God has given you wings.


China · Culture

Road Trip!

Nothing is more American than a road trip.  It’s all that Oregon Trail, Route 66, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” nostalgia, maybe.  Or maybe we’re just a country of wanderers.  At any rate, it’s America.  The car, the open road, the speed.  I mean, how many American “coming of age” tales involve taking road trips (be it with best friends, strangers, or family members to whom we are not speaking)?  The car on the interstate says America.

And tomorrow, I am going to make an effort to rejoin this great American pastime.  I will load up my little, black Civic with a tiny suitcase, a cooler, and an unholy number of shoes, and head out on an 800 mile journey to visit my soon-to-be-married best friend in Oklahoma for the weekend.

And I am terrified.  I have done very little real driving in the past four years.  In China, the most dangerous thing I rode was a bicycle.  If I wanted to go somewhere far away, I had to walk a half mile to the bus stop, or embark on the impossible task of hailing a cab.  It has been a long time since I really drove on American roads.  I am terrified that I’m going to drive like a Chinese person–turn on my right blinker then turn left.  I have actually sat at stop lights in the U.S. and thought, “Is that a law here, and do I have to follow it??

Let’s just say, I keep reminding myself that in this country, it is illegal to simply put your car in park in the left lane so you can answer the phone.

But, I’m excited, too.  I have developed a weird desire to stop at little greasy spoon diners and try whatever is the “house specialty.”  I don’t know if, when I was living in China,  I watched Cars too many times when I was feeling homesick or that Food Network binge I went on when I got back did me in with the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives marathon. But it’s there.  I can’t fight my lust for Americana.

Life abroad has made me love the beauty and lay of the land like I never did before.  I love to just get in a car and drive.  I take backroads to Walmart or the grocery store and I avoid the interstate whenever possible.  I really, truly, enjoy just seeing America–see little towns and cities and farms and forests and everything else.  Everywhere I have traveled to in my life has its own, special kind of beauty.  But the more often I come home, the more I am convinced that this land I call “home” is exceptional.  It’s lush and diverse.  And tomorrow, I’ll strike out on my own to see it again.  Tomorrow, I’ll be driving down the road, cranking up Life is a Highway and experiencing my homeland again for the first time.