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.”   

Culture · Kitchen Culture

Kitchen Flowers

FullSizeRender (2)I love flowers.  I fantasize about having a big garden where I can just walk out into the yard in the summertime and cut a giant bowl of hydrangea or peonies or daisies–like you always see on the covers of those “Home and Life” style magazines in the grocery store line.

This will never happen to me, of course, because I have a Black Thumb and all those plants would be dead long before they get to the “masses of flowers” stage.  For those unfamiliar with Black Thumb, it is a disease for which there is no known cure or vaccine.  As opposed to the more widely recognized “Green Thumb,” sufferers of Black Thumb have a natural, God-given knack for killing any and all plant life in their vicinities.

I have this disease.  It’s a real thing.  You can go ahead and laugh, but I swear to you, I’ve got it.  I once killed a cactus.  A cactus.

My current roommate loves plants and has them everywhere, but when I moved in, I told her that if she wanted to keep them alive, I was going to have nothing to do with them. I wasn’t going to fertilize them or water them or even touch them.  She was going to have to find someone else to take care of them when she went on vacation.  (I never touch those plants and, yes, as a consequence they are still alive and well.)

I do have an aloe vera plant that I have managed to keep alive since November.  This is a record for me.  I feel like it kind of hovers around the brink of death a lot, but I don’t want to do anything other than water it once a week.  It might make it worse.  I think pretty soon I’m going to have to get it a bigger pot, and I fully intend to go to a garden center and pay them to re-pot it for me.  I’m not taking any chances.

Anyway, so when it comes to flowers and having them grace my kitchen table “airily and casually, like they don’t care,” (that’s the kind of thing those magazines always say about flowers,) I have to buy bouquets at the grocery store.

I know that the flower enthusiasts out there just cringed.  But orchids and roses and “serious flowers,” the kind you pay for at a florist, are too stuffy for a kitchen–or, in any event, any kitchen that ever gets used as an actual kitchen.  When I say this, I mean a place whose events history includes (but is not limited to):

  1. Someone adding three cups of flour to the cookie batter and turning the standing mixer without realizing the thing is still set on “high.”
  2. A casserole overflowing all over the bottom of the oven so the whole place is full of smoke and a lot of people are running around like idiots trying to open windows in the middle of January while the smoke detector wails in the background.
  3. The location of any meal involving a three year old ever.

Orchid would never go in for that sort of thing.  Far too disorganized and “bourgeois.”  You could just feel them judging you the first time you got halfway through a recipe and realized you were out of a key ingredient.

Nope, a kitchen calls for “cheap” flowers–daisies and daffodils and carnations.  These kinds of flowers, in my mind, seem a little more forgiving when I forgot the oven was on and pull out a dozen charred dinner rolls or realize that I turned on my CrockPot on my way out the door that morning but forgot to plug it in.  I always feel like these kinds of flowers have been there.  Like a floral support group.

So, yesterday at the grocery store, I bought myself a little bouquet on the way to the checkout.  I’ve been meaning to for a while, because I just got this little milk pitcher at the Goodwill and was dying to put flowers into it. (I will never use a milk pitcher as such in my life.)  So I got my flowers home, hacked off the stems and put them into my new find.

The effect is exactly what I hoped it would be, and it makes me smile every time I look at them.  I think that’s why I like flowers.  They’re just happy things.  They don’t really do much, per se, but God put them in the world to make it beautiful, and I like it that way.

I don’t think we always give beauty its credence in our culture.  Things like art and music and flowers only matter if they can be instantly understood and consumed.  If a thing takes time to process, appreciate, or enjoy, we skip it.  That saddens me.  It is part of the reason I intentionally slow down sometimes.  I just turn on some music instead of the television.  I purposefully leave my phone plugged into the wall in another room.  It is important to remember that some of the best things take time.

And so I do my bit to fight against the tide of the instantaneous:   I put flowers on my table.

Cooking · Culture · Food · Recipes

The Bachelor’s Lunch

I, like many dedicated teachers, avoid the teacher’s lounge like the plague.  I claim it’s because I have too much to do, but really it’s because I don’t have time to be around all the Negative Nancies who delight in complaining about ALL THE THINGS.  I hide out in my friend “Ryan’s” classroom and eat lunch with him, instead.

Ryan and I have very different approaches to our lunchbox experience.  Ryan has a system, he tells me.  He brings the same thing for lunch every day–every day–for a month.  A MONTH.  January was ham sandwiches.  February was salad. Ryan is also singlehandedly keeping the Fruit Roll-Up people in business. (No grown up should eat that many fruit snacks…)  I, on the other hand, bring in the leftovers of whatever I cooked for dinner in the last few days.  Soups, curries, a few well-selected casseroles.  Literally whatever is in the fridge comes to work in the pink paisley lunch bag.

Ryan’s always telling me how great my lunches look and how he needs to “mix it up.”  “Why don’t you just bring leftovers, too?” I ask.  I mean, I am not the first person in history to bring leftovers to work…

That’s when the truth comes out.  Ryan gets away only having to cook about three nights out of seven by scrounging up invites to other people’s houses–so he never has leftovers.  He claims he is just being social.  I maintain he’s free-loading, in part because I am jealous that he actually has that many people willing to provide him with free food on a regular basis, a pattern that I believe is in no small part due to the fact he is a bachelor.  As a bachelorette, on the other hand, I am not so lucky.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like cooking myself.  But it feels unfair. All grown-up persons past college age should be expected to cook for themselves most of the time.

Last week, I was in the mood for something comfort food-y, and tossed together a riff on a pasta bake.  I brought it to work for lunch a couple days in a row, and Ryan couldn’t stop talking about how good it looked, smelled, etc.  He does this sometimes.  He never makes anything I make.  He just asks.  So I tell him how easy it is, berate him (as usual) for being a freeloader and/or eating salad for the 39th day in a row, and then we move on.

But then last night I get a text message:  “How long do you think I should cook the chicken before I put it in my pasta bake?”

Ryan does this–brings me in halfway through a conversation he’s been having in his head like I’ve been there the whole time.  Through a series of slightly confused messages, I deduce that Ryan was so impressed by my pasta bake, he decided he needed to do it for himself.  I feel so proud.  My baby bird is spreading his wings to fly.  I tell him this.  He tells me to shut up, then thanks me for the chicken-cooking advice, and says good night.

Then, fifteen minutes later: “How long did you cook your pasta for?”

Before I can even finish that response:  “Should I use the whole jar of pasta sauce?  Will that be enough?”

Then five minutes after that: “I’m at a crisis!  I’ve only got one 7×11 pan, and I needed that for the chicken.  Should I wash it out so I can reuse it for the pasta bake, or should I use the deeper casserole dish?”

I’m flattered that Ryan actually thinks I care whether he uses the 7×11 or the casserole dish.  (I vote for the latter, incidentally, because I wouldn’t want to wait to clean it out.  He concurs with my expertise.)

I even get photos of the finished product a half hour later.  It’s so funny to me that something like pasta bake is the thing that inspires a person to get into the kitchen.  It isn’t flashy, it isn’t fancy.  But I don’t knock it.  I am a big supporter of anything that gets real life, busy, modern adults into their kitchens and experiencing the cooking process for themselves.

I heard somewhere once that cooking is one of the most fundamentally “human” things about our species.  No animals cook.  Just people.  And when we give up cooking, we give up something uniquely human about us.  It is a skill many of us have lost, and need to fight to keep.

Even Ryan.  Even with a pasta bake.

I glanced at my phone, and the photo of Ryan’s version of pasta bake.  I smiled and texted back:

“Well done, Grasshopper.  Well done.”

If you would like to try my spin on pasta bake, look under my “recipes” tab.



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.


What if…

“What if?” is a question with more layers and facets than probably any other stock question with the exception of “Why?”

It can be an incredibly ridiculous question.  (And, as a byproduct, annoying.)  My work with children makes me an expert in this category.  My students are famous for questions on the level of “What if dinosaurs attack the school during a fire drill?  What exit would we take then?”  Or “What if someone forgets their recorder for the recital today?”  These kind of questions usually warrant answers like:  “We’ll deal with the T-Rex rampage when we get there–your job is to listen to the adults around you,” and “But, Dejah, you didn’t forget your recorder–you’re holding it right now.”

“What if” can also be a lament to missed chances.  “What if I had come up with some really great and witty response when that guy in the grocery store line smiled at me?”  “What if I were more ‘normal’ and I didn’t have to show everybody who I really am all the time?”  “What if my sister and I connected on any level and I felt like I had a sister and not just a person I know whom I alternately wildly envy and am called on to parent and counsel?”  I don’t like to spend too much time in this place–a person could drown in questions like this.

But most of all, “What if” is a dangerously profound question.  “What if I hadn’t met Jesus when I was four?”  “What if I had listened to everyone who told me I shouldn’t go into music?”  “What if I gave in to all those voices that say I’m not the right this and not enough that?”  “What if I hadn’t gotten on that plane and flown halfway around the world to take a job that completely changed my life?”  These are the questions that reveal the deepest parts of the soul, those secret places that makes us who we are, the defining moments that we can never and would never take back.

Because these are the “What ifs” that combine into the person I am.  These are the experiences that I share and those I don’t.  These are the “What ifs” that make me say, “Yes, this is who I am.  And I wouldn’t change it.”

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.