Strong Women and Good Food: A Memoir

Cautiously, this I write:

I am grateful for my Southern upbringing. While I recognize the progress that must be made in the American South, I also recognize that there are certain customs that most people of the South share, certain universal truths that the American South understands better than almost any other demographic. I live by the philosophy that people do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care. This sums up a few Southern truths right away. First, it is a set phrase that we can repeat back and forth, a sort of verbal volley in which all the words are recycled. Southerners trade clichés at the drop of the hat, because even though the words are worn thin, they represent sets of emotions that we wish to convey in terms that we understand. We speak in the familiar to show our solidarity to one another, so we go on reckonin’ and fixin’ to until we are blue in the face.

Additionally, this little chiasmic axiom came from a former youth minister, thus signifying how most of the words we recycle in Southern culture come from religion. And not just any religion. Remember, you are in Bible Belt country.

One of the most important take-aways from this phrase, however, is that, generally, Southerners revere the spirit of generosity and goodwill over the proliferation of knowledge. I must stop here and make the usual qualifications: As an academic, I love knowledge. Knowledge is power. In regards to many of the social struggles that still plague the American South, more knowledge would go a long way. But, mere knowledge does not power social change. That is why the Fulbright motto requires its second phrase: A world with a little more knowledge and a little less conflict. That knowledge is essential stands without contestation; but informed compassion is how we make real change.

When I repeat these words, people don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care, feeding the hungry always comes to mind. As a teacher, it is important to remember that students will have trouble hearing my words over their own grumbling bellies if they have gone to bed the night before hungry and in want.  As a true Southerner, I also believe that a good meal can fix many of your problems, or at least make that silver lining a little easier to spot. And if there is one thing that the South excels in, it is comfort food. We are born foodies, all of us with red dirt and bluegrass twang in our blood.

The people of Taiwan are their own brand of foodies (I have two words for you: night markets). It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the most important truths that I have learned in Taiwan involve food. And as to be expected while in Taiwan, these life lessons were imparted by the overly-cautious, sometimes critical, and ever-hovering Taiwanese mother. This part is played by Huang Laoshi, the teacher that drives me to school in the mornings because she either believes that driving in Taiwan is too dangerous, or I am too dangerous to the drivers of Taiwan. It is unclear which is the more likely motivation, but she drives me to school nonetheless. Most of our exclusively-Chinese conversation revolves around food: which fruits are in season, if they are available in America, what I often eat in America as opposed to what I eat here. And some valuable pieces of wisdom have come from this daily routine:

  1. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…or even the Kind of Concerning Stuff:

This little nugget of knowledge can alternatively be known as “Don’t Go to the Hospital. It is just Dragon fruit.”  The story starts with the introduction of dragon fruit into my diet. Before coming to Taiwan, I had never eaten this delicious fruit, so brilliantly colored that it appears artificial. Upon trying it for the first time, I remember tentatively putting a small piece in my mouth as if to reassure myself of its edibility. It did not taste like a hunk of tempura paint, the conclusion one invariably comes to by looking at it, but had a refreshing sweetness that led to a small obsession. And after telling Huang Laoshi of this newfound craving one morning, I found two dragon fruits waiting for me in the passenger seat of her car that afternoon. I brought the fruits home and joyously cut into them, sharing the harvest with my two roommates.

I woke the next morning and went about my daily routine without much interest. I distinctly remember looking into the toilet after my morning pee and thinking, Well, it’s time for THAT to be cleaned. The murky red in the toilet water looked more like rust than anything of a more sinister nature, and I continued on with my morning ritual as before.

But, when I got to the car this particular morning, a frantic Huang Laoshi clasped her tiny hands onto my wrist and asked me if I had gone to the hospital. When I responded that I did not, in fact, go to the hospital last night and couldn’t imagine what I would need to go to the hospital for, she released my arm and slid back in her seat with an audible sigh. She then nervously choked out a small giggle.

“When you eat dragon fruit, sometimes,” she started, and then her eyes slid off the road and onto my face, “sometimes… pee is red.”  Her embarrassment at saying “pee” in English was quite noticeable, but it was also apparent that she had been genuinely concerned about my well-being and possibly had lost a little sleep over it.

I laughed out loud and recounted to her the “rust” I saw in the toilet earlier that morning. And happily, we drove to school. Now, some of you who know of my tendencies to worry might remark that I had no time to not worry about this potential problem because I had been oblivious to its presence in the first place. And what I have to say to you haters is: baby steps, okay? 😉

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  1.  Practice Self-care: Lie About Eating Breakfast:

As a college student, I became fairly accustomed to going without breakfast. After the Thesis Writing Years, I found that a morning cup of coffee would usually suffice, and when that did not do the trick, I would pocket a granola bar for the road. However, breakfast is next to godliness in that minds of most Taiwanese mothers. After a few intense inquiries, it became apparent to Huang Laoshi that I was incapable of taking care of myself in this regard. She then made it a habit of bringing some small snacks along with her about twice a week. Conveniently, these foods (apples, a fried egg, yogurt…) were foods that I had confirmed I liked in our previous conversations. I’m sure that she planted those questions with that exact purpose in mind, but I never commented on it; I prefer to keep an element of mystery in our relationship.

It is not that I dislike breakfast foods. On the contrary, not only are breakfast foods appetizing and filling, they also evoke happy childhood memories almost every time I eat them. I see warm kitchens bathed in near-noon glow, my father bent over sizzling pans and my mother standing beside him over toast, a buttering knife in her hand. But, more often than not in my young adulthood, breakfast time was shifted from an appropriate and logical hour to some wee hour in the morning when I was working on a paper and needed sustenance to continue through the night.

But, whether or not I actually prepared breakfast for myself every morning here in Taiwan, Huang Laoshi would still pat my seat as I got in the car and hand me a small apple or a Tupperware of scallion pancakes. And, whether or not I was hungry, I would attempt to make some protest, telling her that she does too much for me already and that I cannot possible trouble her anymore and that she shouldn’t worry so much over me. These remarks are heard but not heeded, and I end up finishing the snacks as soon as I have made my feeble points clear.

There are going to be people in this world who have an authentic and undisputable interest in your well-being. While I always assure her that I am not hungry in the morning, Huang Laoshi wants to care for me. It is within her nature. In these instances, I try to show her my gratitude, but I know that my words are never enough. Clearly, she is not feeding me apples to win my praises. She is providing for me, while she has the position and ability to do so.

I will soon start tutoring her oldest son and daughter in English at their home. I will try my best to provide Huang Laoshi with a service, while I have the position and ability to do so. In this exchange, I hope to demonstrate to Huang Laoshi that I am grateful for everything that she does for me. But, more importantly, I hope that this interaction is seen not as a way of repaying a debt that I surely owe her, but as a way of filling a need, the simple recognition that I can do something for someone else and so I do it, without any expectation of reward.  Acts of kindness all too soon become transactions. Every service echoes with “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”  This is something much more pure, and I am thankful to Huang Laoshi for reminding me of this profound truth.

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  1. Remember: A Turkey is a turkey is a turkey:

The last insight that I will share comes from a conversation Huang Laoshi and I had the Thursday before the annual Fulbright Thanksgiving Meal in Taipei. She approached the topic tentatively, not wanting to hurt my feelings with her apprehension. I wasn’t sure what to make of her slight discomfort, so we talked about getting to Taipei by bus for a few minutes, until she could hold her query in no longer. She asked me if turkey was good to eat. I was a little taken aback, recalling the skewered squids and duck tongues that I have eaten here on this trip alone, but I reassured her that turkey was a fine meat to eat. It wasn’t really about the turkey as much as the sentiment the turkey provides. It is the iconic image that Americans associate with a family meal, maybe the only family meal where everyone is together and trying desperately to get along. I allowed myself to trail off, saying offhandedly that I hope the turkey this year will meet the high bar set by past ETAs recounting the experience.

Huang Laoshi then asked if I believe Taiwanese turkey will taste as good as American turkey. And I sat dumbfounded for a few minutes. Her question was a perfectly legitimate one. The spaghetti that I have eaten here in Taiwan doesn’t taste exactly like the Italian (or, rather, fake Italian) food I am used to back home. There was a very real possibility that the turkey for our Thanksgiving celebration could taste nothing like the usual roasted turkey that American stomachs gorge on to the point of sickness. It just never occurred to me that someone would be so particular about their turkey. One year for Thanksgiving, my father decided to do our bird up in a crispy Cajon seasoning that had our entire family crying “Encore” for many Thanksgivings to come. I was just not as married to tradition, I suppose.

We discussed the possible differences between the Taiwanese turkey and the American turkey at length, which left me feeling strangely like King Arthur comparing African and European swallows (Monty Python…anyone? Anyone? I actually hate watching the movies but enjoy being in on the jokes). I ended the conversation by saying that surely whatever the amazing people at AIT prepare for us will be more than enough and completely satisfying. I said I was thankful for this event even happening at all and that it was so nice of them to think of us during the holidays.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I know that the American Institute in Taiwan spent the majority of its budget on this very extravagant meal, hoping that a formal occasion surrounded by good friends and good food would distract us foreigners from the homesickness that steals into our psyches during the holiday season. I know that all seven of the other Yilan ETAs were fairly stoked about various parts of our Thanksgiving feast, from the “authentic” mac and cheese to the pumpkin pie. I know that in any other scenario, I would be just as excited as everyone else was, stuffing my face at this swanky hotel in the heart of one of the best cities in the world. There was no down side here.

But on the metro ride to the Shangri-La Hotel, I confessed to Gabriel that I was having trouble keeping up with the exhilaration of the Fulbright masses. I never feel glamorous enough to waltz through the lobbies of these fancy hotels, but instead feel the weight of stares on my back, as if I had my measly net worth was written on my forehead. I wasn’t looking forward to the food, knowing that Stacey’s chicken and dumplings, mom’s broccoli cheddar casserole, and Grandmother’s creamed corn wouldn’t be on the menu.  I wasn’t even craving American food. I didn’t want to make awkward small talk with others, a task that drains the introvert I tend to become in social situations. And my heels were already digging into my feet.

I let these be the justifications for my foul mood, a silent and subdued tantrum that I did my best to suppress. But I would be lying to myself and to you, dear reader, if I withheld from you the true explanation behind my less-than-cheery disposition. On November 15th, my mother and father called me with news on the most recent of tests administered by the Cancer Treatment Center of America. For the past year or so, our little family has taken routine trips, every three weeks, to CTCA in Atlanta for chemotherapy and treatments for Mom’s cancer. In April, we had positive results indicating that our bouts with chemo were through. But on November 15th, I was, again, abroad when the news came that the cancer had spread throughout her chest, lymph nodes, and into her left arm. The cancer had also spread and grown within her liver. And there was nothing to do but to continue treatment as soon as possible.

Where was my excitement? Where were my sentimental feelings for the traditions and holidays that we, as Americans, share? They were lost, somewhere between now and the third time I had to hear, “It’s cancer.”

But I don’t intend on making this blog post about cancer. That is giving cancer way too much credit. So on this Thanksgiving Day, I want to focus on the mothers that I have come to love, both biological and adopted, in the States and abroad.

To my mother, you are a woman of strength and character. You inspire everyone around you, for you do not simply preserve. You thrive, darling.

To Teresa Miller, thank you for teaching me to think big even when I was small. Your wisdom is in knowing that small things grow up and grow into their big thoughts and big dreams. Never underestimate someone because of their age or size.

To Jamie Manuel, I am lucky enough to have an amazing mother, but I am blessed beyond reason to have been given two.

To Melinda Edgerton, watching my high highs and low lows couldn’t have been easy, but thank you for keeping that office door always open, welcoming in both the laughter and the tears.

To Ami Carter, I thought I grew up when I went off to college; turns out, I needed a College Mom, a voice of reason and a fierce fighter in my camp. You are one of a kind.

To Ellen Liu, I knew from the moment that we met: I have found a kindred soul. Thank you for long talks in parked cars, and reading my heart like a book.

And finally, to Huang Laoshi, neither in English nor in Chinese do I have the words to tell you how grateful I am that you opened up your world to mine.

 

And reader, I am thankful for you. I am thankful that you meet me, here, in this space, and you listen as I talk about Snake Tea, bumblebees, and Monty Python. Y’all are finer than a frog hair split four ways. And that’s the God’s honest truth.

Keep eating, and keep learning. Happy Turkey Day.

 

 

“It just happens to be the way I’m made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.”
― Haruki MurakamiNorwegian Wood

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