Tastes That Tell Our Stories

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

It’s time again for our monthly 4-way virtual blog, aka NSEW. Expat bloggers from In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Expatria Baby, I Was an Expat Wife and here at Adventures in Expat Land get together to write on a theme and then guest post at each others’ sites.

Moving abroad sends our senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell into overdrive. In this month’s NSEW offering, we explore an element of expat life through one or more of the five senses. In Sound Check, Yours Truly in the Netherlands (North) finds that it is distinctive sounds that remind me where I am. In Bottling the Essence of Beach Life Russell in Australia (South) walks us through the multitude of sensory experiences found at the beach. In Tastes That Tell Our Stories, below, Erica in Japan (East) admits that she does, in fact, cry at Cheerios and roasted chicken. And in Nasal Manoeuvres, Maria in Canada (West) knows that no one knows France like her nose knows France.

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Tastes That Tell Our Stories

by Erica Knecht

We were still rootless. Our belongings were somewhere in the Sea of Japan, and we had yet to find an apartment. There wasn’t even a contender. And, like that, in the hotel bathroom, I found out that I was pregnant.

After the initial excitement and joy and wonder had a chance to settle in my bones, my mind turned to the practicalities of rearing a child in Japan. Doctor visits, baby equipment varied and sundry, and, of course, food.

There were no Cheerios in Japan, and so I cried. Distraught, because, obviously, Cheerios are what babies eat. They are the first finger foods. They are the snacks in a Ziplock bag, extracted from the bottom of a purse at just the right moment to that stave off a tantrum. They are the breakfast of choice, plink plink plink, served up by fathers, morning cartoons on, but not too loud, while mothers lie in on a rare lazy Saturday. They’re nutty, toasty, and with a vague sense of healthfulness. And I couldn’t fathom raising my girl without them.

pouring milk into a red heart-shaped bowl of Cheerios on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

We scoured the Internet until finally my husband found a workaround, and ordered several sunny yellow boxes of cereal, personal import, straight from America via Korea, at about twenty dollars a box. Because Canadian babies eat Cheerios. And my girl is Canadian, though born in Japan, and so it is her birthright: tiny o’s on a high chair tray.

But when her pincer grasp was finally firm and accurate, she rejected the o’s. With an arm extended across the table, she swept them away, wheels scattering. Cheerios were a relic of my childhood, not hers. They were part of my story, not my girl’s.

Food and culture are indivisible. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” said Jean Anthelme Brillant-Savarin. And he was right. Food is a marker of identity, a carrier of culture. Is there a stronger expression of Americana than, for example, a table laden with a turkey, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole?

Culinary traditions carry meaning and cultural significance so great that they just won’t be abandoned. Festival days center around food; noodles served on Chinese New Year signify a long life, and Dia de los Muertos is heralded with sugar skulls and Pan de Muerto. Significant life events are marked by traditional tastes. A first birthday can not be celebrated without cake. Miyuk gook, a Korean seaweed soup, is served to a a new mother to fortify her body after the grueling labour of bringing her child into the world. Tastes mark the seasons and the days. Breakfast without bread would be unimaginable in France, just as a winter without fondue would be unthinkable in Switzerland.

Immigrants and expats alike retain their culinary traditions {http://www.jneb.org/article/S1499-4046(11)00528-8/abstract} long after they have been assimilated into their host country. We might adopt the gestures of our new home {Physical Souvenirs}; our vocabulary slowly expands to include words in our new language. We may even settle and have kids who themselves become owners of the new culture. But still, long after the children have forgotten their mother language, the taste of their mother’s kitchen is still fresh on their tongue.

My first weeks in Japan were a sybaritic buffet of curry rice, gyudon, ramen and gyoza. I was hungry for new tastes, subtle flavours, richness, and sauce. But then it all began to turn my stomach. An errand to the 7/11, with its oden bubbling away on the counter would leave me reeling, nauseous and heaving on the side of the road. Morning sickness, manageable in most circumstances, sidelined me when I came face to face with foreign foods. I wanted food from home. What I knew, what was comforting. The image of a chicken, simple, flavoured with thyme and lemon, would make me weep with sadness and yearning, but also with joy. Because a roast chicken is a thing of beauty: it speaks of winter evenings, a family at a round wooden table, a fire in the wood stove. Children whispering secret wishes, and a wishbone that snaps.

Our foods, the tastes we call home, bind us to our origins, and they also tell our story. Upon arrival in new lands, we are giddy with possibility and adventure. We sample everything. A piece of this, a taste of that, bacteria and protozoa be damned, ‘this looks particularly enticing’. Once the newness and wonder have worn off, however, we are drawn back to our habitual food ways, and take comfort from the onslaught of foreignness in the tastes that we know.

So we expats, migrants, and immigrants alike, we travel through the world’s airports, suitcases stuffed with cured sausages, runny cheeses, boxes of Kraft Dinner, spices, and teas. We pack up rice makers and load them on the plane. We hide fruit at the bottom of our bags so that we might bring the ones we love a taste of home. We fork over vast sums of money for simple and familiar culinary pleasures, because they mean so much. The tastes we long for tell our stories. They binds us to our homes, and are a reminder of what we love so much.

Image credit: http://earthsky.org/



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