Meal (the one that shaped me most?)

I have the Becoming journal and have slowly been working on it. I was just faced with the question about the most memorable meal. Of course over time I’ve had lots of family meals that meant a lot to me, and I can remember getting together with friends and family. Days when we had large groups and days when we had small groups gathered around our table. There were days when we ordered in and days when I worked hard to fix something new I’d never cooked before. I remember fixing a meal for a speaker in physics that was allergic to Gluten – the first time I’d heard of that, and being so careful, having another speaker stay over at our house after speaking about his radio show on the Bermuda Triangle and other mysteries, ordering a live lobster and playing with it when Kevin was little before cooking it in a condo in NJ. There was the day I threw a surprise party for my husband and invited his whole department for his 50th birthday. My grandmother was there and the candles were so hot! We also had days when we ate at my mothers and days when we were invited to friends and of course there were days when we were invited to my in laws to eat. I remember one meal where we got to eat out at IKEA with my in laws and on the same trip there was a meal at a restaurant with that whole side of the family. On my mother’s side there were also lots of meals in Texas eating with family there. There was a meal in a building that was freezing where we all huddled by the window to stay warm and a meal that was served so late that we thought we would never get food (That one was at a place that we didn’t really knew where we were, we ended up lucky to find our way back to my aunt’s for the night). There were so many others too. Each one has a special place in memory.

The one I ended up thinking was special enough to include in Becoming for me though involved my meals in China. Around 2005 I went to China to present at a conference for my boss. The conference was an Environmental Informatics conference and the furthest I had ventured before was to Canada, so China was a new experience for me. I had travelled with my husband, including a sabbatical to New Jersey that included a trip to New York City a few times… and for someone from a rural farm in Illinois that was really venturing out. What I knew about China really came from my experiences with my roommate in college, Shiqi Yuan, who was from Shanghai. I loved Chinese food, the authentic kind that Shiqi made when we traded off cooking but the rest of my knowledge came from the little I’d picked up about why she didn’t want to return to China. She was born in the year of the Horse which Shiqi said was bad luck and would mean that she would most likely not be able to marry when she returned home. (There was also something to do with the one-child policy but over time I’ve forgotten that) While we were in college Tiananmen Square also occurred. Tiananmen Square was a scary event if you were a college student and knew (and cared about) anyone from China, I’m sure in China the news didn’t carry much information about what was occurring, but here we were watching all the news. So years later when I was asked to go to China, the first thing that went through my mind was Tiananmen square and what happened to those students. I’d lost touch with Shiqi… but I knew the government in China is pretty strict… In the end, writing about a memorable meal I ended up with the meals in China.

At the conference in China most of our meals occurred family style at a ‘Chinese Restaurant’. I thought it was a little funny that the location had a sign labeling it the ‘Chinese Restaurant’ as we were in China – isn’t every restaurant there Chinese? The meals were all family style, and since the conference took place on an island right off the cost of Mainland China in Xiaman China, a lot of the focus was seafood. None of the items you would find at a standard Chinese restaurant here in the US. I remember seeing a fish with the eyes still on – that one we all took a picture of! Most of the meals I ended up sitting next to a Malaysian general who seemed to follow me around for most of the conference. My favorite meal though was at the Beijing hotel that was our stopover before heading back to the US. The only part of the meal I really remember though was an appetizer with tomatoes, mozzarella, and a balsamic vinegar. It was SO good! I ate alone and I was in a foreign country – over 14 hours by plane from home. So my thought is for the journal Becoming, that would be the meal I had to include. If you can eat by yourself 14 hours (by plane) from home and feel comfortable in a country that you don’t even speak the language you are one step closer to Becoming. In reality, you should be able to feel comfortable being with people or being alone…. I love being with people that are diverse (I can learn so much!).

My mother later had mentioned that she and my brother thought that I would end up detained in China. Apparently they had discussed it. Things my mom says have a habit of deflating me, every statement no matter if it starts with this is great, or thanks for doing this always ends with but you could have done, or if only you, or this needed more… I try so hard not to do the same thing with my kids, though I’m sure they think I always see the negative in every situation as I weigh the pros and cons of everything. Debating what could go wrong vs. what the benefits are of everything we do.

I went on to lead a state robotics championship for FLL, serve on the board for a museum, and teach at a university… all things that I am proud of having done. Having ventured out of my comfort zone and headed to China was just one of those small steps on the way there.