*Hey Friends: This is not a restaurant or food review at all. I love that it gave me an experience that was fun to write about! The authentic snail meal, ăn ốc, sounds delicious.
Last week we had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in our city’s Little Saigon known for its snails and shellfish. This great blogpost tells me that it’s a nationally beloved social meal in Vietnam. The restaurant’s Yelp photos boasted greasy shimmery shells, fleshy clams and generous toppings of chili, garlic, cilantro, peanuts and green onion, and we got excited for our foodie adventure.
It’s okay for the real thing to look slightly less appealing than the photos; that happens to all of us. But the blood clams arrived in a grayish hue that made me think of nothing better than a dead vampire’s skin, which is not quite a color I find appetizing. I kind of looked away and slurped one into my mouth. Then I tried a second to be sure: Each one suggested hope but ended in regret. Instead of evoking the ocean, I thought of wet mud (which to my dismay may be the snails’ true and rightful place of origin). Even the peanuts in the topping tasted like old Tupperware.
I don’t think our party of five had ever been this quiet during a meal. I think we were all baffled by the divide between ours and other diners’ merry experience. My mother-in-law didn’t even complain much. Though if she did, we wouldn’t argue with her this time.
That night I missed my mom. Not because she cooks great seafood, or any food for that matter. But for many years she worked near the source of all the freshest seafood in Hong Kong: Sai Kung. Funnily enough, Sai Kung in Cantonese sounds just like Saigon. And I just learned that it is written with the same Chinese characters (西貢）used by the Vietnamese in their former writing system.
When I was still an exclusively Cantonese-speaking ten-year-old I memorized a Japanese name, written in English letters, because it was printed on the covers of the Sailor Moon manga. Naoko Takeuchi. In my head I would pronounce it like English words, truncating the double vowels into one syllable. I didn’t know how to say her name or what she looked like, but I knew she drew the best art I’d seen in my ten years on earth.
I read all the mangas, watched the anime on TV. I fed hundreds of HK$1 coins into a machine to trade for collectible Sailor Moon cards. I saved up pocket money for Sailor Moon stickers. I had learned the English names of the planets in the solar system before I knew what a solar system is, because Sailor Moon had friends like Sailor Mercury, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, and so forth. So when I started going to school in England, I was the Chinese kid in a British classroom who didn’t speak but wrote the names of all the planets when the teacher was still at Venus.
Come to think of it, isn’t it amazing when we get to obsess about the best thing we’ve seen in our lives? If we always obsess about the BEST things we know, won’t that make for a fantastic quality of life?
What’s the best-of-something you are obsessing with right now?
The thing I struggle most with painting is not technical ability, though that is a trigger, but the uninvited guests who pull their chairs right up to me the moment I sit down with a blank piece of paper and brushes at my desk. The perfectionist hovering above and under my brush, the art school graduate who’s scared I’m going to ruin her reputation any further, the art gallery staff who will decide that nothing I make is interesting enough, and the inner critic who identifies each mistake in the painting as the reason I’m failing in life.
“I’m not blind!” I shouted back in my mind. “I can see how this looks like a child’s drawing compared to what I had in mind! Just go away and let me be.” But don’t turn around. You just can’t engage them like that.
Despite the gnarled fingers on my shoulders, hot angry breath, sighs of disappointment, I labored at the painting until I couldn’t fix it any more. When I gave up, my inner Monet came out and took over the should-have-been-OCD-precise mandala painting. In my resting state (as Monet was doing the work) I asked, apart from ignoring those “guests” as best I could, what am I supposed to learn from them?
It said: The opposite of their assaults. Self-compassion.
The other day I watched some live baseball in person and live World Cup on TV at the same time. I’ll be the world’s last person to become a sports fan, and my introverted nature lamented the fact that I had to attend the game. But I found myself captivated by penalty kicks on one side, and baseball on the other.
When fans talk about a game like they would have done better than the athletes on the field, I cannot relate. But as the player draws a deep breath, step in front of the ball, that I can relate. As the player draws a deep breath, step in front of the ball, I feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. Not just the failure and success of their country or the pride and dignity of their fellow countrymen, but the world. Because soccer/football IS the world they’ve built with their sweat and blood and life.
The chaos of nerves and fear, the no-turning-back. Having to find their way to the eye of the storm, to focus like they’re running on the blade of a sword, and giving it their all as if it’s a matter of life and death: that I admire. Whether or not it gets in the net, they’re a hero to have stepped up, showed up, and just kicked the damn ball.
As my heart tightened and released with every kick, regardless of the team, it felt like I was training my courage muscles just by watching the players.
I used to zip my lips to pretend I agree with the surprise. I don’t suffer from anxiety or depression, but I know what it’s like to appear to “have it all” and still rot on the inside, feeling completely lost and meaningless. In the past when I read about those who took their life, I’d wonder how far, or close, I am from their footsteps.
Whether the issue is mental illness or not, the expectation that the smart, capable, wealthy or privileged among us can figure their life out on their own is a blindfold and a no-entry sign we put up to our suffering loved ones. Over time that expectation can seem to say “Stop whining. You don’t even have a reason to be miserable”.
“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.” – Tara Westover
This statement by Tara Westover got me diving straight into her memoir, Educated.
First I learned of a world, a Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho, that paralleled in time to mine but sounded to my foreign ears like a tale from a distant past.
Then when Westover shows that love trickles even through the abusive and controlling family relationships from which she painfully left, it confronts me with two of life’s paradoxes that feel impossible to hold.
First, people can love us deeply and hurt us with their best intentions.
Second, we may remove ourselves from those relationships in spite of love, as Westover shows by example, though initially not without guilt towards the people we cut off.
And she also shares how she found her ground:
“I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing his sins against mine. Without thinking of my father at all. I learned to accept my decision for my own sake, because of me, not because of him. Because I needed it, not because he deserved it.”
– Educated: a memoir, Tara Westover
The Starbucks barista called my name, produced my drink, while not missing a beat swaying to the music they’re playing. I thanked her and walked away as usual, but perhaps it was how she was still dancing to herself that I felt something more. I warmed with the knowledge that while the drink was nothing to her, just one in a thousand and counting, but to me, she just made the only thing I know that will help me through this dreary afternoon. I’m suddenly so grateful for her. Not only am I lucky enough to be able to pay for what I want, but someone is there to make it when I needed it.
OK, I hear someone say I’m being overly sentimental. But, more so than the hot chocolate, this surge of gratitude was the best thing I’ve experienced all day.