Chinatown is Everywhere

It was true when the world was much younger, but all the more so in this age of easy travel and speedy communication: the globe shrinks, cultures meet and intermingle, and there’s less and less difference between one city and another. A minuscule part of me is sadder each time I see English plastered across the signs and storefronts of a foreign country that used to seem more exotic and culturally distant from where I grew up and lived my life. Intermingling can easily lead to homogeneity, and that can be mighty boring.
Photo montage: Chinatown is Everywhere

But then I am reminded that even when travel was arduous and communication as slow as molasses in a meat locker, cultures met, mixed and mated, and gradually produced new and fantastic variants of themselves. Where would we be if languages had never borrowed and stolen terms from each other, evolved and changed over time? If nobody had ever crossed a border, learned about another culture, married a foreigner, or learned the way a more advanced or inventive group could accomplish tasks more efficiently and elegantly, would humans even still be around to do that stuff anymore?

My attitude is changing. Now, I really do still greatly appreciate that there are recognizable ethnic neighborhoods in nearly every city, every country. They’re wonderful microcosms of the nations and peoples that immigrated and founded them. But I also love that there’s a regular hurricane of linguistic mash-ups, cultural blending and reinvention of characteristics that comes from our happy meetings on new shores. It’s how we got here; it’s how we’ll move forward and continue to thrive.

Meanwhile, as long as there are those fantastic ethnic-enclave neighborhoods still in action, I’ll know I can follow the locals and find the best jiaozi and sticky rice in town when I get hungry.

Seasonal Allergies

Can political correctness kill a holiday spirit? Oh, yes, it can. We’ve all seen it. There are times and places when and where we have to tread so lightly around people’s tender feelings regarding their special holiday or occasion–or someone else’s–that it’s hard to believe that any of us retain those passions and beliefs after a while. It’s as though we’re allergic to each other’s seasonal happiness. All the same, I do understand that we ought to show reasonable forbearance regarding others’ dearly held views, no matter how far from our own they may be, so long as those views aren’t harming anyone else. And so very, very few of them are, to be fair.

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Remember to tread lightly on others’ ground!

But if others want to celebrate things I’m not so attached or attracted to myself, who am I to stand in the way?  I like holidays, parties and celebrations very well. I may have even occasionally co-opted others’ holidays just because I think they’re wonderful excuses for enjoying the great things about life and history and happiness. Whether I do or not, I am happy to see my own holiday leanings in any odd spot that inspires me at any moment.

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Ho-ho-ho, happy people, whoever you are!

I’m from a pretty common kind of American, Protestant, middle class background myself, so it won’t surprise anyone that I grew up surrounded by the trappings of the middle class, Protestant American version of Christmas. Won’t even shock anyone that after my decades of being surrounded by it, I grew more than a little jaded at the horrendously fat, greedy, commercialized version it morphed into in the public eye and felt shy of celebrating Christmas in that atmosphere. But there’s that sense of tradition and family tied into it as well, and the knowledge that the origins of the holiday and the celebration of it are worlds removed from those crass retail versions of it that irritate me so. So when I see the famed color combination so associated with Christmas in this my home culture, I think I am in a more forgiving mood toward the genuinely human and sometimes very foolish ways that others spend their celebratory energies, and maybe even toward my own.

I wish you all a happy holiday season, whether you celebrate any particular occasion or just enjoy seeing others revel in theirs. There should be plenty of pleasure to go around!

Foodie Tuesday: Getting a Menu Transplant

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Sticking to my ribs, yes, but maybe with the barbecue sauce twisted into a (Southern) peach chutney style to suit the Basmati rice alongside . . .

It’s not what it used to be, moving to a different place. The world is so much smaller than it once was! We talk via computer and cell phone as though we were sitting right next to each other–and sometimes when we’re sitting next to each other. Language and culture and history are all getting a good mash-up in this shrinking world where we live.

One genuinely wonderful aspect of this not-entirely-perfect scenario of homogenization is that we have access to so much that was once unreachable to everyone but the most extremely far-flung intrepid explorers and have commonalities that our ancestors could never have dreamed remotely possible. Not least of all, we can indulge in the joys of cuisines and ingredients from places we can’t even pronounce, let alone afford to visit.

Most of these regional, national, racial, cultural treasures, by virtue of being intermingled with and sampled by so many others to such a degree that sometimes it seems something learned from the Chinese by the Dutch traders and then passed along to their colonial outposts in the south seas, who in turn brought it along when they immigrated to North America, well, these ideas and arts and recipes have been so transformed along the way that they, like the initial message in the old game of Telephone, are utterly new inventions by the time the Chinese ever experience them again. And yet, in a happy twist, we who create and share the first iteration often fall in love with it and repeat and refine it until it becomes part of who we are, so it’s not wholly lost in the translation, either.

For someone who grew up in one part of the vast American patchwork of a country and experienced East Coast specialties, Southern cooking, Midwest traditions, and Southwest cuisine as being no less foreign in their ways to my Northwestern experience and palate, it’s always been a pleasurable study to try out the fabled deliciousness of Other Places. So while I’ve long loved Chinese and Dutch and Polynesian and Italian and German and Thai and Indian and North African foods of various kinds, it’s no less exotic and thrilling and delicious to sample the comestible culture of different regions of my own homeland.

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Fajitas today, quiche tomorrow . . .

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. . . but you only have to switch from a Coronita to a Trappist ale to suit the occasion, right?

Still, it’s been an entertaining and tasty part of the adventure of moving from Washington state to Texas that I’m experiencing Tex-Mex and Southern and cowboy cuisines in places of their origins and that’s mighty rich learning and dining, too. So I’m more than happy to indulge in all of those special items here anytime I can. But you know me, y’all: rarely do I go into the kitchen without bringing my own machinations and deviations to the party, so I am more than likely to emerge bearing platters and bowls filled not only with classic Texan foods but also with Texan foods as filtered through Washingtonian hands, perhaps with a hint of Chinese cookery here, Dutch baking there, Polynesia and Italy and Germany and Thailand and India and North Africa and all of my other palatable favorites making inroads and appearances whenever I see fit.

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A Texas-sized pork chop can also be cooked sous-vide, even if it’s getting classic Southern sides like bacon-sauteed sweet corn and coleslaw . . .

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. . . and if you want to shake things up a little in a more cosmopolitan way, you can always make the slaw a variant of Waldorf Salad while you’re at it by adding chopped apples and celery and sliced almonds . . .

Happy Chinese New Year, Y’All!

That’s Texan for 新年快樂 and today is the start of the Year of the Dragon! So in addition to being a big year for my youngest sister thanks to her year of birth, this should be a year of power and prosperity for all, as the dragon is symbolic of not only royalty but is the only truly rare creature in the Chinese zodiac, being supposedly mythical and all. I happen to know where one or two hang out, but then I am kind of special, being a Rat (we Rats won the Emperor’s race between the twelve great creatures, for those of you not in the know).

And why should an old Norsk-descendant-living-in-north-Texas like me care about Dragons and Chinese calendars? Because I find all sorts of cultural treasures from all sorts of rich cultures fascinating, and why wouldn’t anyone. It’s an ecumenical sort of thing with me: most cultures have at many levels interests, beliefs and strengths that are not only worthy of examination but surprisingly held in common by many, if not most, others–simply under different names–and I think it’s tremendously impressive and endlessly intriguing to learn how our seemingly diverse nationalities, languages, customs and faiths ultimately intertwine.

Have you ever looked at a piece of Folk Art and thought that it might come from East Africa somewhere–but then thought that it might equally have come from the hands of Inuit artists or Suomi ones, dwellers in Oceania or Croatia or maybe somewhere in the heart of Syria? It’s amazingly frequent that one comes across such remarkably strong commonalities across cultures and borders that it takes a veritable forensic investigation and examination to determine a thing’s true origins. In many cases we learn along the way that in fact the point of “origin” for a single word, object, or idea as we know it was the end point of a long and winding journey through many cultures and across many borders.

That’s a mighty long-winded way of saying that it’s only natural in my view that I should be happy to learn more about and celebrate other nationalities’ and other people’s most fabulous and fascinating attributes.

The other aspect of my personal interest is simpler, perhaps: some of my Norwegian ancestors lived and worked in China in pre-Communist years and founded a school that is still flourishing under the care of Chinese teachers and administrators. For all that I deplore about the darker sort of “evangelism” practiced by many missionaries under the guise of Christian faith (and perhaps others), this kind of mutual interchange of ideas and contribution of efforts strikes me as among the best in any relationship and one I’m happy to recognize. My mother’s cousin, at the time the Norwegian Ambassador in Beijing, took my visiting aunt to the school a few years ago and they were welcomed like some sort of heroes returning from the mists of time on their arrival merely for being descended from the school’s founders, so I think it safe to say that this was seen as a more positive influence than some.

And finally, my love of things Chinese comes from wonderful friends who either are Chinese by birth or descent themselves or have spent joyful time immersed in China and Chinese culture. One such couple would be my “extra grandparents” the wonderful Talbert and Ella, who had also lived with great happiness for years of missionary work in China. Again, I know both from their deeply gentle and thoughtful natures as surrogate grandparents and from the fact that they were in the first party of Westerners actually invited to return to the Chinese interior after the flowering of détente, that this was a true love for them. The plain yet happy upshot in my middle-American life was that as a young girl I was taught by Talbert how to hold my chopsticks properly, grew up eating genuine and very humble stir-fries in my Norwegian-American home because Ella shared her know-how with Mom (long before Americans ever knew of any Asian foods more authentic than Chop Suey and Egg Foo Yong as defined by westernized restaurants), and I was regaled with tales of a magical kingdom that was surprisingly real.

When we lived outside Chicago for a couple of years during that time, a highlight was a dinner Talbert and Ella took us to at a classic hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant of the truly authentic sort, where Talbert chattered in Mandarin with the delighted owner and ordered us an unforgettably delicious feast. The owner was so taken with us that when he discovered that our party there was coincidentally on my (11th?) birthday, he came out and very ceremoniously presented me with a whole packet of chopsticks bearing a series of characters meant for good fortune, and even wrote them down. Such was the delight of the occasion that I can still show you that slip of paper. I made a little graphic out of the characters too, and will share that with you as well, as a token of my good wishes to you for this year. And most of all, because China, through its beauties of people’s shining souls, its art, its rich and almost infinitely ancient culture, its fabulous food and its dreamlike diversity has been such a gift to me all of my life, I wish all of you a very Happy Chinese New Year!

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Happiness! Prosperity! Longevity! Peace!

 

And since I know you’re still wondering, yes, I did go and look up the local dragon. It’s not so much that they’re shy, but being both rare and royal, they’re understandably a little bit protective of their privacy. This particular dragon was lounging around with a unicorn friend and just let me have a quick peep, seeing that it’s His Year, so I could report back to you with confidence that it’s going to be a grand one indeed.digital image from a P&I drawing