This is the first of a two-part series I’ve been struggling to write for a while. For those who know me, I’ve jumped between highly restrictive diets and workout regimens for the past few years interspersed with periodic bouts of alcoholic binges. Truth is, I was hurting. I was suffering from low self-esteem and violent thoughts that seemingly arose from nowhere. The second post will cover how I’ve dealt with my issues of low self-esteem, being bullied, and toxic masculinity through food and exercise but I think it’s important to go through the darker times, for only then will it become clear why the extreme discipline of later years became so important to me. This will be a very long read and at times the wording may get clumsy, a product of old hurts surfacing while I wrote this. You don’t need to read this. But if you happen to be reading this and see some of your story in mine, please believe me when I say there is a way out. The story can end well. I promise.
Every Soul is born in a Castle built for it by the Universe. In this Castle, the Soul takes on two forms: a Child, pure as the Universe that created it, and an Elder, wise and rational as the Earth that bore it. Every morning, the Elder leaves the castle to forage for food for the Child from the Fields of Life surrounding the Castle. The sustenance takes many forms as well: warmth from a Mother’s hug, playtime with friends, a feeling of belonging at family gatherings, a bruised knee. In the beginning, these fields are wide and clear and the Elder can always see the Castle no matter the distance…
My Castle was situated in the second floor of a small apartment where meals were predictable and parents, affording us little chance to roam the streets, ensured freedom from discomfort if not from discovery. Attending school with all the complex, unwritten social codes forged during Recess then, was a disorienting experience far from the routine comfort of home. Everyone had a role to play, and spaces from the canteen to the playground were divided with invisible markers as to which clique owns it: the Jocks, the Trend Setters, the Wannabe Gangsters, the Just-Migrated-Heres. As a child, it was confusing and daunting trying to figure out how to fit into the right clique. Humans after all, are still animals – albeit ones that seem to think the contrary – and the desire to create hierarchies is ingrained within us. Any attempt to fit in though, just didn’t seem to work for me whether it was physically (I was the only kid who actively ran away from any type of ball during gyms class to the shock of the basketball-worshipping Filipinos) or socially (I couldn’t quite grasp how everyone around me played the “he-likes-she-likes” game so effortlessly). And amidst all the teasing, my dad would insist I comb my hair over, hike up my pants just a little higher than socially acceptable, and get over it: “Don’t listen to them. You’re not like them. Learn to be proper”. Easier said than done.
(Disclaimer: All thoughts here are my own and are not intended as insults. I believe we cannot separate Food from issues of Identity, History, and Culture and so if anyone’s offended by my musings below, let’s have Tea and talk about it…for it’s unlikely I’ll apologize for them).
The British practice of Afternoon Tea is said to have started in the early 19th century when Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, requested for tea – a Darjeeling most likely – and a light snack be brought into her boudoir to combat “that sinking feeling” that usually accompanied the early afternoon hours. Whether this sinking feeling was truly just a case of the hunger pangs brought about by the long, food-less gap between the morning and evening meals, or something more morose, is a point of curiosity for me. The existential realization in the late afternoon that you haven’t quite gotten to the things you said you would do today, and facing the real possibility of another squandered moment does seem to produce the same effect as hunger; screw it let’s just eat. Nevertheless, the practice spread first within Anna’s circle of similarly ennui-bound friends and later to the drawing rooms across Britain as an “important social practice” amongst those who had all the money and time they could want and nary the idea what to do with it.
Kotoya-san and I met near the tail end of winter in an old tea house by Lake Ashi under awkward circumstances. She stood on one end of a wooden platform raised a foot from the ground, cleaning supplies in one hand, face mask hiding her expression. On the other side, separated by an unlit fire place with a worn kettle and a ring of rocks, were four Australians girls alternating between trying to explain to Kotoya-san in increasingly louder, slower, and broken English that me taking their picture would take far less time than for them to first remove their shoes as they were being asked to. I stood on the dirt floor below, shoes also caked in mud, shivering after trekking through an ancient highway slick with rain, annoyed at having to choose between the logically expedient request of my fellow travelers of whose camera I held, or respecting the traditions of the storied establishment.
(*Thanks to Amir El-Abbady and Doha Salem for the inspiration behind this week’s meal).
My passport used to elicit the same effect on TSA agents that a benign cookie tin would to an immigrant child expecting something to munch on between meals. As routine motion gave way to shock and confusion when confronted with a tin full of sewing supplies, agents opening my Filipino passport with slight boredom quickly raised their eyebrows when they saw all the Arabic writing in there due to my being raised in Saudi Arabia. And despite my obviously Asian features (never mind whether I looked more Filipino or Chinese), I somehow was always selected for “random screening”. These days I just flash my New York City ID to avoid any delays, but the questions and awkward confusion still ensue.
“Oh you grew up in Saudi Arabia? Was it dangerous?” – No the biggest threat I faced was of utterly debilitating boredom.
“Wow! You must speak Arabic really well!” – Actually seeing as there was a large, diverse population of Filipinos, Indians, and other Westerners who outnumbered the local population, I barely understand Arabic.
“Was it like…very oppressive coz you couldn’t like…drink like…alcohol and stuff?” – No homegirl but listening to you is oppressive enough an experience (not to mention having fewer vices also meant fewer distractions).
In a conversation with a friend the other day, I remarked how I felt oddly “at home” during my short visit to Japan in all its glorious neuroticism; a nation of rules, propriety, and arbitrary rituals. Completely unlike the “Bahala na” vibe of rural Antique, Philippines or the frenetic obsession with the new of New York City, Japan felt like a thick tome of step-by-step instructions accumulated over centuries of what one can and cannot do. One must not eat in public. One must not refer to someone of a higher status solely by their name. One must not sit on a tatami mat in a tea house with their shoes on. There were signs on how to properly eat your onigiri, signs on how to sit in the subway, signs on how to flush the hostel toilet (hold down for five seconds, then pull up, otherwise not enough water will flow), and signs on how to properly make a bed (put one sheet over the mattress, then another over that, then sleep in between the sheets). I adored the liberating restrictions. There was no guesswork as to how to act and where some saw an overly stuffy way to live, I saw order in an otherwise chaotic world. The steps one had to take in order to get a glimpse of the Tsukiji Market auction were no less onerous.
// Mid-afternoon, Shinobazuno Pond, Ueno Park, きょわ素晴らしいです
“I wish there was more green around here,” my spontaneous explorer friend and food buddy for the day remarked. “The gardens back in Argentina or Germany always looked greener”. Looking around I couldn’t agree more. Concrete paved most of the park and the few patches of grass were covered in park-goers and fellow tourists. Still, it was hard to complain with the the sun out in a cloudless sky and a light breeze playing across the water. It was the rare nice day since I arrived in Tokyo and with Asahi beers and a Sakura Yakimochi (Charred Cherry Blossom-flavored rice cake) between us, I could forgive the otherwise grey landscape.
// Late night, multiple trains from Narita to Tokyo Proper. つかれった
Getting lost in a foreign country’s subway system is far from romantic. Absent are your fellow backpackers whom you companionably nod to from across the car, the starry-eyed lovers cuddling in the corner, the gentlemen who offer seats to old ladies with knitting projects or pastries in hand. There is no rumbling excitement of a population marching towards the future but a subdued desperation that usually fills public transportation at the end of the working day, cog gears hurtling back to worn beds to grab any sleep they can before the next gray day.
The Subway Sutras
The train(s) from Narita to Chuo at 11 PM on a Thursday night were far from romantic. Take away any public Wi-Fi, a completely foreign language, any printed map or written directions and it becomes downright nerve-wracking. To the left were monochrome suits and red faces, the smell of beer and smoke wafting through face masks, to the right, other nine-to-niners contorted in sleep. In between were blurs of beige and grey with the occasional neon scurrying between platforms, mouths hidden behind more face masks behind which sorely needed directions lay. Yup…I was lost. The directions I looked up while still in New York looked simple enough: take the Skyliner to Nippori, switch to the JR line to Uguisudani, walk a few kilometers. Boom. Staring at a Japanese subway table that looked more like the Diamond Sutra and less like a map though is an entirely different practice. Couple that with multiple exits per subway, multiple companies running them, trains that actually run on time without waiting, and the fact that I misread my hostel’s address, and a leisurely one hour trip turned into nearly three with a mile hike to cap it all off. Muzukashii desu.
More Subway Rules
// Past midnight, a 24-hour Sukiya diner across from the hostel. お腹すいた
Exhausted and finally checked-in, I ventured out at past midnight to the only place open around: Sukiya, a 24 hour joint frequented by late night salarymen and other God-knows-why-you’re-still-up folks. Elsewhere, you’d usually just order the greasiest thing without opening the menu and be done with it all. But like everything else, chotto muzukashii desu given that all orders are first entered into a RedBox-like kiosk whose choices rivaled my Netflix account’s. 4 different meal types (gyudons, curries, sashimi, or sets), 4-6 sizes each, 4-8 different sides to add on, not to mention any options for adding pork to soups, additional drinks, etc. All while a female voice cheerily – but obviously judging my newbie self – reminds me every few seconds in Japanese to please make a selection. The paradox of choice meets the nagging mother and after a what felt like five straight minutes of “food order panic”, I settled on a plate of Japanese-style curry to soothe my tired (and frayed) soul. Muzukashii desu.
I remember the first time I had kinilaw (kee-knee-lau…not the “law” in “lawyer”), Filipino cured seafood similar to the more well-known ceviche. It was a weeknight back in Saudi Arabia and my mom was hit with one of those rare nights of laziness so we bought food from the corner kalinderya serving the local Filipino workforce. Amongst the requisite containers full of greasy adobo, menudo, and chop suey was one filled with cubes of white fish and Thai chilis swimming in a milky white liquid. Looking back, that shit wasn’t good at all: the fish overcooked and chewy, the acidity overpowered by the too finely minced peppers, and the onions beginning to seep their purple into the liquid. But without a frame of reference, I remember my eyes widening…the perfect moment of childhood discovery. The burst of sharp sourness from the Datu Puti vinegar, the firm flesh…the rawness! Ever since then, kinilaw was a treat. From lunches during sweltering Saudi summers to seaside feasts back in our hometown of Iloilo, kinilaw provided the much needed bite to cut through the rich Filipino spaghetti (it contains condensed milk…a story for another day) and meat-heavy dishes without the tired pretension that ceviche sometimes carries (ceviche does NOT belong in a martini glass slathered with guacamole and salsa…gtfo!).
The origins of kinilaw are murky and I’m sure indigenous cultures all over the world began using acid to cure their seafood and extend its shelf life. However, I really like this legend I stumbled upon on the Bisaya blog Huni sa Daplin:
I usually skip the baking section of most food magazines. Pies with flaky crusts, light and airy cakes topped with glazed fruits, rich and buttery cookies, macarons made exclusively for well-lit Instagram photos, mocking me with their all-knowing glossy stare: “You can’t bake for shit”. And to be honest, that’s mostly true. A co-worker once gave me a supposedly fool-proof recipe for sugar cookies with less than 5 ingredients and the whole mess looked more like a lumpy, rectangular Sicilian flatbread pizza instead of the homey, round circles of rustic sweetness they were intended to be.
And so I usually forego recipes that even involves yeast, rolling, or proofing for something…meatier, vegetable-ier, anything entree-ier! Until I couldn’t. I had promised to bring a dessert into work and I was running out of meringue-based, no-bake ideas and every food magazine I had subscribed to was extolling the virtues of a warm pie. In a fit of pie-ophobia, I opt for the cop-out solution: the Galette. No exacting crust pleats, no mishandled lattice tops, no possibility of fruit exploding through the top in a volcanic mess of burnt sugar…just a rough, quick, almost child-like creation of fruit in baked dough. Pair that with fresh whipped cream (all those meringue-based desserts trained my whipping arm well after all!) and the wrath of the Baking Harpies is assuaged for another day. Thanks Bon Appetit (with some tweaks)!
Early Spring is now a season I really look forward to with its promises of patio brunches, beautiful people watching, and the ability to wear something more flattering than a poofy jacket paired with chapped skin. But Spring during my college years wasn’t as…”Spring-y”. Most student groups plan their largest events during these months and for me, I somewhat dreaded spring as it meant back-to-back meetings planning event after event. However, Spring also heralded the start of Bake Sale season as groups sought to fund events and as an equal open diner, this was open season for all things carby. Sure there were the usual cookies and brownies (in varying shades of chocolate) but the real treats were the cultural delicacies: the orange, sticky Indian Jalebis that had to be washed down with tea, the Chinese Moon Cakes, the Arabic Baklava, and when you hit the jackpot and stumble on an all out ten item dessert buffet? Well…makes you forget the next five planning meetings on your calendar.