Bell’s Seasoning

This is the first thing I’ve written for my MFA that I consider a finished, standalone piece. When I started this program, I expected to write so many finished, solid stories. And I am writing so, so much for this program, but I find myself completing something that fits the assignment, but doesn’t fully express what I want to share, or I find myself hitting my deadline with something that needs a rewrite or ten before I feel really good about sharing it.

Anyway, this assignment was to write about food, brands and taste memories for a narrative nonfiction class.

Bell’s Seasoning

In my second year in China, in my first apartment in Beijing, I was overcome by my dislike of Chinese food. The endless peanut oil and five-spice made everything taste the same to me, and with that came the worry that my unsophisticated palate was unsuitable for a traveler.

Expat expeditions to Jenny Lu’s or Auchon’s worked sometimes, but my foreign teacher salary couldn’t keep up with regular purchases of imported cheese. The vegetable market near my house was more suited to my salary, and I could recognize most of the produce. The tomatoes and potatoes were all just a little bit off from my supermarket expectations, slightly the wrong shade or shape or size, but I was determined to cook Western meals for us, to counteract my daily repetition of choosing the least-unpalatable food options.

Garlic or caramelized onions can give a Western flavor to a simple meal. Real butter helps, or meat fat rendered and saved in a drippings can. The harsh red wine works better for cooking than sipping. You can make a pretty respectable pico with red Sichuan chilis in place of jalapenos.  It was enough not to taste peanut oil and five spice on every bite of every meal.

But it was the yellow packet of Bell’s Seasoning that makes food taste like home. It works on mushrooms, stuffed with overcooked and toasted rice instead of breadcrumbs, and then “baked” over the gas ring. It works on a polenta, but only sometimes because the really good cornmeal came from a migrant vendor who occasionally set up shop outside my complex’s gates. It works on the slightly-too-red tomatoes and the lavender aubergines.

It’s great to have an unsophisticated palate.

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S-Town

Are you listening to S-Town? I’ve just started listening to it, and it’s such a terrible and true look at small-town Southern life. It’s about the horror exhaustion and outrage saturation of reading the news and thinking about it, and the particular depression that comes from being surrounded by small-town southerners who don’t care. And so much more. If you’re listening too, let me know, I’m desperate to discuss it.

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Imposter Syndrome, Again. Still.

I don’t want to talk about the Orange Lord, but he recently described his time in office by saying “I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president.” It’s amazing to me that he can take this attitude. By any reasonable standard, he has no experience, no work ethic, no training and no willingness to be trained for this job. Newspapers and magazines around the world have written about how unqualified he is and how poorly he’s doing his job. His poor job performance is literally international news, every day. But he thinks he’s doing well.

I’m not 100% sure how people have confidence in general, but I definitely don’t understand how one can receive constant and objective negative performance feedback and still think the problem is with everyone else.

In my usual mental narrative, I notice that my student just looked at her phone. She’s obviously not engaged, so she’s probably not learning anything in this class. Which must be because it’s a boring class. Because I’m an awful, boring teacher. I’m probably the worst teacher ever, and if my boss ever finds out how bad I am at my job, I’m going to get fired. I’ll probably get fired anyway, because I’m terrible at everything. (Not an exaggeration.) Even in the face of overwhelming positive performance feedback, I will hear only the negative, because, well, see previous re: terrible at everything. I’m pretty much always trying to drown out the persistent worry that everyone around me is just about to discover how useless I am.

 

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Comics Wife Life, Part 38,473

“Do you want to see the new Justice League movie?” Harold asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “What’s it about?”

“So Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are at the –”

“OH MY GOD! SUPERMAN’S NOT REALLY DEAD!?!?! I AM SHOCKED! I DEFINITELY thought he was dead at the end of Batman Vs Superman, and I TOTALLY expected a comic book character to stay dead! WOW! I can’t believe it! I bet the viewers are going to be SO SURPRISED!”

“Ok,  ok,” Harold sighed, “Just tell me if you want to see the movie.”

(I am an unending delight.)

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Yantai Journals

Oh, hey so I briefly mentioned the Chefoo Concentration Camp when I wrote about exploring Tamsui. There’s an episode of NPR’s This American Life about the diary of a Girl Guide leader who was imprisoned in Chefoo. The story is an amazing testament to stiff upper lip and journaling, two of my favorite coping mechanisms. (It’s a three-way tie with alcohol, really.)

But there’s also a reference to how very hard it is to find historical material on this.

I’ve been interested in Yantai for a while now, but I’ve not been able to find too much about this part of Yantai’s history. There is this article from the Birmingham Mail about a British woman who was at boarding school in what’s now Yantai, and ended up in Chefoo Concentation Camp.

The only other place I’ve really found information about Chefoo is in the nonfiction novel Lilla’s Feast. Part of Lilla’s story includes her years imprisoned in the camp, where she wrote an imaginary cookbook. Also says a lot about writing  as a coping mechanism, now that I think about it.

Anyway, something to think about when I move my Yantai journals from apartment to apartment.

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Interestings

Shortly before I left for Taiwan, I was having ramen with Marcus, and he asked how the MFA was going. It was a somewhat rushed meeting in a trendy ramen shop, since I was leaving for Taiwan the next day and Marcus has work on his third (THIRD!) book, all of which would deeply impress our twenty-something selves. But anyway, the MFA.

It’s hard. I usually consider myself a pretty productive writer. I’ve been blogging since 2005, and I published my first game essay in 2006. (That magazine is now defunct, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t my fault.) I usually have work going on for game clients, other work for editors, personal creative pieces, blogging here, and my endless private journals. But I don’t produce nearly as much as my classmates. The quality of what I do write is average at best. This isn’t one of those false-modesty things, it’s a legit comparison to my classmates’ work.

And it’s that’s hard too, because I can’t work out how to look at bad grades or bad responses in workshops without falling into the pit of how I’m actually a terrible writer, I’m going to fail everything, and any success up until now has just been a fluke.  Washing out of the program is a reasonable fear, and I can’t work out how to accept that some people in my classes are not going to make it without deciding that I’m going to be one of them, because I’m actually a terrible writer, I’m going to fail everything, and even getting accepted in the first place was a mistake.

This is also the same conversation when The Interestings came up, and Marcus said he thought Jules was kind of mean. I felt like I’d left my diary open, since I empathise so deeply with Jules, and when I read this book, I basically pictured young Ethan as a twenty-something Marcus.  I guess this novel meant so much to me that I kind of own it, and I forgot that other people can read books too.

“Shut up!” I said, “It’s not her fault! Jules is just talented enough to know she’s not as talented as her friends. Everything is really hard for Jules.” So there’s that.

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The Time Of A Song

All our classes were asked to come up with a skit for an end-of-class performance, so my ESL students the first week were came up with two really hilarious skits, both using quite limited English and ending with clever bicultural puns. The girls’ skit had two sisters buying candy from two sisters, with a who’s-on-first around Mei Mei and Jie Jie (little sis and big sis) ending with the explanation “because this is FamilyMart!” I guess you have to know a FamilyMart is a Taipei corner store.

The boys’ skit had increasingly greedy customers making massive orders at a McDonalds, and the final customer was asked “Do you want a hamburger or some chicken, Uncle?” I guess you have to know that Chicken Uncle is the Chinese name for Colonel Sanders, but I thought they were both pretty funny skits. I was pleased to have a group that wanted to express themselves.

At the last minute, admin told me they were deemed unacceptable for our end-of-class skits for, um, reasons that couldn’t actually be shared with me (There’s a lot I miss about working in China, but having someone mumble that maybe someone else might think that maybe something could maybe be done differently in an unspecified way is not one of them), so we scrapped both skits and my students somewhat apathetically sang Try Everything from Zootopia. At least, I think it’s from Zootopia, I’ve only ever heard this song as an end-of-class presentation choice for ESL students.

Try Everything was a popular end-of-class choice when I was teaching ESL at Tufts last summer. My class of Taiwanese college students were the exception to the group singing or half-hearted skits. They did an awesome Jay Chou song and dance, and I was thrilled by their bubbling creativity in pretty much every lesson. This class also taught me half a dozen house rules to improve classroom games of Murder, and burst into song at the slightest provocation. They were a dream class.

This photo is tagged NTNU, because that’s where I was when I posted it, but it was taken at Tufts.

 

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Mackay Street & The Complications of Anglicizing Chinese

Part 1: From Far Formosa

My first challenge in my trip to explore George Leslie Mackay’s history was actually finding the city…

The town name is Anglicized as Tamsui, Danshuei, Tanshui and pretty much any variation around those. It was Cousin George‘s description of a city by the mouth of a river in the north of Taiwan, named Fresh Water, that helped convince me I had the right place. 谈水 means Fresh Water, and the characters are consistent even when the spelling isn’t.

You can get there on the Red Line metro from Taipei, Damsui is the last stop. I forgot my headphones and didn’t get a seat, so this part was just like riding the Red Line at home in Boston!

Damsui is a lovely seaside community, well worth a visit just for beer and ice cream with a waterside view. You can take a ferry across to BaLi or just see it across the river. There’s an Old Street and a more modern boardwalk.  I was delighted by the little seaside town, because I didn’t have terribly high hopes for my trip to Damsui.

Damsui, like my first Chinese home city of Yantai, was ceded as a treaty port in the Treaty of Tianjin (which was  Anglicized as Tientsin at that time).  When I read about Yantai before moving there in 2006, I expected to find some foreign influence and interesting international history.

But when I was actually there, I found the old Foreign Concession on Yantai Hill wasas  disappointingly poor repair, and few locals I asked were even aware of Yantai’s history as a treaty port (or at least they wouldn’t discuss it with the laowai). Researching back home, I discovered that Yantai’s foreign concession was more recently Chefoo Concentration Camp, and my “interesting international history” was less architectural melting pot and more death. Knowing the right name opens up a lot of new information…

Mackay Street in Tamsui, Taiwan. #馬偕 #mackay #tamsui #谈水

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For my trip to Damsui, it turns out the inconsistencies in the Anglicization of Chinese words hid something else: There’s a Mackey Street here in Taiwan! It’s spelled as Maxie Street (Ma Xie) on most English language maps I saw, including Google Maps. I had to see the characters to be sure.

George Mackay is such a distant cousin that we are barely even related, but it was still a physical jolt to see my family name on a Chinese street sign. More than 100 years before my first trip to China, there was a Mackay cousin here learning the language.  I took so many pictures of the Mackay Street signs that it drew the attention of other visitors, so I explained that that my 外婆 is a Ma Xie. One of the Taiwanese tourists nodded, and asked if I was now headed to the Mackay Graveyard to see my ancestors for New Years. I didn’t know there was a Mackay Graveyard just a few blocks away!

Unfortunately the graveyard on the grounds of a school that was closed for CNY, so I couldn’t see it on this trip.

Tamsui Here’s Mackay Church today. It’s an active church with Sunday services.  There are actually two sections of Mackay Street, where a major highway has cut through the winding walking paths, but you can walk easily between Mackay Church and the school started by Mackay, Oxford College. The Oxford College building is still there, but it’s now part of Aletheia University. Another name change for historians to uncover!

 

 

 

 

 

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From Far Formosa

Spoiler: Here I am at Oxford College in Tamsui, founded and built by George Mackey

So when I was planning to come to Taiwan, I read George Leslie Mackay’s From Far Formosa. The author is a very, very distant cousin, from a branch of the Mackays who went to Canada after the Clearances. (I believe we are also distant cousins through his mother’s line, since her maiden name is Sutherland, and my family is from the Sutherland branch of the Mackays. But pretty much everyone from that bit of Scotland is a cousin, so…).

Anyway, this is a book about his time in Taiwan as a missionary. I’m really conflicted about it: He writes about learning to speak Chinese, and the local dialects too, man, and how difficult it was without formalized classes and dealing with local accents, but he’s persevered, and I think, that’s right, Cousin George! 加油!  He writes about how various tribes, social groups, and classes will pronounce the same character completely differently, and about different titles and introductions, so I get the feeling he really understood Chinese, not just the Taxi Chinese I have.

But then he talks about bringing Christ to the backwards heathens, and I cringe. Ugh, I know it’s the 1700s, but seriously, Cousin George.

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Anyway, I’m fascinated by the locations he describes in the book, and I’m hoping to track them down and see what’s still there today.

Part 2: Mackay Street & The Complications of Anglicizing Chinese

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New In Egg

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This tiny Taoyuan shop has a million toy vending machines, with all kinds of little keychain cuties and unfamiliar action figures, so of course I stopped by to get a present for Harold. I wonder if I can keep it New in Egg until I get it home to him.

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