When I told a friend, a fellow American, that our family was moving to Canada from Japan, she exclaimed immediately, “Oh—they have a kind of cookie there that I like very much!” This amused me, and then I thought later that this is also how I most often recall places I have been but do not know well. In England, a savory pastry that you can eat with your hands as you walk through the park, trailing crumbs for gray pigeons. In France, pungent red wine (legally!) sipped from a glass in a restaurant when I was barely 12 years old. In Mexico, cheese curds—soft and fresh and salty. In Thailand, a coconut curry.
For Boy and Girl, for the distant place they have been but do not know well, it has always been “in America, big pizza.” (In fact, this became a saying for us about all things large, as in “as big as an American pizza.”) And so later, when Koun and I explained that it was not America but Canada that we were moving “home” to, for some reason our kids began to talk about Canada as the place with the pizza. In this way, our kids created context for a change that was probably otherwise unimaginable—a certain comfort taken in the recollection of a massive circle of dough and tomato sauce and cheese consumed in San Francisco some months earlier.
It must be this connection (food, memory) that causes, for many expats, that pervasive discomfort, that longing for the food of the well-known place. For years and years in Japan, it was my mother’s rhubarb pie that I craved most of all—red stalks from an Alaskan garden in late summer, ample sugar to temper the tartness, the buttery pastry shell holding it together. When I finally came to think of Japanese food as the familiar, I still craved the pie that, when eaten on trips Stateside, always prompted me to say the thing that I first thought an error in translation in Japan: “It’s sweet, BUT good.” I could not stand more than a few bites. My palate had changed, become accented, but my longing had not.
Since moving to Nova Scotia six months ago, I can find nothing in our new home that tastes quite like what I really, really want to eat. Obviously, part of this is that the local cuisine is different, as are the typical grocery store offerings; there is also the overarching fact that I am no longer drawn to those original comfort foods, the muted flavors of the large, carb-centered meals of North America. But there is something else there, too, that I can’t quite put my finger on—a flawed memory drawn from a flawed flavor. And so, every meal is tinged with a kind of dissatisfaction: good, yes, but not quite what I had in mind. I often felt this in Japan, too. It’s my personal, ongoing samsara, perhaps an obvious consequence of always being out of context.
Meanwhile, Boy and Girl—both of whom know the food of Japan to be “normal”—seem to be reasonably satisfied with their somewhat revised diet (perhaps especially the “Canadian pizza”). Sometimes I think, because of their youth, they are simply cultural chameleons, taking on the flavor of whatever place they inhabit, and so my simple theories of food and memory probably do not apply, or do not apply in the same way. Who can say for sure?
A few weeks ago, the four of us happened into a Korean-Japanese restaurant for lunch—mostly out of desperation. We were out running errands, the pita place was closed, and the kids were starting to give off that low whine that means, “Feed us. . . or else.” Inside the restaurant, the offerings were few and overpriced, but we ordered multiple plates of makizushi and watched as our children ate their weight in nori and delicately vinegared rice wrapped around slivers of local yams and cucumber. We’d forgotten how good Boy had gotten with chopsticks, how much he and Girl liked green tea. When it became obvious that we would run out of food, Koun and I stopped eating and transferred our remaining rolls to the kids’ plates. We must have been mistaken, after all, about their chameleon palates. Clearly Japanese food was what they had been craving.
Near the end of the meal, the waitress brought us a complimentary dish to try—julienned carrots and potatoes lightly fried in sesame oil. “It’s from my country, Korea. My mother used to make it for me when I was a child,” she explained. And I immediately replied, “Oh yes, we’ve been there—I love bibimbap!” Boy and Girl, each reaching for another morsel, continued to chew happily, completely comfortable in this meal, in this restaurant surrounded by Korean families who, I can only imagine, were missing a certain flavor and memory, the taste of a distant home. I was still hungry, but watching my children eat in this way, with such pleasure—this was the most satisfied I have felt in a long, long time.