Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rectifying Regional Views

I seem to remember reading in an article on letter writing etiquette that one must never begin with an apology. I don't really care for rules like that, but I do usually enjoy anecdotal openers anyways. However, apologies should be gotten to quickly, so I'm sorry for the two week absence.

September brought with it Cara, my girlfriend. She, like myself, was serving in Peace Corps - Mongolia. We spent some time traveling through China together after finishing our two years of teaching English. Then I met family in Italy while she went back to the States for a few weeks before touring Scotland with her mother.

Fast forward a month and Cara has allowed herself to be convinced to visit me in St. Louis. She met my mother before leaving Mongolia, but handled meeting the rest of my family with panache. To reward her "reckless courage," as well as rectify her view of Missouri as "Southern," I took her to every interesting event I could find during her two week stay.

One of the highlights for me was the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. I have tried to always make the festival when living in St. Louis, but after two years in Central Asia, the cultural event was that much more enjoyable for me. I do not want to pretend that I know really anything about Japan just because I lived in Mongolia, but that didn't stop me from mentally mocking the high school kids running around in kimonos and baby doll outfits.

Arguably the best part of the festival happens after nightfall, when candles are lit around the Japanese garden area and lake for an evening walk. However, for this year, my favorite part was a cooking demonstration.

To understand what follows, you need to know two things. First, Cara often criticizes me for being too negative and judgmental. I argue that the two go hand in hand with a realistic world-view. When you open your eyes, you have to start judging what's good and what's bad, and the sad fact is that there is a lot of bad. Second, during our travels throughout Asia, Cara and I have made a point of attending cooking classes wherever we are.

The demonstration included nine relatively quick and simple Japanese dishes prepared over the course of an hour and a half. That part was on the brochure, the surprise was that it also included the cook's views on Asian culture. He talked about the recent nuclear disaster and resilience of the Japanese. He enlightened us on how escalators only go up, but not down in order to save power. He even gave a culinary version of Asiatic differences:

Cook: "You take this and this [soy sauce and mirin] and you know you're cooking Japanese, right?"
Crowd: "Yes," with a little laughing.
Cook: "Well how about take away the mirin and add garlic and chili peppers. Where are you?"
Me: "China?" among other mumbles from the crowd.
Cook: "Korea, you should have gotten that with the garlic alone. What about adding ginger?"
Crowd: "China," with a little confidence.
Cook: "Right, China. And take away ginger, leave soy sauce, add tomatoes?"
Me, much more quietly this time: "Italy?"
Cook: "Indonesia, yeah, not Italy. This is about Asia ..."
Obviously I was not alone in my guess.
Cook: "And add cardamom, and pepper, and cloves, and ..."
Crowd: "India!" Emphatically this time.
Cook: "Good, India, and that's a history of Asia with just a handful of ingredients."

Cara, who had remained rather quiet throughout the exchange leans over to me and whispers:
"And take away everything? Mongolia!" She dissolved into giggles as she had obviously been holding that one in.

Cara and I may still disagree on which region to put Missouri in, but at least we have a consensus on Mongolia,
- John

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