A few weeks later, I could barely remember why I was in Beijing. I was extremely lonely. I missed the security of familiar friendships and the Western-heavy expat circles made me, with my accent and aversion to chicken tikka masala jokes, feel like an interloper. I missed the comfort of a partner. Determined to get over my ex, I had jumped into a string of terrible romantic choices and developed body image issues. I spoke to my family back home less and less, straining under the stress of pretending like everything was OK and figuring out a “Life Plan” as I edged closer to my thirties.I started engaging with China less too—I would finish the year and get the hell out, I decided. I began skipping my Mandarin classes, doing the bare minimum at work, hardly going out, and ordering in all the time—greasy, overpriced comfort food.*One weekend morning though, I wake up to find it’s snowing.I’ve trekked on icy mountains up north in India but never been in the middle of a snowfall. I look at the room around me that looks like a bomb’s hit it. After an hour of trawling through recipe subreddits, I go grocery shopping.It sounds simple enough—cooking one dish from the eight provinces of Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, Fujian, Anhui, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Guangdong, spanning the length and breadth of the country. It’s also a fairly dumb idea because outside of eggs and a couple of sabzis Mum insisted I learn, I don't know how to cook. But at the very least it might be interesting and with its clearly defined tasks, I am hoping it brings me some sort of structure.
There’s a thing that happens when you make yourself believe moving somewhere new will magically make you a new person: you can’t get away from your old self.
I am lying in bed, scrolling through the waimai food delivery app, when the guilt makes me stomp to the grocery store. That night, I make asparagus, Shandong-style.
It’s a very happy-making thing for me, this rising confidence about cooking. I still screw up a whole lot but the victories are growing, and the mean little voice inside my head tends to now shut up more often.Like the time I reach the final dish of the project, for instance. The cuisine is Zhejiang, where the food is rich, with liberal helpings of soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar. Among its many “feast dishes” is Dongpo pork belly, from the very pretty Hangzhou.This dish is the most difficult to pull off in the entire project. And it’s actually been the simplest Zhejiang recipe I can find. There are those that demand at least three hours just for simmering but having to share a stove with a roommate does not afford you these luxuries.
I get an anxiety attack one evening and am wound up and jittery, with thoughts spinning around in my head that are urging me to do something, anything. I go home and make an elaborate meal.