Recently, an acquaintance, having only been here few months, asked, “How do you do it? How do you get through the ‘this is China’ days and seem to enjoy your life here so much?” I get this question a lot.
As I often do, I replied that having three China-years on her means that we live very different lives as expats. I’ve long since regained comforts I said goodbye to when I was fresh off the boat. In fact, I no longer have many ‘this is China’ days at all because, when I don’t want to deal with it, all I need to do is whip up a batch of pancakes, shut my doors and forget that there’s even a foreign world outside. Having made myself a comfortable home here makes me much less homesick.
It wasn’t always that way. When I look back on my years here, I realize just how far I’ve come. I remember how overwhelming the supermarket was until I learned to say “no, I don’t have a VIP card” and “yes, please give me a bag.” I remember being so overwhelmed by the abundance of workers in a supermarket that I would avoid aisles just so I didn’t have to tell them (in broken Chinese) that I didn’t understand the product suggestions they always seemed ready to offer in that split second glance at any shelf.
I remember uncomfortable furniture in the apartment provided by my first employer and the moment I broke down and bought a mattress pad from Ikea. I remember my first meals, when I’d cross my fingers and walk into an establishment, hoping first that they would understand my attempts to order and second that I’d be able to enjoy it. I remember crying over the ruined immersion blender that I’d brought from home only to fry in the socket from forgetting to use my voltage converter just that one time.
The first large meal I hosted was the definition of “make-do.” I spent hours looking up substitutes for the hopelessly long list of ingredients that I thought were impossible to find, and researching recipes for a banquet that didn’t involve an oven. A friend and I took shifts chopping vegetables until wee hours of the morning the night before, because the kitchen space was too small to accommodate such multi-tasking the next day. And, I remember the first time I walked into an import store and felt childishly giddy as I filled up my basket with things I didn’t need just so I could remember what they tasted like.
The first large meal I hosted was the definition of “make-do.”
Now, I do boring things like decide which of the multitude of things that I can make and buy are worth my time and money. I plan meals not based on whether they are possible, but rather whether it’s healthy to eat so many carbs in a row or whether I’m getting a large enough variety of vegetables. And, I actually worry about eating all my home-cooked leftovers in time because my German Catholic upbringing still keeps a voice in my head saying, “waste not, want not.”
The longer I live here, the more people I meet who are also quite comfortable living so far from home. Some have simply been in China for years, or had studied Chinese before coming, allowing them to adjust to culture shock much faster than I have. Of course, the great thing about being an expat is that you continually meet new people with differing levels of comfort abroad, as well as a multitude of other life experiences that they have brought with them to China.
So, as a nod to the flexibility it takes to live within another culture or to those who’ve lived here all their lives but made the effort to understand something about the world outside their hometown, I offer a recipe that can be dressed up or down in direct relation to the cook’s ability. If you’re fresh off the boat, look up an import store in this magazine and find some couscous. Fear not about leftovers if you don’t have a microwave because you can eat this cold or hot. If you’re a long-timer or have invested in an oven, take this recipe to the next level with the optional steps at the end. If you’ve never heard of couscous, then take some time to discover one of the most convenient ingredients to prepare on the planet.
Tomato Basil Couscous
• 1.5 cups couscous
• 2 cups chicken broth or water
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 4 cloves garlic
• 1 large red/orange/yellow bell pepper, diced
• 1 bunch green onions, sliced
• 1 large tomato, diced
• ½ cup fresh basil, chopped
(or 1 tablespoon dried)
• 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
• Salt and pepper to taste
• ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Boil broth/water. Pour over couscous in a large mixing bowl, stir and cover. In 5-10 minutes, couscous will be cooked. Fluff with fork and set aside.
- In a pan, heat oil and sauté garlic and bell peppers for 3 minutes. Add tomato and green onions. Cook another 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Combine couscous, sautéed vegetables, basil, vinegar and salt and pepper in mixing bowl. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold, topped or mixed with Parmesan, if using.
- [Optional] Pour mixture into a casserole dish. Bake at 350°/175°C for 20 minutes covered, then add Parmesan to top and bake another 5 minutes uncovered.