I Grew Up Abroad. Do I Have a Cuisine?

I Grew Up Abroad. Do I Have a Cuisine?


[Photograph: Sho Spaeth]

One of my wife’s family’s traditions is to eat too many Peconic Bay scallops on the day before Thanksgiving.

Little cylinders about as long as a finger joint, ranging in diameter from dime- to quarter-sized, bay scallops are a bit too small to sear properly, the way you would sea scallops. They are, in fact, a little too small to cook properly at all and are best eaten raw. Yet they’re so sweet and tender that, even when breaded and slightly overcooked in an excess of butter, I find them to be the finest fishy seasonal delicacy not just on Long Island but the East Coast, edging out shad roe or the overrated soft-shell blue crab.

This year, however, most of the bay scallops died. The few that were harvested were sold to restaurants and people with connections I don’t have. Ecologists have warned the die-off is due to global warming; my mother-in-law, who knows a few baymen, says it’s a fluke, and the scallop harvest will return next year. Regardless, instead of a pound of fried scallops, I found I had nothing to occupy my attention that November afternoon, so I went for a walk.

There’s a small, private beach nearby, a narrow strip of sand that stretches a few hundred feet along a bay, bounded on one side by a narrow jetty overlooking the channel to a pond that serves as a kind of harbor for the neighborhood’s boats. When I first started going out there a decade ago, most of the boats and the houses of their owners were small and functional—the kind you’d expect to find in a sleepy beachside community mostly made up of middle-class families. Nowadays, both the houses and boats are enormous and regal aside from the few belonging to older residents, those who’ve managed to stay on despite the temptation of rising property prices and—like the loss of the scallops, like the loss of many of the trees in my in-laws’ immediate area, deemed a nuisance by the newer, wealthier residents—the loss of much of what I, as a visitor, believed made East Marion what it was.

Maybe that was why, as I walked up and down the beach kicking at clamshells and twigs and errant bits of seaweed, thinking of all the scallops I couldn’t eat, my thoughts turned toward memory and the ways it misleads us. I was, of course, thinking churlishly of the scallops—of how my Thanksgiving was “ruined”; of the possibility of never eating Peconic Bay scallops again—but there were other, larger ways in which my memories seemed to crowd out other thoughts, drag in emotions entirely out of proportion to the occasion, and otherwise make themselves the focus of my beach-walking state of mind.

There was, for example, the fact that East Marion reminds me of Yotsukura, the sleepy, beachside community where my Japanese family lives on the other side of the world, despite the fact that the few similarities between the two places are entirely superficial. The differences are particularly stark when it comes to food: Yotsukura, like any seaside town, has its share of seasonal delicacies, but the fervor with which the locals embrace them, whether it’s sardines or Pacific saury in the fall. The two different kinds of bonito—the lean, young fish with its pale pink flesh that’s caught in the spring and the older, fattier fish that comes in the autumn, with meat the color of a bad bruise—are unlike anything I’ve seen in America, let alone Long Island.

So it was with something like irritation that I swatted away thoughts about Yotsukura as I walked back and forth, tracing the lines of detritus left by the tide. Why would a beach with no waves, a beach on the banks of a placid bay, remind me of the vast stretches of sand that edge my grandmother’s town, protected as it is by seawalls and artificial forest buffers designed to stem the daily fury of the Pacific Ocean? There was no reason, I concluded, save for memory and its tricks, its tendency to make unlike things alike.

Serving of chicken adobo with white rice on a plate, with more adobo sauce being poured over a chicken thigh with a spoon

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

I’ll confess I was primed to be maudlin. The weather was perfect for a little scallop solipsism: cool but not cold; windy, but gently so; a little overcast but no threat of rain. And the topic of memory and its unreliability had been on my mind ever since I published a recipe for chicken adobo, the national dish of the Philippines, which I, in no way Pinoy, nevertheless felt comfortable developing solely because I lived in the country as a very young child. There were other justifications, to be sure—the dish has near-infinite variations; the Filipino diaspora is quite open to culinary adaptation; I have eaten adobo so regularly for 36 years that I felt sufficiently armored against valid claims of cultural appropriation—but it’s useless to deny my brief stint living there was the main reason I felt it was appropriate.

And yet, publishing the recipe nevertheless left me feeling uncomfortable. As I retraced my steps on that quiet East Marion beach, I thought about the false likeness of my surroundings to Yotsukura and the way that likeness relied on a series of hefty elisions stacked like those precarious rock sculptures bored people build on vacations. I understood what was left out served to shorten the distance between the scene before me and my memories of Japan. I also understood that something similar had occurred with the adobo recipe, to make it more like the original recipe I’d had made for me in the Philippines. That something similar had occurred, more specifically, with Erlinda.

I noted in the article accompanying the recipe that Erlinda, the person who taught the recipe to my parents, was my nanny. But really she was my “yaya,” a Tagalog word for governess or caregiver that has a more expansive definition in my mind because, from the time I was six months old until I was four, Erlinda was essentially my second mother. My first memories are of being with—eating with—Erlinda; of trying fish eyeballs in her room; of her making me adobo; of her setting a small red plastic bowl of tambo-tambo before me on the table as I called out goodbye to my parents, who were on their way out for dinner. I remember, too, rushing into her arms after spending a little time away, then burying my face into the pleats of her baby-blue dress the way my toddler today will bury her head in my knees after a long day at work. The impulse was the same: to get as close as possible to someone you love beyond language, to obliterate, for just a moment, the gap that exists between two people.

Platter with chicken adobo in foreground and bowl of white rice in background

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

And while there was nothing remarkable about my relationship with Erlinda—it would be familiar to any child who’s had a yaya or its equivalent—it was, in retrospect, marred by attitudes endemic to the expatriate experience. To this day, I don’t have a clear memory of Erlinda’s face, which I ascribe to both the failings of memory and to the fact that her face never made it into any of our photographs from the time, even though she’s nevertheless present in many that focus on me: a forearm propping me up as I balanced on a fence; a hand compelling me to turn toward the camera; the same pleats I buried my face in serve as a baby-blue backdrop in one photo of a three-year-old version of me, mugging for the lens.

You could charitably chalk up Erlinda’s effacement to the fact that I was a child or to the prevailing culturally chauvinistic attitude of Americans abroad in the 1980s. But I lived abroad for a couple of decades—in the Philippines, India, and Hong Kong—and I’ve met expats of many nationalities, and I’ve come to think there’s something fundamentally self-involved about the expat experience. For many, no matter how noble their outlook or ideals and no matter what age they are when they spend their time abroad, it seems to me the way they process living in an unfamiliar country, and all the terror and wonder that entails, is with a child’s blinkered sense of being the center of the universe.

I was reminded of that recently by a comment made by the journalist Ishaan Tharoor about the protests in Hong Kong. “I lived in Hong Kong for four years and, like any other useless expat, largely saw the city’s populace as mostly apolitical and insular,” Tharoor wrote. While he went on to note how events have shown how wrong that view was, he has since deleted the comment, which I understand, given that it begins by painting expats with an overly broad brush, much as I am doing here. But it’s a candid confession of error, and I can attest to its accuracy: The primary reaction in the expat community to the first major pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2003 was surprise, particularly among expat journalists.

a young Sho Spaeth being held up by Erlinda

[Photograph: Courtesy of Sho Spaeth]

As I mulled these thoughts over as I walked up and down the beach, it occurred to me that my discomfort with publishing the adobo recipe had very little to do with the recipe itself, nor with leaving out Erlinda, no matter how cold that has left me, and instead had to do with the invocation of my childhood abroad to give it an aura of accuracy if not authenticity. Those who spend their formative years in another country or move to one as an adult are routinely credited with being cosmopolitan simply because they were lucky enough to have lived in a foreign country. The same is true of professional travelers, whether they’re international consultants who rack up airline loyalty points or travel writers. But I know many of those people who suffer from a parochialism that’s much narrower than the one generally attributed to fanny-packed tourists, a parochialism that’s made worse by an assumption on the part of nonexpats that to live abroad is to be worldly.

That assumption can lead to some errors in judgment, whether it’s a cynical view of an entire population’s political apathy or a conviction that a certain adobo your yaya made is a good version of a national dish, let alone in any way definitive. And those who are granted that assumption can adopt some terrible habits, as I have, leaning on their experience despite having done the work, misusing their memories to make unlike things alike, collapsing a world of differences through the lens of their experience, for the simple and silly goal of protecting an aura of worldliness that has repeatedly served to their advantage.

That’s not to say people who spend significant time abroad are inherently untrustworthy. But it is a warning to treat any appeal to authority they might have solely because of the miles they’ve logged or places they’ve lived as suspicious, and a reminder that they, like every other person, suffer from a suite of myopic biases that need to be diligently worked against. I have a final beachside anecdote to offer to support that point, if you’ll bear with me.

I’d grown tired of thinking of expats and their deficiencies, and as I was finishing up a final circuit of tracing and retracing my steps in the sand, I realized the lines of shells and rocks and seagrass left by the tide weren’t as uniform as I’d initially assumed. By the jetty, there was a greater concentration of shells, from clams for the most part but also from mussels and other molluscs, and a disparate few from scallops, which I noted ruefully. As I walked away from the jetty, the concentration of shells became less dense; a function, I deduced, of the way the water lapped up against the structure, and the way the current moved, the ebb and flow of the tide. The result was a kind of picture made of clamshells, like the comma-like swoosh of purées and sauces that used to be ubiquitous in fancy restaurants.

Judging from all the bird droppings that surrounded the jetty, I believed I’d figured out the mystery of this little bit of natural art, and when I returned to my in-laws’ house, I described to my mother-in-law in my long-winded way the interesting discovery I’d made: the lay of the beach, the way the clamshells formed a kind of swooping figure, the series of small deductions that led me to my conclusion.

Without looking up from preparing our dinner, she said, “Yeah. It’s where gulls eat clams.”

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