How To Cope With Nostalgia

I was putting groceries away last week when, in between the kitchen counter and the refrigerator door, I got hit by a wave of nostalgia so strong it knocked me back on my heels. I managed to not drop the eggs, but I couldn’t stop thinking about CityShop.

My first CityShop

CityShop is one of Shanghai’s great wonders. I hate shopping for clothes, but love going grocery shopping (think there might be a correlation between those two truths? nah.) and CityShop was my chain store of choice in China. They’re a great combination of domestic and import goods, ridiculously expensive produce, reasonably priced in-house baked goods, and recognizable cuts of meat. Their marble pound cake got me through my pregnancy.

Still, what I loved most about CityShop was its Western-ness. The aisles are actually aisles, that is, straight rows with reasonably grouped boxes, bags, and bottles of food, not labyrinths ranging over numerous floors. The smells of cheap soy sauce, mystery meat, and durian do not permeate the entire store. Towards the end of our stay in downtown China, CityShop even started stocking mochi ice cream balls. What more could one ask for from a grocery store in the Far East?

So why was I overcome with an urge to go outside, hail a cab, and head to CityShop? I’m still puzzling over that. In the meantime, here are some handy tips to cope with your own battles of nostalgia, be they foreign or domestic:

Savor the memory. Remember what it was that you loved about that time, place, moment, aroma, sound. Our experiences make us who we are and we should celebrate the great moments we’ve had.

Get in touch with someone connected with your nostalgia. Catch up on mutual friends. Reminisce over good times. I’ve let too many good friendships go to seed over the places over the years, and I don’t intend to do that any longer if I can help it.

Enumerate the reasons you’re grateful for the life you’re living now, lest your nostalgia become more bitter than it is sweet. Lists are my thing, but I suppose anything that is conducive to gratefulness will do.

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Successful Fried Rice…At Last!

After numerous previous attempts, I have finally succeeded in making the best fried rice ever. Thank you, Lifeskills Master JP Villanueva.

In an attempt to ease my sandwich-hating husband’s lunchtime hunger pains, I threw a couple of mashed garlic cloves, some leftover rice, a pork chop, a couple handfuls of carrot, and a bit of cilantro (it’s healthier if you add something green) in the requisite “screaming hot wok.” Dropped an egg in, too, for good measure.

And ’cause I AM hard-core, I stirred and let it all sit in the wok with the gas dialed all the way up to High. The result: crunchy yumminess!

Best fried rice I’VE ever made…paired it with Black-Eyed Pea and Sweet Potato stew the hubby had whipped up the day before for a complete Afrasian lunch.

This was the crunchiest rice we’ve had since the 4 kuai clay pot wonder-rice in the dirty labyrinth of alleyways populated by poor university students behind the 广州东站. Wish I had photos of that place. We may have been the only foreigners the shopkeepers had ever seen. The eateries were tiny. Short-plastic-stools-and-no-tables tiny, and the kitchens were even tinier. You could choose the meats and veggies from a display tray to have tossed in your clay pot of rice. I remember having Chinese sausage, shitake mushrooms, and spring onions. Amazing. The Better Half took me there while we were still dating. It’s clear why I married him, isn’t it?

GPS and Prenatal Care

It seems that while I was navigating my way around subway systems abroad, a GPS service became de rigueur back in the US of A. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

See, I’m kind of a map fiend. I love maps. Love them. I don’t care if the map is of a place I’ve never been, or don’t particularly want to visit. I don’t even care if they’re accurate or not. Some of my favorite maps ever are the ones from the 18th and 19th centuries. Apparently the continents looked different back then. Nothing pains me more than throwing away a perfectly good map, as my better half will attest. He’s learning to live with all sorts of clutter.

The thing is, though, I’m really good at reading a maps. I think that being able to intuitively feel which way is north is a very important lifeskill, one that everyone should acquire if at all possible. Couple this instinct with a decent map, and you’ll never be lost for long. Even the time you spend a bit turned around is time well spent, as it helps fix those streets, landmarks, what have you, in their relative position in your mental map of a city.

I digress. GPS services. I kind of hate them, and even though I do recognize their usefulness in some situations, like figuring out how the heck to get on the West Seattle Bridge from downtown since they closed the Spokane Street onramp and neglected to change the signs, I confess to (often) talking back to the woman with the grating voice and to thinking myself wiser than she. My major objection to most GPS services is their assumption that I will just blindly, with complete disregard for the bigger picture, follow their commands as to what I ought to do next. It reminds me of my prenatal care experience in China.

There are lots of babies born in China every day. This means there are lots of pregnant women, which in turn means that even hospitals that specialize in prenatal care and birth are very crowded places. The administration of these hospitals deals with the issue by instituting policies that take expectant mothers through doctors’ visits that vaguely resemble circuit training. You check in with Registration so they know you’re there and are issued some sort of a number that will be important later. Then you go to Area A, take a number, wait your turn, get your blood pressure checked. Go to Area B, take a number, wait your turn, get a little test tube, go down the hallway and give a urine sample. Then you head on over to Area C, or sometimes back to Area A or maybe even up to Area D, to take another number and have some other test done. When you’re done with all your tests for the day, that first number gets you in to see your doctor, who looks at all your results, tells you to eat the blandest food humanly possible, and asks you to teach him two new medical terms in English.

The problem with this very orderly system, as it pertained to me, was that I never knew where I was supposed to go next. My medical Chinese is, um, not very advanced, and I don’t do well in crowds, so these were very stressful occasions for me. I made the mistake once or twice of asking WHY I should go to a certain department. On every occasion, the staff were so flummoxed by this question that they would put down what they were doing and say, “OK. I’ll take you there myself.” I soon realized that I couldn’t possibly beat them. I had to join them. So every visit, I would go to my usual starting point, find the friendliest-looking orderly, hand her my little book and say, “Where do I go now?” Once that task was done, I’d ask the orderly on hand, “OK, where do I go next?” As a coping device, I gave up on the big picture.

By my eighth month of pregnancy, I had finally figured out the routine and had started preparing for each visit by looking up whichever handwritten characters were decipherable in the doctor’s instructions from the previous visit. This way, I was able to map out an approximation of what indignities I’d be subjecting myself to that day. Still, by not insisting on an explanation of the big picture I had wasted tons of time and caused myself more stress that I certainly didn’t need.

My concern here is that GPS, like many other demonstrations of modern technology, is nothing more than a coping device, and that in relying too heavily on it we are giving up our critical thinking skills. Why? is the most powerful and the most important question I know, and the answer to it lies somewhere in between the big picture and the next step.

Happy Lists

When I was living in southern China, I had a little circle of friends who would meet regularly for Ladies Who (Frugally) Lunch sessions. We were all very busy people but we found that taking the time to meet a couple times a month over lunch gave us a chance to vent, tell our China Frustration Stories, and generally maintain our sanity.

Over time, we started to notice that our conversation at these luncheons was becoming distinctly negative. In an effort to combat this, before each lunch we’d each prepare a list of 10 things we loved about the city we were living in or China in general, and share our lists with each other over the meal. The Happy Lists were a great way to keep our lives in perspective and keep us focused on the good.

Now, in this my re-pat adventure version 2.1 (2.0 was a 3-month return that might have lasted longer had the economy not been so heinous), I find myself rather ambivalent about being back in the US of A. This is a huge step up from re-pat adventure version 1.0, when I was miserable for a year and nine months straight, with occasional breaks of sunshine and optimism. In the spirit of fostering that optimism, I’m going to share two lists with you: My I’m Glad to Be Back in the States list and my Can’t Wait to Get Back to THIS in China Someday lists. So much for being concise with the naming of those.

Now then, without further ado…

I’m Glad to Be Back in the States List:
1. Trader Joe’s. My goodness, did I miss me some TJ’s while in China. My friend O and I would text each other dream lists of what we’d buy that day if only there were a TJ’s nearby. Mochi Ice Cream balls, Chili Spiced Mango, the medley of tri-colored baby potatoes, Nerello del Bastardo, I could go on and on.
2. Running into people I know at the grocery store. I come from a smaaaaaaaall small town. If you grew up here too and were born within 3 years of me, I know you. It’s nice to see you again.
3. Really, genuinely fresh air
4. I get to take a ferry several times a week. It’s beautiful.
5. Driving a car
6. Drive-thrus. I am convinced that nature invented these for the single-during-the-day mother. I used to just be hungry until I had another set of hands to help out. Now, I can (kind of) nourish myself.
7. Carseats and all the places they fit (into strollers, over the kiddie seat in shopping carts, into the base of an upside-down restaurant high chair)
8. Outdoor performances, especially of the free variety
9.  Chinese people who are genuinely impressed with my Mandarin. I know. I’m so vain.
10. Berries. Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Blackberries, Salmon berries, Marion berries galore!

Can’t Wait to Get Back to THIS in China Someday:
1. 东北菜 (Northeastern Chinese cuisine) It’s insane. Everywhere I’ve been in China, DongBei food is one of the easiest kinds of foods to find. In the States…nothing!
2. 湖南菜 (Hunan cuisine)
3. Banks that open on the weekends
4. Shops, restaurants, etc. that stay open past 10PM
5. Chatting with taxi drivers
6. Mani/pedis that I deem “affordable”
7. Our really, really international circle of friends 
8. Older Chinese people in parks
9. The workout I got carrying my daughter and her stroller up three flights of stairs. I’m really going to struggle to walk anywhere near as much as I walked in China. See previous list, Item No. 5.
10. Tropical fruit. The mangos here are preposterous.