Sense of Self

Home madeThis year, I’ll be spending the first half of June visiting my family in my hometown in Texas. As has happened in the past, a trip home tends to remind me acutely of the differences between my current way of life in China and the how I lived before moving abroad. The longer I’m away from home, the more my concept of “home” changes.

I’ve adapted to life here gradually, because I’ve figured out how to build a life of convenience that, although a little unorthodox at times, suits me well. As I’ve “roughed it” and then learned to smooth out the ridges, my sense of home has shifted into a sense of belonging to a place that I’ve made my own, despite whatever challenges meet me along the way.

The first time I really thought about this concept, I was in high school. I had a zany Latin teacher who introduced me to Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. Thinking about that book makes me realize how much I’ve changed as a person since the beginning of adulthood. The main character leaves a small-town home to experience city life, and never again feels at home when he returns to visit. As an expatriate who grew up in a town with fewer than 4,000 people, I can relate to that easily. Many expats I’ve met while living in China and traveling elsewhere abroad have mentioned a similar feeling, or a lack of belonging to any place, be it a temporary or permanent residence.

Despite changes, there are some things about me that are fundamentally molded by where I came from. Part of that is a love of Mexican and Tex-Mex food. As long as I can remember, I’d eaten Mexican food at least once a week before I moved abroad. My dad loves it and taught me and my siblings to enjoy hot salsa, cheese dip and guacamole, as well as all kinds of other basic dishes. In college, friends from Mexico introduced me to more authentic food from their country.

Because of this exposure, I’ve had all kinds of Mexican food, as well as many different varieties of Tex-Mex. I’ve eaten it in all different styles, from fast food to gourmet. Simple dishes, like quesadillas, soft and hard tacos and burritos were among the very first things I learned how to cook, and the only job I’ve ever had in the food service industry was in a fast-food burrito chain. I guess you could say that my love for Mexican food has become a part of who I am.

Despite changes, there are some things about me that are fundamentally molded by where I came from.

When you set out from home, you take with you parts of who you are, and you hold fast to them in order to retain your sense of self until slowly replacing some of those parts with new ones as you adapt to an environment. One of the things from my past that I’ve never let go of is a love of salsa and guacamole. The fresh, uncooked vegetables make them great to eat on many occasions and in a variety of ways.

I love salsa on chips, on tacos, on fried eggs, on steamed fish and in all sorts of other combinations. Salsa was the first large-volume potluck-appropriate dish I learned to make and share in China for a reasonable cost and amount of effort. When I see avocados for making guacamole, I snatch them up if they’re in any way a deal. Even if I use an avocado for something else, the rarity of having it at all makes it worth buying every time.

A love of eating salsa isn’t the only thing I’ve brought with me from my Texan upbringing. I’m also quite proud of the way I put it together. I’ve only fine-tuned my salsa-making craft since moving to China, too, since so many of the ingredients I need for it are readily available in a local market. Even avocados, the luxury that they are, are easy to find in fruit markets, although they aren’t cheap. Limes, more rare, are also increasingly easy to find, but you don’t even need either ingredients to make an enjoyable dip.

The recipe below can be made as guacamole, or it can be a simple chunky salsa if there are no avocados available. I make my guacamole with discernable pieces of avocado rather than mashing it, especially if the avocado is really good. Spiciness can of course be adjusted to taste. In fact, you can adjust any ingredient in this recipe, and even substitute it with a similar ingredient, and you’re still set. Like someone learning to live somewhere new, this recipe works because it’s flexible. You can make it just about anywhere. And when I do, no matter where I am, I feel absolutely at home.

Homemade Guacamole

2 avocados, chopped
1 small tomato, diced
1/3 cup white onion, minced
1 small bunch cilantro, minced
2-4 green or red Thai chili peppers, seeds removed, minced
1 lime, juiced
Fresh ground black pepper
Garlic powder

Put avocados, tomato, onion, chili pepper, cilantro and lime juice in a bowl and stir to mix evenly.
Add the remaining ingredients to taste and mix thoroughly.