Learning to Like Red Beans
Six months in China presented a series of small challenges. I won’t lie. I was incredibly nervous before my departure. I grew up in a small town and had never traveled anywhere by myself, especially not outside of the country. Now I was signed up to be the “pioneer” of a new program for our university in a country very different than my own. I frantically read expat blogs the night before my flight, but could not seem to picture what the next six months of my life were going to look like. This was causing a great deal of stress for someone who creates thorough Excel spreadsheets before making any big decision.
By the middle of my study abroad semester, however, I was feeling very confident. I knew all of my favorite street food stalls. I had successfully ordered plenty of items on taobao (think Chinese Amazon) and had crossed several must-see tourist attractions off my list. I felt like I had come a long way from getting lost in the Shanghai airport immediately upon arrival and was reveling in my new savvy traveler status. Yet there was one ingredient that sought to knock me off my pedestal with every trip to the grocery store; the red bean. Although my appetite for Chinese food was well attended to, I was dying for something sweet. Specifically a fat piece of chocolate cake. I bought every bun and bread that looked like it would soothe my craving for sugar, but was frequently greeted with the taste of red bean paste inside. Those flecks that looked like chocolate chips in my bread? Red beans. That warm, toasty bun that looked so tempting in the corner store? Surprise, it’s filled with red bean paste. I began to grow frustrated at this seemingly small obstacle.
For some reason, the taste of the red bean paste was the one food in China I could not grow to like. Maybe the taste just did not suit me, or maybe it was a slow build of dissatisfaction as my craving grew and the red bean continued to haunt every potential sweet I encountered. In the dorms, I watched “The Great British Bake Off” and drooled over the cakes and cookies being made. I would again become hopeful enough, or maybe desperate enough, to go out and try again, buying a cake product and repeatedly becoming frustrated at the taste of beans and not chocolate. Why could I never remember the Chinese characters for red bean? Why didn’t I just go buy some of those dumplings I loved so much across the street? Maybe it was a desire to have something familiar in a place far from home. Or maybe I was seeking victory over a seemingly insignificant challenge, searching for evidence that I was succeeding at adjusting to a new lifestyle.
Now a full year since my time in China, I miss little things about my semester abroad more and more every day. As my social media continues to remind me of all the adventures I was on a year ago, I sometimes struggle to remember the details of daily life in China. This past October, something special happened to reinvigorate those memories. On the day of the Mid-Autumn festival, an international student friend of mine from China brought me a Mooncake to celebrate. Mooncakes are traditionally eaten on the day of the Mid-Autumn festival. Originally they were made with an egg in the middle but now come in all kinds of flavors. I was pleasantly surprised to see a little piece of China back at SLU, and was also ecstatic to have a snack after several hours of studying for a lab practical. I bit into the moon cake and, lo and behold, it was filled with red bean paste. This time, instead of frustration, I felt a smile on my face. Memories of bullet train rides, nights at the karaoke bar and weaving between food stalls on the street outside of my apartment returned quickly. I suddenly felt a little reconnected with a culture I was so lucky to experience for half a year, while also remembering all of the little challenges I encountered while trying to adjust to life in a new environment, and how these challenges taught me not to fear putting myself in an unfamiliar situation. My time abroad gave me the confidence to know I can overcome the hurdles that may accompany new experiences, and if I can’t quite grow past what seems like an obstacle, I might one day look back at it as a welcome reminder of exciting journeys, personal growth, and unexpected flavors.