There are a lot of things about growing up that you have to find out for yourself. Some, you know you’re going to have to work through, like managing money, doing taxes, and commuting. Sure, they’re annoying, but — as I’ve come to find — not as annoying as the more unexpected challenges.
When I say unexpected in this context, I don’t mean hurdles that pop out of nowhere. By unexpected, I mean hurdles that didn’t even look like hurdles before — incognito troubles, wolfish tasks dressed as unthreatening sheep.
Being able to cook an omelette, and toast bread on the stove made me think that cooking in and beyond college was going to be a breeze. I watched, and still watch countless cooking shows and videos — assuming that some of the intuition I see on screen will find its way into my mind.
Then there’s the task of obtaining the components required to assemble a hearty meal. Other than having to physically go to the store and pay for these items, this seemed like the easiest, least mentally taxing part of being an adult. Shopping is fun, after all.
I’m a planner, and have always been a planner. In fact, sometimes I can plan better than I can execute. As a planner, I love making lists. Lists of chores are a personal favourite, but I also dabble in packing lists, reading/watch lists, and the classic grocery list.
Compiling a good grocery list is a true art. In order to be successful, one must assess what is absent in one’s home and how much of it is required for future meals. Then one must calculate how much time there is between the upcoming shopping trip and the next, and if any other items are running low or don’t need to be picked up until the next time. One must also work out how much they can carry and pay for in one go, and how much time they have to pick up all the items. Sometimes a shopper needs to work out which stores carry which items, or how many reusable bags they have to spare.
The most daunting detail, however, that a shopper must assess — and I would say this is the most easily overlooked — is the expiration dates of the items in question.
I hate expiration dates.
But I didn’t know to hate them when I went to buy groceries for the first time by myself. I didn’t see the imminent threat on the seemingly innocent strawberries and the fluffy, inviting bread. I took it all home, ready to consume them over the next few weeks. The non-perishables sat patiently, and though they were the less nutritious option, never disappointed. The strawberries, however, developed the infamous white fuzz on their surface just as I remembered that I wanted a light snack. The bread, by the time I got to the last few slices, had gone blue and released an unbelievably sour stench.
Non-perishables soon became my best friend. Fruit was mostly limited to instances where I could eat it immediately. When I went home, I would attempt to replenish my body with the fruit and veggies it so direly needed, but deep down I knew it was a short-term solution.
In future produce buying endeavours, I was both successful and unsuccessful. I’d identified apples as a safer fruit option, and would buy bananas as and when I was sure I would be able to dedicate a few morning meals to them. Over the years, however, convenience definitely began to dominate my shopping choices, taking a toll on the quality of my home-made meals. More pasta rolled in, and more vegetables rolled out. Frozen chicken, sometimes in nugget form, was preferable to fresh cuts. Processed cheese packaged by the slice was more desirable than an exciting shredded blend, or a chunk of fresh mozzarella.
An unexpected side effect of this nutritional decline was the value that I associated with feeding myself well. When I went out, I would eat what felt hearty and satisfying, while at home I’d try to munch on carrot sticks, but quickly turn to crackers dipped in peanut butter, chocolate bars, and leftover pizza.
My habits developed into a routine, and eventually manifested as a lifestyle. I sort of accepted that preparing something healthful and nourishing was an unattainable goal and a royal waste of time. It didn’t help that I was on a college schedule of working on tasks for 12 hours a day, and simultaneously trying to figure out my social life, future plans, and so much more.
Moving home for a short time after college showed me that I had been destroying myself from the inside out. Home-cooked food healed me slowly, giving me more energy, and it was nice that I didn’t have to think twice about having it in front of me everyday.
Flash forward to receiving my Fulbright grant, when my new routine was threatened by the notion of re-entering the pitfalls of my independence.
In Bangkok, I developed a good habit of eating a decent breakfast, and a better balanced lunch. I was surrounded by a lot of healthy eaters in our cohort, so it wasn’t difficult to take better care of my habits. I realized soon that the real problem was going to hit me in province, when my decisions were to truly become my own.
Meal-wise, I am always served a well-rounded, filling meal at lunch at school. It is one of my favorite parts of the day, and Meh Pit (our amazing chef at school) is always quick to substitute any part of my meal that might be harder on my stomach with something more accessible and equally delicious. In the mornings, as I’d started getting up later and later, I’d started turning to a carton of soymilk with a piece of fruit or a pack of biscuits — more of a snack than a breakfast. In the evenings, being uneasy about walking to restaurants in the dark, I became more and more accustomed to eating a yoghurt after my workouts, and downing peanut butter on bread, or a delightful microwaved frozen barbeque pork bao bun.
Tyler, my very helpful predecessor, had left plenty of cooking implements for me to use in our apartment, but the tiny obstacles of having to cook near an open door to avoid stinking up the apartment, and having to clean pots and pans everyday were too much for me to think about. On top of that, I’d arrived during the rainy season, so cleaning dishes outside was difficult, and cleaning them inside meant inviting ants to run around my shower drain.
My parents excitedly announced that they’d be coming to visit me in early November. They were coming right after Christmas, and were planning to spend time in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Krabi, and Bangkok with me. I was SO excited. I spent some time prior to their visit cleaning up my apartment and getting my routine in order. I’d become better at getting my laundry to Pi Uun (my neighbor who has a little laundry business) on time, cleaning my apartment weekly, and even doing yoga every day. In my mind, I was thriving.
My apartment was the first building my parents walked into in Nakhon Si Thammarat after leaving the airport. They’d seen it many times before when we’d Facetimed, but obviously seeing something in person brings its own perspectives to the table. While my dad and brother sat themselves down to chat as I finished packing, my mom immediately began to pace around and scan the room. I could feel her mind racing.
To give a little more context to this situation, I need to talk about my mother. My mom is one of the smartest people I know. She earned two masters degrees and worked in four different companies after getting married, and managed to raise two children in the process. She now has more degrees than I can count, runs her own company, and has a certificate from a Harvard Senior Executive Leadership Course. On top of being passionate and driven, she is kind, creative, and compassionate. How she juggles all of this and still manages to worry about my day-to-day routine, I cannot explain to you.
As we drove from my apartment to their hotel for the weekend, she turned to me and asked me what I’d eaten for dinner the day before. Unimpressed with my answer of yoghurt and peanut butter she turned back and announced, “I’m getting you a rice cooker. You’re learning how to cook.”
College helped me learn a lot about myself. Living away from my parents, much farther away then a lot of my friends, fed into an emerging independent streak that I’d had for a while. Being the older sibling, I was always trying to stay ahead of the game, learning to read as early as I could, figuring out how to use a computer after watching my parents for months, and seldom asking for extra help with any of my work. By the time my parents came, I was at a point where I wanted to be able to take ownership of cleaning up after, shopping for, and feeding myself. Consequently, my mom’s comment hit me in a weird place.
The next day, I reluctantly tailed her around a department store in Central Plaza, Nakhon Si Thammarat, looking for a rice cooker, only speaking up to ask her for a simpler one and choose a color that I liked. We also stopped by Tops Market so my mom could pick up some groceries for me. “I want to cook you some homemade aloo paranthas,” she said to me with a loving smile. My stomach twisted further. When we got back to the hotel, she quickly made some kichidi for us all to eat with an impressively low number of ingredients. It was delicious. With a stoic expression I slowly cleared half a bowl.
When we got to Krabi for our New Years weekend, we drove by a number of Indian restaurants. My mom was immediately excited. Thus began our quest of finding the best aloo parantha within walking distance. Why? Because my mom wanted to pick up twenty for me to take back with me. We, in fact, tasted paranthas at three different Indian restaurants, and bought ice and a plastic container to keep them, and some aachaar, fresh during the drive home.
When we got back to Nakhon, we went to my apartment and arranged all that we’d bought into my fridge and freezer, and onto my folding table. I now had easily three times the groceries I had before my parents came to town — none of which I’d thought to buy on my own.
We spent the next weekend in Bangkok while the truly devastating storm Pabuk hit the south of Thailand. Several of the teachers at my school reported heavy flooding in their homes. The damage was awful. At least four people had been killed.
I arrived back wanting to be as little of a burden as possible. I took the airport bus home, sat in my room and unpacked. My mom called me shortly after to check in. “Why don’t you try to make some kichidi?” she asked, “Or at least microwave a parantha.” Just then, my host teacher messaged me saying she wanted to take me to the night market for dinner. I told my mom I’d maybe cook the next day.
Walking around the night market, I bought myself kae bap and som tam, southern comforts to help me return from my holiday mood. As usual we walked by numerous fruit sellers and the part of me that hates buying fruit diverted my eyes elsewhere. I felt my phone buzz in my pocket as we walked and opened it to see nothing particularly interesting. As I was closing Whatsapp my eyes fell on a message my mom had sent me, listing out how to make kichidi with the rice cooker she’d bought. Something in my head started pounding with guilt.
I looked ahead and saw the last fruit seller stall we were going to pass before heading back to my apartment. There, they were selling passionfruit by the half kilo.
“Pi Bird, do these expire quickly?” I asked, instinctively.
“Not quickly,” she said, “can keep for a couple weeks in refrigerator.”
I bought them.
The Monday after I got back, I sensed the slight pang of devastation in the air as teachers sighed and showed each other pictures of their homes. I had numerous classes with a handful of students missing because they were at home cleaning up the mess that Pabuk had left behind. On top of that, I was still working out of my holiday mood. It was a hard Monday.
I came home and struggled through my daily yoga. My mom called again, and I told her about my day. She nodded along with me and then threw in one last attempt to motivate me.
“Kichidi banale?” (Make some kichidi?)
Kichidi is kind of like an Indian rice porridge. It’s made with lentils, rice, and spices, and is very easy on your stomach. So light, in fact, that it’s often made fun of for it’s bland nature. Because it’s so light, people eat it a lot when they’re sick. I know I did. It’s definitely one of my top comfort foods.
“Tomorrow, Ma, please.” I whined. I was so tired, mentally and physically.
“It’s easy Apeksha, I promise. Paanch minute lagenge.” (It’ll take 5 minutes)
After I slouched and moaned a few times, I finally mustered up the energy to stand up and follow her instructions. It was mostly finding what she’d already set up for me, measuring it out into the pot and mixing it. Before long I was turning on the rice cooker.
“Chalo, you can shower now, and it’ll be almost done when you’re out!” she said happily, talking a little louder so I could hear her over the traffic she was stuck in.
I weakly smiled at her and hung up. When I came out of the shower, the smell of warm spices had filled my room.
It took a little longer to get the consistency right, but once the kichidi was ready I lumped some butter on and took a bite. My mom called again to check in.
“Kaisa hain?” (How is it?)
“Good, Ma” I said. It was so good.
After finishing some and packing up the rest for the next day, I cut open a passionfruit and scooped it out as a quick dessert. I listened to my family chat over Facetime and smiled at how weirdly at home I felt in this foreign country.
I was so glad to give in that day.
My parents have raised me to be an independent thinker and doer, taking responsibility for my actions and working hard to take care of myself. That being said, they’ve also raised me with the strong Indian sense of family. As an Indian woman, I will never truly be separated from my family, even if I am so far away, and I’ve found that in discovering who I am and what I value, it’s really easy to forget that. The frustrations I felt when my mom shopped for me, were largely rooted in a fear of disappointing her, and mistaking her love and concern for me with letting her down.
I came home this morning from a five day teacher trip that was equal parts exciting and exhausting. I woke up at 11 am, after falling asleep at 3 am and was desperate to find my footing back in my regular routine. I got up, made a to-do list, and laid out my yoga mat.
After yoga, I went to my fridge, catching a glimpse of the shrivelling passionfruit on my folding table. My heart sank and my eyes rolled as I looked through my fridge. In it, I saw one of many Ziploc bags containing the aloo paranthas we’d brought back from Krabi. For the first time since we’d brought them home, I opened one up, heated it up, and ate it with some aachaar. I then ate some yoghurt and an apple, the latter of which had lost its crispness after sitting in my fridge for two weeks.
I don’t think my relationship with food has truly reached the place where it needs to be, but I can at least now feel my attitude shifting a little. My mother’s deep love for how I treat myself has made me realize how little I’ve been tending to myself, and how much work I have to do to better that over the next few months.
In an age where the world is rushing, it’s often hard to sit back and think about where you need to start before jumping into the greater issues of our time: yourself. Taking an extra minute a day to think about what you’re eating, and whether that’s enough, or whether you’re sleeping on time and whether that’s enough is invaluable, and yet so easy to let slip. I know, and I’ve told several friends over the past few weeks, that if it were them or any loved one slipping on personal health, I’d scold them and help them get into a better place. Why then, it is so difficult for me to the same for myself, is hard to say.
The good news is, I’m operating from a place of support, and have recognized the sustainable baby steps I need to take before lunging towards a more conscientious lifestyle.
In the meantime, I’m going to try to buy another half kilo of passionfruit. Maybe this time I can finish them before they go bad.
This piece is dedicated to my fierce, incredible mother. Thank you Ma ❤️ I love, miss, and admire you every day.
This blog, medium.com/@aatal, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Apeksha Atal and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.