What I've Learned from Living Abroad

What do you know, Vermilion Roots is one year old! Happy birthday, dear blog. I made a cake to celebrate and dedicated the special occasion to the people who grow our food, and to those who champion the cause of sustainable food. This blog has served as a platform to document my journey in a new country, and enabled the connections with many new friends from around the world. When I look back at the year through the stories in the archives, I see a period of growth, renewal and self discovery. Here are some of the important lessons I've learned from my first year living abroad. 

1. When you're not sure what to do with yourself, take a walk. That's what I did. A lot. Especially in the first few months, when things were raw and shapeless. I walked to make mental shapes of my new life. I walked to listen to my breathing and feel my skin sweating. I walked to get to know the neighborhood. I walked to be one with nature. I walked to feel present. The first ever post on this blog is about walking. In fact, a lot of the ideas for this blog came from those walks. 

2. It's okay to get lost. For the life of me, I can't read a map. And I don't know my North from my South. The other day, my first walk to the nearest grocery store in our new neighborhood, which should have taken me no more than 10 minutes, cost me an hour. And I came back without the bread and milk. Because I didn't find the store! But I did stumble on an excellent Vietnamese restaurant serving Dalat-style noodle soup. 

Life in a new country can feel a lot like that. But it's okay, because as cliches have it, sometimes you have to get lost to find yourself. Or the little treasures around the corner. I am proud to say, however, that my husband and I managed to follow the map shown above and walked every trail there is at Joseph D. Grant County Park. I count that as my first milestone here but I'm still no better at reading maps. 

3. Accept that the world outside your home can be a very different place, and embrace it. In Thailand, there's a saying that goes "Same same but different" that's also a very popular T-shirt design. During my regular visits to the tourist-laden country, the revelation of my Malaysian identity would more often than not be met with a friendly utterance of those words, indicating a ready affection for a fellow Southeast Asian with the acknowledgement of our differences.

Half way across the world from the tropical region, the same is true for me. We're the same homo sapiens, yet so different. Here, I speak with an accent and I pronounce some words differently. Not wrongly, just differently. I cook and eat differently. Not wrongly, just differently. The sun feels different and the papaya tastes different and even my cat looks different, with her fur puffed up during the colder months. The sooner you can accept these differences as part of life, the sooner your eyes will open up to the beauty around you. Like these rock formations on my first camping trip in Tahoe National Forest. 

4. You're stronger than you think you are. There will be many firsts, which can be exciting and daunting, depending on how you see it. I was very excited to embark on my first backpacking trip in the wilderness of Lassen Volcanic National Park, but was intimidated by the 20-pound bag I would have to carry. So for weeks, I planned and prepared and trained and worried, determined not to slow down the party due to my lack of experience and strength. But when the trip came, and after trudging the rocky road for a few days, I became one with my bag. And actually missed having it on my back for a few days after the trip ended, sort of. 

5. Eat seasonally and locally. I've learned to consider the year in terms of seasons. And what I eat and cook according to the seasons. Because strawberries in Spring are manna from the heavens, and asparagus is way cheaper early in the year. Summer is sweet with every imaginable stone fruit and a time when vegetables can quench appetites. In the Fall, it is possible to pick your own apples from the tree and choose from hundreds of pumpkins to cook or play with. Then, when Winter rolls around, the body craves pies and the kitchen demands the oven be fired up. To reap from the gifts of the earth, all you have to do is go with the flow. 

6. You will find what you need and what you didn't know you needed at the local market. When I travel, I always make it a point to visit the local markets to familiarise myself with the people, food and culture. The first year of living in a new country is like an extended travel, and I went to the farmers market every week. I mingled with farmers, sellers and shoppers. I watched, I enquired and I listened. And I never failed to bring home something new to try. 

7. Do yourself a favor and volunteer on a local organic farm. Even if it's just for a day. Or a couple hours. I volunteer regularly at a CSA farm and I'm amazed by the work involved in growing food. I gained an appreciation for farmers and an understanding of where my food comes from. I was taught to coax the earth into cooperation with a hoe and I learned the language of growing seedlings into big, strong and nourishing vegetables. And I had the privilege to taste carrots straight from the earth and vine-ripened tomatoes sweeter than candy. 

8. Breakfast is king. Yes, because nutritional science says so. But what I'm really concerned with is how it can help me start a new day on the right note. When you set the intention of your first meal, you set the tone for the rest of the day. It should come as no surprise that breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and whenever I can, I make it thoughtful, which is highly achievable with something as easy as brown rice porridge and your favorite toppings. 

9. Do not be afraid to cook fusion. Thankfully, homesickness can be soothed by food. At least in my experience. The thing I missed the most in the first few months was kaya, a delicious coconut jam I like on my toast. It has always been my comfort food. So I made it, and it became the first ever recipe on my blog. I've recreated many other Southeast Asian dishes in my American kitchen, but I did not always follow the original recipes to the T. Why? Because it can be difficult and expensive to source some of the "exotic" ingredients, and I believe that fusion cooking is sometimes necessary, if not inevitable, in seasonal eating.

A little imagination can go a long way in the kitchen. Do not be afraid to get a little creative with that cookie recipe, for example, by adding some Chinese Five Spice. These pancakes you see above are a fusion of the pancake I used to have in Malaysia and the pancake I now have in the US. And I made Malaysian rendang with beetroots. Homesickness cured. 

10. Stock up on a few key ingredients. You'll find out soon enough that you don't need a complete kitchen overhaul to be able to cook your favorite dishes from home. Make a list of key ingredients and start with those, gradually adding on as you become more confident in your new kitchen. For me, the essentials for Asian cooking are soy sauce, dried shiitake mushrooms and jasmine rice. Oh, and a gas stove. Always a gas stove. 

11. Observe your traditions no matter where you are. Lunar New Year is just not the same for me without the communal salad tossing ritual called Yee Sang that is unique to Malaysia and Singapore. So I made my own Yee Sang with fresh Californian ingredients and handed everyone a pair of chopsticks. It's also not complete without mandarin oranges, which symbolise good fortune, and that is why I made this Mandarin Rainbow Salad with ingredients that represent luck, prosperity and happiness. But not before we rolled the citrus fruits into our new home from the front door to encourage the flow of good chi

12. If you don't know something, ask for help. It was love at first sight with fennel, and love at first bite with parsnip. I discovered new vegetables and fruits through the farmers market and a CSA subscription, but didn't always know what to do with them. I decided to reach out to the food blogging community and ask for help. You wouldn't believe the kindness and generosity I was met with! It resulted in the Spring Discovery series on my blog, and I learned about radishleekbeetroot and turnip, just to name a few. I've made so many wonderful friends who are supportive and helpful. The universe has shown me that if you extend a hand, someone will always grab it.

And just one more thing... The world is your oyster. Carpe diem!  THANK YOU for following my journey. Have you lived abroad? Do you have any tips to share with me? Leave me a comment. I'd love to hear from you. 

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