When I was four years old, I remember Mother packing boxes full of clothes, coats, and shoes, and taking them down to the local Red Cross center to be shipped to Vietnam. Often, she was teary-eyed when she told me that she could always knit me another sweater and sew me another pretty dress while some children, as young as I was, in this far-away country went without food, water, and clothes.
In fifth grade, I fell in love with Pearl Buck and devoured every word she had written, transporting myself to China every night and living the lives of her unhappy heroines. In grade school, I became fascinated by geography and obsessed with major mountain chains, gross national products, capitals, waterways, and culture of Asia.
In high school I lost hours immersed in the books of Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham, and Louis Bromfield, dreaming of monsoons, moist heat, tropical fruit, and sultry nights. I loved to recite the names of the Indonesian islands: Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Celebes (or Sulawesi, as it is known today), feeling touched by the magic of the Orient. I visited these lands vicariously through the written word, TV coverage of major political events, and movies.
Going off to college in our capital city of Belgrade did not bring me any closer to the real culture of Asia. Sure, there were students in my class studying Japanese, and I occasionally saw a diplomat’s family from Korea or Malaysia walking the streets. But there was little that was cosmopolitan about Belgrade in the 80s, at least from the perspective of a provincial student.
The first Chinese restaurant, Peking, opened on one of the side streets close to the University, but having to choose how to spend what little money we had, we remained loyal to the familiar places that served plenty of wine and had live music on weekends. I peeked inside longingly from time to time, but my adventurous spirit was spent riding on the back of the moped my cousin, Maja would “borrow” from her older brother, or staying at my friends’ dorm room until dawn, waiting for the first morning bus filled with still sleepy factory workers to bring me back home, exhausted and hoarse from too much debating and too many cigarettes.
When I was a freshmen, my Aunt who worked as the secretary for one of the deans introduced me to an elderly Chinese man finishing his doctoral studies in Philosophy. His name was Wu Shi Kan, which was immediately changed into the Serbian: Vukašin, as a term of endearment. He spoke Serbian fluently, having studied in China. My Aunt and Uncle took Vukašin everywhere they went, showing him the country and letting him experience the friendliness of the Balkan people.
I went home for the weekend when they brought Vukašin to visit my family. He charmed us all with his warm smile and beautiful music he wrought from his harmonica. He told stories of his homeland, laughing a little about his wife’s humble family which came from the potato region of China, and crying when remembering his children. I was mesmerized when he started talking about food, not for my culinary inclinations, but because the dishes he described were so exotic and strange that they evoked memories of old fairy tales I had read as a child. I remember him painting a vivid picture of a celebratory dish he called The Battle of Tiger and Dragon, which consisted of such far-fetched and weird ingredients that we believed he was pulling a fast one on us, taking advantage of our naïveté in his sweet, unassuming, and innocent way.
Before he left, Vukašin gave us bookmarks dotted with Chinese characters and depicting pandas, bamboo stalks, and old figurines. Those were the days when our stores were not inundated with made in China goods, and these little gifts were unique and special. We gathered as he retreated through the front door facing us and bowing in respect, the warm smile illuminating his eyes, and we felt like we were saying Goodbye! to an old friend.
I went to hear Wu Shi Kan defend his doctoral thesis. I shook his hand and congratulated him. He smiled and thanked me in his warm, soft voice. I heard from my Aunt that he had returned to China to his children and his loving potato-eating wife. I have recently found one of his bookmarks in an old day-timer I brought with me to U.S. and it flooded me with memories, not only of him, but of my love for the distant lands of Asia. I smiled because I knew that one day soon I would find someone to repeat to me the story of the Battling Tigers and Dragons and I would find out how much fun Vukašin had with us.
In the meantime, I explore the culinary world of Asia, ingredient by ingredient, culture by culture. I approach the 99 Ranch Market with the apprehension and excitement of Marco Polo, overwhelmed with the smells and sights around me, entertained by hilarious translations, and humbled by the sea of the unfamiliar.
Thanks to my friends at Melissa’s Produce, my knowledge of Asian fruits and vegetables is growing exponentially, as I learn to recognize and distinguish one from the other. The world of Orient is still mysterious, but as I cut Chinese eggplant, bok choy, or gai lan, I imagine that for a day my family might be tasting the flavors that filled Wu Shi Kan’s children’s plates back than when he was sharing the food of the Balkans with us. As we usher the Year of the Ram, I want to wish his family and all my friends who celebrate Happy New Year.