My morning routine in Urayasu, Japan consisted of eating a bowl of leftover curry for breakfast, walking my host family’s poodle around the park and chopping vegetables with my host mom as we watched reruns of her favorite game show.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the importance of food in my host family’s home. The first night of my three-month homestay in 2019 began with a spread of homemade dishes, recreations of family recipes and recounts of childhood memories. Later that evening, amid an exchange of stories and laughter, I was already learning how to salt heads of cabbage and dice kale and radish (think Hallmark movie). Food is what brought us together.
Looking back, I was never hungry in Japan. Whether it was eating leftovers with me before a morning walk, sneaking sushi into my bag for school lunches at noon or grabbing a bowl of kakigōri (shaved ice) before our nightly train ride home, my host mom refused to let me go a few hours without a bite of food. It was because of her that I learned that along with being necessary for survival, for many, food serves as a vessel for love.
In more ways than one, being in Urayasu made me feel as if I had never left my home in Orlando. Similar to my host mom, my mother’s way of commemorating every achievement, reconciling after every argument and handling every trial and tribulation was, and still is, food.
When I was growing up, my mom would come home from her runs to the grocery store adorned with crates of peaches and oranges. It took a few years of thinking (and suffering) through bowls of cut fruit to figure out that for my mom:
crates of fruit + the chance to give bowls of fruit to kids = happy parents + happy (and full) kids
As a kid, this whole process was fascinating — magical, even. In my eyes, my mom would get fruit, I would tell her that the fruit was good and I would find a bowl overflowing with said fruit the next day. It was a peaceful acknowledgment of appreciation, something we both recognized but didn’t discuss.
This extended beyond sliced peaches and peeled oranges. I would watch my mom dice chilis, pry open the spice jar, concoct a rich lentil soup and try it with a single sip. She never ate more than a spoon of what she cooked; the act of making the dish to watch us devour the contents in the pot was more than enough.
I guess this is a shared experience among children of immigrants, but my mom’s bowl of sliced peaches was an expression of love and, in a way, a symbol of her continuous reassurance.
My mom doesn’t understand the stress of exams, the never-ending pressure to fit in or the constant existential crisis brought on by thinking of the unforeseeable future (yikes). But a bowl of cut fruit is her everlasting reminder: No matter how difficult something may seem, she will get me through it.
My host mom’s version of consolation and home was similar to my mother’s love for preparing food. I remember getting off the phone with my family and missing the familiarity of life in Orlando; however, every tearstained pang of homesickness was followed by cooking a meal, sharing recipes and bonding over our own cultural dishes. Moments in Japan made me realize that the love language of food surmounts continental barriers.
Being in Baltimore, nearly a thousand miles from Orlando and an ocean away from Urayasu, has forced me to rediscover and rethink what food means to me. As odd as it may be, wandering by the fruit in grocery stores (yes, I will call CharMar a grocery store) brings me comfort, a feeling of familiarity amid dramatic change and a method to cope.
For many of us, life doesn’t look the way it used to. To be frank, adulting sucks. My mom isn’t here to silently hand me a bowl of mango or persimmon after a disastrous midterm, and my host mom can’t warm up a bowl of leftover yakisoba before a morning lecture. So for the first time, I find myself looking for ways to do that for myself, and for a fleeting minute, it almost feels as if the communal kitchen is in my home in Orlando or is my host mom’s kitchen in Urayasu.
No matter how brief, the act of preparing meals for my friends and me has been our version of normalcy, a mechanism to transport us somewhere familiar and less alone. Regardless of how seemingly insignificant it may seem, watching the way leftover Thai curry and fruit has helped me connect to the people I cherish in Baltimore, Orlando and my small Japanese home will forever amaze me.
Maybe it’s time for me to reinvent the equation for fruit. Perhaps:
cups of CharMar fruit + the chance to give myself a bowl of fruit = happy (and full) me + a feeling of home
Aashi Mendpara is a freshman from Orlando, Fla. studying Cognitive Science and Sociology.