Story Saturday (May 1)
Variety is the Spice
Before there was the sunlit filled apartment in the nation’s capital, before the cramped hamster den in the city that never sleeps, before the idyllic collegiate residence in the Pioneer Valley, and finally, before the two-story house in classic Christian suburbia, there was my first home in Lafayette, Lousiana.
When people talk of the South these days, especially if they’ve never lived there, the topics inevitable stray to political issues of particular sensitivity. Without downplaying the importance of any of these issues, my early childhood years spent in Louisiana are reduced to remnant memories that hardly would merit national attention.
Perhaps, you could say, that most five year olds are not cautioned by their fathers to steer clear of alligators sauntering through the grad school campus grounds, for example.
Louisiana is still a confusing place for me, confusing in the sense that it has always been a place of incredible diversity, definitely too rich for a young immigrant to comprehend, let alone informed adults. Still, my parents did what they could to find community amongst the other Chinese immigrants that lived there, whether it was through church or existing contacts they had talked to before coming to the States.
The biggest social event, by far, was during the early summer months. On the weekends, my parents and their friends would enter our small apartment with massive burlap sacks and even more massive excitement. I soon learned the sacks contained crawfish, a staple in Cajun cuisine. After they were cooked (or executed, depending on who you ask), in summary fashion, they would be strewn out in massively miniature mountains for the adults to devour.
I never remember children at these events, and if they were there, we didn’t become friends. What I do remember is that while the adults were pleasurably digging out the meaty tails and sucking on the head juices, I was left to my own devices to figure out whether or not I wanted this experience for myself.
And it turns out, I didn’t, at least not initially.
For the crawfish, besides having creepy eyes that got creepier when they were dead, were also incredibly spicy. And though I was from a part of China that was famous for its spicy food, I had not yet developed the palate for fiery food. And so, in a cruel twist of irony, the first few crawfish boils were literally versions of the crawfish boiling me — on my face, my fingers, my tongue, and my eyes.
Eventually, I learned to love the burn that came with crawfish boils, partially through learning to properly peel crawfish, and partially through repeated exposure to the spice. I started to see why the adults would relish having the boil during the summer, because sweating out the stress of summer was better than having to internalize it. There was something vaguely cathartic, something vaguely that felt like home, to be in a place full of laughing people speaking a language that they could all understand.
It’s been almost two decades since my last crawfish boil. My current city, DC, has its places for crawfish, but like most large cities, it misses the mark on authenticity.
What has stayed with me all of these years, though, and that I’ve experienced again and again, is the journey of learning to love something that I once hated.
It’s weird to say it, but the crawfish boils taught me the first lessons that I needed to learn about conquering adversity. It made me see that even though an experience may not be good at first, that there could be things to gain from it, if I could only learn to adapt and alter my perception of what was happening to me.
To borrow from an old cliche, if variety is the spice of life, then perhaps learning how to eat spicy crawfish was my first foray into how to navigate new experiences: being a working professional; competing in jiu jitsu; navigating transitions, both invited and not.
Every time I think of giving up on something because it is hard, I try to remember how I overcame my first real moment of adversity, and I take that as a springboard to remind myself that I can do it again. The first few times, it might sting and hurt, but then, you start to see why people enjoy it. In those little crevices of each experience, you find that little piece of deliciousness, so that you are continually willing to endure the bit of pain it takes to get there.