Guest post by: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Author of A Tiger in the Kitchen, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan appears at the Wordstock Festival on Saturday, October 8 at 4pm on the Oregon Cultural Trust Stage, is part of the conversation Read My Lips: Telling Stories Through Food on Saturday, October 8 at 3pm on the Oregon Cultural Trust Stage, and is leading the workshop Digging Up Skeletons: How to Mine your Family History for Stories on Sunday, October 9 at 10:30am.
Standing on a rocky precipice, a mist of water enveloping my cheeks, I peered at my first Oregon waterfall and thought: “How did I get here?”
The year was 1995 and I had rather recently decided to leave the only real home I had ever known — faraway tropical Singapore — to travel across the Pacific and pursue my dream of becoming a writer.
Leaving Singapore was no small decision. I was female and had led a relatively sheltered life, sticking close to my parents and the tight-knit family we had in Singapore. And yet when I first confessed the desire to cross the ocean for university, to study journalism and writing and not business or medicine as my family would have much preferred (and respected), my father never dissuaded me. He had raised me in this modern yet still somewhat patriarchal country in Southeast Asia to believe that I, his firstborn child, could be and do anything. And he wasn’t going to waver.
And so it was that I eventually found myself at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and then traveling the country, living and working in places as different from Singapore as I could find. I spent a summer marveling at the vast fields of sunflowers in Kansas, watching lightning storms streak across its inky evening skies. A collection of 70-year-old Italian-American men in Chicago adopted me as their “Chinese granddaughter” when I started dropping by the clubhouse where they had been gathering for decades to play cards and cook against a backdrop of faded Playboy pinup posters from the 1960s.
In Portland, where I spent a spring semester interning at the Oregonian, I discovered my dormant love for the outdoors. Having grown up in a tiny country about ¼ the size of Rhode Island, with much of that land densely packed with tall buildings, I had never been hiking, much less seen a waterfall. Standing at Multnomah Falls that early spring afternoon, I realized how much I had missed — and would have missed had I not had the courage to leave the familiar.
Writing requires such fearlessness — the audacity to venture into the unknown, to trust in your uncertain footsteps to take the lead. The terror of possible failure, of perhaps, not being able to turn back, will often heighten your senses, open your eyes wider.
Many years later, after a journalism career that had led me through the newsrooms of the Baltimore Sun, In Style magazine and the Wall Street Journal, the undiscovered once again called to me. This time, however, it took me to a place that I recognized, but, I realized, only superficially. It took me home to Singapore.
After more than 15 years of living in the United States, the culture of my Singaporean girlhood started drawing me back. More specifically, the food of my girlhood — dishes I had grown up eating and loving but had no idea how to make — began beckoning. As a rebellious girl who had been determined to make my mark as a writer and not a good wife who knew her way around a kitchen, I had rejected the lessons the women in my family had wanted to teach me. Years later, however, in my American kitchen, I was suddenly gripped with a sense of yearning for my late grandmother’s pineapple tarts, my aunties’ braised ducks, my mother’s green bean soup.
It was time, I decided, to go home. And over one lunar calendar year, I traveled to Singapore, entering a domain I had always shunned — the kitchen. At the woks of the women in my family, I finally learned how to cook. Painstakingly, we churned out mooncakes, dumplings, Singaporean coconut jams and more. But above all that, they told me stories of poverty, illegal gambling dens, multiple wives and opium addictions that pockmarked my family’s history — tales I never would have heard had I not decided to take that leap, to slow my life down and finally listen.
My quest is detailed in “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family,” a story I look forward to sharing on Saturday afternoon (at 3 p.m. and at 4 p.m.) with you.
Whenever I’ve shared the story of my quest to rediscover my culture and Singaporean girlhood through cooking, I’ve often wondered what my Singaporean grandmothers would think. The telling of their story, I realize, would probably be immaterial to them. It’s the courage that led to it that would have made them proud.
If you would like to join me for a Southeast Asian lunch on Sunday, Oct. 9, I will be at Pok Pok (3226 Southeast Division Street) at 1:30 p.m. with the Asian American Journalists Association. Books will be for sale at the lunch and a signing will follow. Admission is $5, and the regular lunch menu will be available. Proceeds of the event will benefit the Asian American Journalists Association-Portland chapter’s stipend fund for Oregon-based interns. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to attend.