I’m a big fan of expat living. The challenge of navigating through daily life with little knowledge of the local language combined with the opportunity to see something new everyday is an addiction that, for me at least, is not easily kicked. It’s the reason I came to Taiwan despite having announced at the end of my last stint abroad that I would not be returning to Asia anytime soon. I’m constantly reminding myself to observe as much as I can and be aware of the small, seemingly minute details of what makes living in a foreign country so interesting: The security guard who teaches 15 second Chinese lessons as we pass through the lobby; an elderly Taiwanese exercise group that meets in a small promenade across from our building (Kay came home one evening to them practicing the Macarena); the many brightly dressed couples that congregate at the beach around sunset with a platoon of photographers to take the perfect couple/wedding photos. I take it all in and try not to take it in stride.
Of course, not everything involved with expat living is quirky and enthralling. There’s plenty of things that make it atop my “most–annoying-shit-ever” list and times when I wish for just a modicum of western comforts–most notably, western culinary comforts.
Before I took off to live in Korea several years back the most interesting parting gift I received was a jar of Skippy peanut butter. I didn’t and still don’t eat enough peanut butter to warrant adding the extra luggage weight, but it did remind me that there would be food items that are next to impossible to come by in Asia. Receiving care packages was a common topic amongst my expat friends on Facebook where they’d brag about having gotten vegemite (the brits), proper gravy for poutine (Canadians) and beef jerky (yours truly).
Some would say that when in a different country one should enjoy the local cuisine as much as possible and while I agree, I also know that there are times when you just want a sandwich with mayo on it and a decent bag of chips, or a steak with legit barbecue sauce or some friggin granola. Damn the arguments abut skipping out on the local food. Sometimes you just want a taste of back home.
Unfortunately there are odd habits that can develop from these cravings if left unchecked…
A recent craving had me pacing up and down the aisles of a high-end grocery store comparing different crackers, cookies, and biscuits searching for the closest thing possible to graham crackers. I found more than enough digestifs and butter cookies, different flavors of wafers–even lady fingers and stroopwaffles, but not a single box of graham crackers. After 20 minutes of searching–just before frustration morphs into rage–I managed to find a bag of what looked like the closest thing to graham crackers. The shape was all wrong and they looked slightly more dense than what I’m used to, but everything else fit the bill. Like an idiot, I tried to gather the scent of the oddly shaped crackers through their plastic wrapping and got a nostril full of dust and cellophane.
I was equally troubled when I came across a bag of my beloved Flammin’ Hot Cheetos priced at nearly three times the amount of what they go for back home. I passed on buying them that day confident that the Cheetos well would be plentiful. When I returned a week later they were gone. I search in the same spot every time I visit that store and have yet to find them. It’s become somewhat of a ritual: I search for my Cheetos fix, go find Kay (she’s usually in the sauces aisle searching for Siriacha) and she asks “Did you find them?”
Once when browsing through the foreign foods section of Carrefour Kay let out a gasp like she was choking on something. I turned around to find her cradling a bottle of ranch dressing with a look of joy on her face normally reserved for child births and weddings. Nevermind that it was double the price of what it cost back home. We had to have it.
Recently a friend told me that she managed to find Frank’s brand hot sauce at her local supermarket. An hour later I was still seething in jealousy. Why should SHE be able to enjoy proper hot sauce when I’m stuck mixing random asian brands of chili sauce trying to find the texture and flavor of what I love back home. It took a few beers before I could get over it.
True, Taiwan offers a lot more variety in western comfort foods than other countries, but finding them can be frustrating. Mega-chain Costco holds its own when it comes to many hard to find items (one of the best places to find a decent variety of REAL cheese), but you need to buy items in bulk and some expats are put off by the membership charge. Jason’s (where I had my graham cracker struggles) is another good option for foreign needs (squid ink pasta, imported wine, maple syrup) but you’ll pay a hefty premium for some of the items they have in stock. I found a small tub of sour cream (for taco night) going for nearly $7 USD. Increasingly there are more grocery stores around the island that are setting up “foreign food” aisles that contain popular fare from North America and Europe as well as food items from countries in Asia and (sometimes) Latin America. Again, finding these gastro-oases can sometimes be difficult, but are well worth seeking out.
It’s also important to realize when your cravings are simply out of reach. There’s nothing wrong with an addiction to organic canned sardines in olive oil, or Coleman’s mustard powder, or southern Quick Grits, but you might be better off having someone back home send you a hearty supply rather than criss-crossing the country looking for them or constantly badgering members of expat forums for advice on how to track it down. You could also get creative. You may not be able to find tahini, but maybe you can score some sesame seeds and olive oil and throw it together yourself. Can’t find the salsa you want? Look up a simple recipe online then head to the produce market for ingredients. A fellow expat in Kaohsiung enjoys hemp smoothies and was able to track down organic berries (albeit frozen) and even wheatgrass to sort himself out.
Whatever the cravings, try not to let them completely take over your eating habits while living abroad. You might miss out on some tasty local grub.
Stinky tofu, anyone?