On Feeding Oneself in Times Like These

A few years ago, shortly after moving to a small city in the north of Vietnam, I became painfully lonely, often afraid, and perpetually overwhelmed.

It soon became hard get out of bed and felt impossible to leave my campus gates. Slowly, I stopped taking care of myself. I ate only crackers and hard boiled eggs and the occasional pack of ramen. I rarely left my apartment for anything other than the English classes I taught. I was losing weight, and losing sleep, and I felt like I was losing my mind.

There was a series of events that collided to help me come back to myself and even to eventually fall in love with the country and my community, but one of the first steps out of the depths was learning to feed myself.

It began one weekend when I visited a fellow American living a few hours south of me. Sofia was an amazing cook, and after eating for 36 hours straight, I returned home and told myself that I had to try harder; I had to do better.

Sheepishly, I asked my dean, a woman named Mrs. Thu, if she would take me to the local wet market, which I had mostly avoided. As the only white woman in the town, I had been embarrassed by the attention I got walking the dirt aisles of stalls, and I grew flustered by the loud bartering and selling of no-nonsense women who’d come in from the countryside—their motorbikes and bicycles weighed down by produce and livestock.

But walking under the market tarps with Mrs. Thu, I felt protected and, eventually, empowered. She helped me pick out a chicken, good firm tomatoes, carrots, garlic, potatoes, squash, ginger, and keffir lime leaves. She advised me on which fruits were in season, and which should be avoided because they came from China and were riddled with pesticides. She warned me to avoid the pig meat, because recently the pigs had been sick, but people would think I didn’t know better because I was not Vietnamese, and they might try to sell it to me anyway. These people needed to eat, too. She told me how much I should negotiate for everything: she didn’t want me to seem like an ignorant foreigner.

Then Mrs. Thu took me home, where she taught to me to quarter the chicken and remove all its innards to save for soup later, if I wanted. She also taught me that boiling this chicken would make broth — a revelation. Then, as quickly as she came, Mrs. Thu left me because she needed to go home and make dinner for her own family. I could do the rest by myself. She said this like she believed it, but I didn’t. I had never made anything for myself before.

Somehow, over the course of an hour I figured out a sort-of chicken stew. And as I sat down on my bed and spooned the first bite to my lips, I wept in warm relief because it was the first moment I knew I would be OK. I would come out of this. I felt like a new mother who had finally figured out how to quiet her inconsolable child.

This is a long set up to say that I believe in the power of feeding yourself and those whom you love. I think that simple tasks, like cooking and going to the market, can be life affirming, or at least re-balancing. I think sometimes this is the least we can do, but sometimes it is also the greatest thing we can do.

So last night, at the tail-end of what has been as low a week as I have had in years, I fed myself and my people. I went to the grocery store, I bought basic ingredients—fish and potatoes and greens and butter and herbs—and I made a simple meal for two people I love.

I want to get out there and fight the good fight, and march, and rebuke. But right now I need some strength, and I need to be reminded that this is something I can give myself—and something I can give others, too.