The Universal Language of Bread


I’ve been a foreigner for a long time. Soon after graduating from Penn, I moved to Cairo to teach English, study Arabic, and, well, have an adventure. While there, I dressed up like Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo and luckily enough made a strong (I don’t mean in the fragrant sense) impression on my future husband. He was rather charmed that I had the nerve to march around dressed like a giant lump of stool. Stool with Christmas spirit no less.

From the moment I boarded the plane in Philadelphia to “get into the world” until today has been seven years of culture shock, culture learning, culture leaving, and couture …yeah, no. No high fashion (that would be entirely out of my comfort zone).

Now, we live in Japan. A country and a culture that is pretty much just as mysterious to me today as it was when we landed in Tokyo four years ago. I’ve been a terrible student. Sometimes, actually, oftentimes, being a foreigner is really isolating, exhausting, and simply overwhelming. It’s really easy to NOT learn the language because it is SO HARD to LEARN the language–any new language. It is so easy to NOT mingle with people who don’t look, talk, and act like you…because the potential for miscommunication is so vast. Though, the truth is, the broader that distance the sweeter the exchange when two people from two very different places try to make contact.

Last week I decided to brood over my reading assignments while testing a recipe that my virtual roommate had kindly transcribed from one of her cookbooks and into a word document: Zucchini bread (yes!). Pre-heat the oven to 350. Righto. And so, I put together the dry ingredients in one bowl while thinking about the chapters on globalization and educational change, and mixed the wet ingredients in another bowl, while mulling over possible methods for promoting intercultural exchange between students from different geographic and cultural backgrounds, and I folded one into the other. I greased the pan, poured in the batter, and let the cake bake.

It was huge. Ah, let me divide it in three, I thought. I knew that sharing the cake with my neighbors would instigate a ring of gift giving, back and forth, and we’d never know when to stop saying thank you but I couldn’t resist. The cake was so good.

My first neighbor returned to my door less than five minutes after I presented them with the cake. They brought three mini-bottles of sake and a piece of the zucchini bread nicely wrapped and asked, “please tell me the ingredients.” And so, I copied the recipe in my chicken scratch, in English, for the sake neighbor. (Her husband speaks English so it is much easier to communicate and socialize with them…of course, my Japanese is pathetic).

One week later, my other neighbor rang our doorbell and presented me with a gift-bag with four giant grapefruits and the most beautiful note. I almost cried when I read it! (That’s it above) She must have spent so much time and effort to compose this note and I understand so completely the frustration and regret that she is expressing because in the past seven years most of my time has been spent in environments in which I struggle with language to communicate and connect: in Egypt, Latvia, Slovakia, India, Japan and so on. I have already learned that it is simply not possible for me to achieve my preferred superpower: instant fluency in any language I ever encounter. However, I have learned that language is not the only way to connect, communicate, or build bonds. It takes time, openness, courage, and bread…but it’s so worth it!

If you enjoyed this article, check out Drive-thru Enlightenment. Please feel welcome to subscribe to Minute Particulars by clicking on the Subscribe link on the left column. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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About kalisaddhu

"The Method is to Know the Mind." View all posts by kalisaddhu

64 responses to “The Universal Language of Bread

  • Radhalakshmi

    Kelly, i really enjoyed this one of yours.Reading the note again, i couldn’t control my laugh..

    • kmariej

      HI, Radha,

      Isn’t her note so sweet?! I think what she meant to say is, You are a kind person, a good cook, and an athlete” because she sees me running all the time. My neighbors are really lovely people. My husband and I are really going to miss living in Japan.

      xo
      Kelly

  • D Light

    I am learning French daily as an English speaking person now living in France.
    I thank you for sharing as food like music is a wonderful way to connect across language barriers. Have some fun if you wish and check out my website that shows a different side of Nice France. http://www.crazyparking.com
    D

    • kmariej

      Oh! How is your French coming along? Are most people helpful when you struggle through sentences? When we lived in Cairo, many times people would only speak to me in English…even when I addressed them in Arabic. It was always a real pleasure to meet someone who couldn’t speak English or who didn’t want to!

      Well France is certainly a great place to connect through food (and parking violations!)

      Thanks for your kind note,
      Kelly

  • melanirae

    I’ve been struggling with learning Swedish ever since I moved here. You are so right about how easy it is NOT to do it. It’s even harder when EVERYBODY speaks Englsih, and wants to too!

    I loved reading this!

    • kmariej

      Hi Melanirae,

      Thank you for your kind note. Good luck with your Swedish learning. It really is hard to get practice when so many people in the world are either a) more interested in your English skills as a way to flex their own skills, b) too impatient to let a new learner bumble through a sentence when English is much more “efficient.” Good luck!

      Kelly

  • bookishbella

    This is so well-written! I just found you through freshly pressed and look forward to reading more.

  • A.L. Borozon

    Buenos Dias,

    Wonderful post. Inspiring, funny, and grand.

    Thank you so much for sharing with all of us.

    Con regard,

    Athena

  • wickedkitsune

    Sugoi! Oh yeah, my sis is a baker and I agree with you that the bread and cakes are an international language. IThank you for the nice article, hope you enjoy your time there Good luck there in Japan.

    Gambatte!

  • BadWitch

    OMG I loved your post. It was real, touching, what started out looking like poop ended up smelling of warm bread. I could really feel everyone’s emotion and attempts at connecting. Keep adding yeast and it will continue rising to meet you. Thanks, honeybun.

    http://GoodWitchBadwitch.com

    • kmariej

      Haha! I can’t wait to tell my husband about your comment “what started out looking like poop ended up smelling of warm bread”!!

      Thank you for your kind comment.

      –K

  • S.

    A simply beautiful post!

    • kmariej

      Thank you so much. It’s encouraging that all the effort and frustration involved in language learning and strained communication can produce something beautiful. Now, I just need to figure out a way to translate this post and all the kind comments for my neighbors!

  • maurahirsch

    Beautiful post. Your neighbor’s note and your own words brought tears to my eyes. Two weeks ago my family and I moved to France and I find myself in a daily struggle to communicate with my neighbors. I am lucky enough to be in a country with a similar culture to my own, but I do not speak a word of French. Your post inspired me to explore new avenues of communication. Hmmm…I make a mean banana bread…

    • kmariej

      Oh, good luck! Go for it! I bet the banana bread will be a hit! My husband is Slovak and only a few (his brother and a nephew) speak English. So….the rest of us just have to find other ways to communicate…and so often we say really funny things. Good luck learning French!

  • itsmygalaxy

    How wonderful! I laughed at the comment about the endless thank yous… I am very familiar with Asian culture and how a gesture of kindness never ends with just one gesture– it merely triggers a never-ending obligation to give and receive and give again.

  • Gloriadelia

    That was very brave of you to share with your neighbors and the note is soooo cute. Very sweet post. (no pun intended πŸ™‚ )

    Gloris

    • kmariej

      I know! When she handed me that note my eyes flooded with tears! She must have labored over it. Of course, it also makes me wonder how funny I sound when I try to write in other languages!

  • raisingable

    Love the note. It’s very dear.
    Japan is SO foreign.

    • kmariej

      It’s a very lovely country, the people are really kind and polite…but I do have a strong sense that I am forever breaking a code: of etiquette, culture, humor…

  • ummmmheyyyy

    I kind of thought this was going to be a post about Spam comments. They often sound similar to the letter at the top of this post. 😦 Next time?

  • fondutv

    This is such a beautiful statement on language and connecting with others.

  • Breland Kent

    Great blog, thanks for sharing! πŸ™‚

  • Nikhil Kardale

    Loved reading about your experience and the lovely anecdote at the end. That really was a sweet gesture.. from your side and on the part of your neighbor. There’s a lot we can share with different cultures if we open our hearts, and that’s above and beyond what language and words will ever be able to do!

  • Some Girl

    Aw that is a very sweet story. I wish that I had the opportunity to feel so out of place! I never travel! It must be a great life to be able to say you’ve been to so many places. You’re a beautiful writer.

  • robocooker

    I am amazed by the power of food. If everyone cooked something for thier neighbors, at least once, the world would be a better place.

  • natnoob

    my whole summer has been about meeting new people from different cultures. You’re living the life I want to live! And it’s amazing that you even keep a blog and offer such good insight into it.

  • Rohit

    Greetings from India.

    So you have been to India!! How was your experience in India? Which part of India had you been to?

    Even I teach English and Business communication. I have been to various parts of India to teach English and try to learn local languages. India has more than 15 regional languages. It is easier to teach English than learn the local language. πŸ™‚

    I can relate with your experience. Not that there is so much of cultural shock, but I enjoy being in a different part of world and country. I like the diversity. The fact that there exists a communication problem is what I enjoy the most and laugh over it. It is so much fun when you devise ways to communicate. Talking about bread – yes, India is so diverse, every region has its own share of food. It is great when a few of your trainees go out of their way to feed you their delicacies. It is great to be teaching and travelling.

    • kmariej

      Hi, Rohit! Yes, I’ve been to India twice: Once to Kerala and once to Uttar Ranchal. I LOVE India and am looking forward to visiting again soon. It’s really fun (and funny) to devise ways to communicate….your comments remind me of a funny exchange I had in Japan with a pharmacist…I think I’ll write another post about it!

      Thank you for your kind note,
      Kelly

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  • Arkay

    i don’t know how to do pingbacks, so i linked this post directly into a new blog post (and will be doing the same on my funblog). Thank-you, for this, it made me feel really good.

  • dito mom

    Love your post and what a lovely notes from your neighbour! I think you should also post the bread recipe πŸ™‚
    A home-made cooking is always the best gift to open a good relationship. I believe you would receive more from your neighbour.

  • Eesha

    Its a wonderful post. We all ,ust learn to be open to new cultures,new people and new languages πŸ™‚

  • todaytomorrowandyesterday

    What a heart-warming story! Just picturing the time it must’ve taken her to write that note brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps you can learn from each other. Leave it to food to break down a communication barrier…it’s always the little things that turn out to make the biggest impression πŸ™‚ A beautiful story!

  • Lorrie

    As a terminal foreigner,expat and Sansei American it was so refreshing to read a rave instead rant. And kudos for making it such a pleasure to read! How heart-warming and beautiful a story as well. Her note brought tears to my eyes when I realized she wants to get to know her neighbor, too and what better way than the time-honored ‘tradition’ of sharing recipes!

    Being married to a foreigner (through my American eyes) and living in a foreign country (still through those same eyes) I can so relate! You’ve sparked me to contemplate writing about my own Minute Particulars…

    Here’s to being an Ameri-CAN as opposed to an Ameri-CAN’T!!!! The perfect blog title perhaps? Hmmm….

  • kmariej

    Hi, Lorrie! GO FOR IT!! Please send me a link when you launch your new blog–I’d love to follow your adventures!

    Thank you for your kind feedback–I really appreciate it!

    Kelly

  • Manish Chaturvedi

    It is really interesting to know the responses that all posts on food and culture evoke. Talking about food and specifically baking, I must say that baking and the compliments that one gets after that are indeed hugely satisfying. I am a weekend baker myself and can well imagine your feelings.

    Of course I envy your experiences and wish I would be able to travel this lot and share my experiences

    Excellent post.. keep going… Congrats on making it to Freshly Pressed.

  • theonlycin

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, a delightful note!

  • limenlemons

    how about sharing the recipe with us too? πŸ™‚

  • alienshavegiantheads

    Absolutely beautiful! I may also be moving to another country completely alien to me (as I’ve lived my entire life in Australia) to live with my fiancΓ©e. This blog has given me hope that I won’t be so alone when I get there. Thank you. πŸ™‚

  • altefor

    I absolutely agree. This note needs to be framed. I guess your post is a testament to the old adage “do good things and good things happen”. Haha.

  • blackwatertown

    Lovely story. It’s great when good things happen in response to good things you do.

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