Halli Benson, 130 TESS
About 2 months into PST, I looked up the recipe for microwave cookies for the first time.
I was missing my American life a bit and needed something to reassure me that I could find little bits of familiarity when everything felt foreign. Additionally, I was looking for a way to show my host family something that felt like home for me while also demonstrating that I was capable of making something to eat after they needed to walk me through assembling “goitheow” (Thai dish of noodles in broth with varying ingredients) for the third time. I’m sure they were pretty worried for me to move out on my own in a few short weeks, and I didn’t want them to fear for my malnutrition.
So I set to exploring “the Google” and found a microwave cookie recipe with ingredients I thought may be accessible and took off on my bike to Tesco Lotus with my friend, Nhi. We found most ingredients easily and only had to make one extra stop at the “dtalat”(market) for vanilla extract. No chocolate chips, but I had a chocolate bar in the freezer that I would willingly sacrifice for this endeavor. I raced home STOKED to get “cookie-in”! (Get it? Like get cookin’…..teehee…. okay moving on)
The recipe was measured 1 cookie at a time and the baking vessel was a coffee mug. They weren’t quite the same, but I was still really enjoying this little taste of comfort food when my “Nong Sao”(little sister) popped by. I told her what I was up to and asked her to try one even though they didn’t quite look like cookies and explained that they would be “aroi gwa”(more delicious) if I had an oven. Her eyes lit up. “We have an oven next door!” she exclaimed. “Nii mai aroi,”(basically, these taste bad) she continued, savage but true. So we grabbed the ingredients and trotted back to her house, giddy for the real thing. We spent hours making cookies and dinner until we ran out of ingredients and couldn’t eat any more. My family initially tasted tentatively, but eventually agreed that I would maybe be fine on my own.
The next day the bag of leftover homemade cookies proved to be a source of nostalgia for many volunteers and we enjoyed them with the Thai staff members who were interested enough to try one. Just like that my cookie friendships had begun.
Fast forward 3 months.
New location. New host family. I had been at site for about 2 months. I was in a weird place. I was in the phase I have come to refer to as “adjustment, and then readjustment, and then readjustment and then readjustment again and then…….. you guessed it, readjustment.” Just when I got used to anything it would change or my perspective would shift. This time was basically a cycle of bouts of self doubt followed by self confidence and resilience for a while until I started to figure out a pattern of existence that worked for me.
I was living alone in my own house for the first time after living with host families for almost 5 months.
One of the many great blessings of host family living is the automatic social interactions. It’s built in with home life, and on top of that, my Meh and Paw at site are admirably social creatures. I was so so lucky to have this opportunity to meet basically everyone that lives in my little village in my first couple of months at site. My host parents took me on “bpai tiaos”(trips), held meetings at the house, brought me to parties, and constantly had people stopping by to chat or eat meals. I became accustomed to this.
Although I was loving living with my hosts, I had been looking forward to having a home to myself. In my stubbornness, I don’t think I fully considered the social challenge of meeting people in my new neighborhood. I would have to put myself in public meeting places or in other people’s homes in order to meet my neighbors or really engage in any kind of non-digital human contact outside of work hours. Walking into homes without knowing who owns them, though generally acceptable here, felt impossible at that point coming from American culture, and instead of engaging my resilience, I started digging a moat around myself and feeling more and more isolated.
It was right about then that I talked with a 129 volunteer who told me that sometimes they still don’t feel like going out to spend time with people, but they decide to spend just 1 hour out of the house or maybe don’t come home until a certain time to make sure they are present with their neighbors and friends. They also suggested I find something that can connect us, maybe bring them something or show them a bit of America.
I would bring them cookies!
So I bought an oven. I tagged along with a coworker to get the baking supplies in the city. I decided to try out the recipes with some students. I invited them to come over and bake with me. We worked for hours after school one day and made enough for each of them to bring a bag to their families, and we all ate enough to have little tummy aches of our own. When Moms came to pick up their kiddos, they sat at my kitchen table and chatted with me, surprised that I knew enough Thai to keep up and that my house was clean and my garden tended to. I started to get to know them, learning how many kids they had and what they did for work. And they asked me questions about my family and if I missed America. The students even cleaned my bathroom and kitchen to thank me. I didn’t need thanks, my heart was so full.
I had quite a few cookies left over, so after everyone left my house, I took the plunge, armed with plates and peace of mind knowing that the cookies were my bridge over the shrinking moat around me. I ended up sitting and eating dinner with my closest neighbors and sharing cookies with three homes around me.
I still have a long way to go with getting to know everyone, and I have many more people to meet, but the process has started! Word has spread. I now have students stopping by regularly asking to make cookies, and if I have the ingredients, I always say yes. I tried to make cupcakes with a fellow teacher with a sickeningly sweet result, so I think I’ll stick to perfecting the cookie over the next 2 years.
Funny thing is, I don’t know if I had ever baked cookies from scratch by myself before I came here, but now it’s a part of what makes me approachable and what helps me approach others. This experience is hugely defined by human connection and getting out of your comfort zone, and it can be really, really hard, but hey, everything is better with cookies, right? And your solution might not be cookies, but whatever it is, embrace it and find your perfect recipe for integration and relationship building.
As for the perfect cookie recipe, I started with the link below and have been tweaking to find what works best for me and the many cookie eaters around me. So far, I like it best with a touch less white sugar, a bit of cinnamon, and I don’t add nuts. The brown sugar makes a big difference if you can find it. Comment on here or share this article with your own cookie secrets!!
Great article!! And it proves the old adage- “The way to someone’s heart is through their stomach!” Sharing food really does start the spark of relationships. Good for you to have found your own personal solution that happens to be yummy too!!