Making broccoli: A personal essay

photo of broccoli in a white bowl
whologwhy/Creative Commons

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With the fall semester going into full swing, students are flocking back to campuses across the country. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, freshmen and most sophomores have to grapple with the challenges of living away from home for the first time. Among many other things, they will have to learn to cook for themselves. In the hope of making things easier, here is my personal broccoli recipe, developed with love over the past two weeks on campus.

 

Ingredients

  • 1 broccoli crown
  • ½ cup water
  • 10 cherry tomatoes
  • ¾ cup sliced white mushrooms
  • Sesame oil
  • Oyster sauce
  • Soy sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper

 

Directions

 

  1. Cut broccoli into bite-sized pieces and add into a pot.

 

When I was 15, I went away for two months on a school trip to China. I remember leaving my family feeling like the scariest thing I had ever done. Suddenly, my loved ones were miles away; they weren’t there when I couldn’t sleep at night, when I fell sick or when I smashed my iPad screen. I thought it would be something of an approximation of college life. But I had friends around me, and teachers to look after me. Cafeteria staff cooked for me and hotel staff cleaned up after me. I was away from home, but still very much living the same sheltered life I always had.

 

  1. Add water.

 

Five years later, I hugged my parents goodbye and boarded a plane bound for San Francisco International Airport. This time, there were no teachers or classmates at the departure hall or next to me in the air. On the second leg of the flight, I was handed an immigration card I didn’t know what to do with. My father always filled those in during our trips to the United States. Suddenly missing my dad a whole lot and feeling more alone than I ever had in my life, I cried silently in my seat and hoped the air stewardesses wouldn’t notice. They didn’t, and neither did the woman sitting next to me. I wasn’t sure if that made things better or worse.

 

  1. Add cherry tomatoes.

 

In these first two weeks living on campus, I have quickly realized that my school trip to China was not the microcosm of college I thought it would be. My family is further away from me than they were back in 2016, this time in a completely different timezone. My teachers don’t tell me to behave myself or go to bed on time. I don’t have anyone cooking for or cleaning up after me. Instead, I am responsible for myself. I remind myself to eat my fruits and greens, even the ones I don’t like. I go to the bank alone. I make my own academic decisions. I stand on my own two feet, finally an adult, and it is as terrifying as it is exhilarating. A part of me is still waiting for my mother to yell at me about one thing or another, but it never comes.

 

  1. Add mushrooms. Buy them sliced, or slice them yourself.

 

Things have, of course, gone sideways one too many times. I broke a nail trying to unclog a sink — there was a lot of blood. I slipped repeatedly on my way up to the Big C because my shoes just wouldn’t hold on to the loose dirt and I thought I would never get back down. I’ve had a couple of close calls almost losing my house keys. One morning, our fridge broke down, everything went bad and I burned my wrist scrambling eggs for breakfast. In these moments, I missed home more than ever; back home, my grandmother always knew what to do with a wound, my father would help me up any steep incline and my mother could find my keys no matter where I left them.

 

  1. Add sesame oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce and salt to taste.

 

Yet, between these episodes, I can find myself laughing with a friend on an empty street in the middle of the night, dancing my heart out at a rock concert or surrounded by friends in a cabin out in Paso Robles. I look around and realize I am happy. Coming to college has made me suddenly spontaneous, free of the routines and rhythms I had locked myself into back home, and I am a better person for it — more adventurous, more enthusiastic, more generous.

 

  1. Cook over medium to high heat, stirring occasionally until the broccoli is tender.

 

Having friends around has meant the world to me. After my big cry on the plane, I was picked up from SFO and driven to Berkeley by friends from home also here for college. I live with six wonderful housemates; I spend every waking moment with friends I hold near and dear to my heart. I am grateful for the communities I have — the Singapore Students’ Association, The Daily Californian and classes from this semester, as well as past ones. It is the people I am surrounded by who have made the past two weeks everything they have been. When becoming an adult is all about standing on your own, they make growing up a less lonely path to walk. We are, after all, growing up together.

 

In particular, I have realized that I love cooking for my friends. There is nothing I enjoy more than placing a steaming pot of broccoli on the table and heaping greens onto my friends’ plates. So much of college is about community. Learning to cook, too, is more than about putting food in your stomach: It is about who you learn to cook for.

 

  1. Finish with a generous amount of fresh ground pepper.

Just like learning to cook, the pursuit of self-actualization and an undergraduate degree is no mean feat. The journey ahead of us is a long one, and it will, at times, be a hard one. There will be many more flights I take alone, many more hikes I’ll struggle to finish, and definitely many more accidents in the kitchen. I urge myself, however, to remember that the path we are embarking on is also one full of surprises and joys great and small — there are countless more recipes to learn, to perfect and to share with my friends.

 

Contact Lee Xuan (and share your recipes) at [email protected]

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