Four months after I left New York City for Shanghai, without a job or a place to live, it dawned on me that my move was a mistake. Moving across the world had cost me a significant amount of time and money. Once I settled in, I realized there was another price tag: I was missing out on memories with my family and friends back home. I was very much alone, in the opposite time zone, starting from scratch on the other side of the world.
I’ve always wanted to work abroad. Having returned to New York to catch up with family and friends after completing a Fulbright Scholarship in Luxembourg, I was ready for a new challenge. Speaking over Zoom with friends of friends living across Asia, Shanghai sounded the most like New York City, so I figured I could make it work. Instead of waiting for a company to hire and send me, I decided to move there with no job, no place to live, zero knowledge of Mandarin, and only a few acquaintances. I wasn’t completely winging it: luckily, I was able to secure a marketing role at a wine import business right after I arrived.
At first, Shanghai seemed like a good idea. I had moved into a Harry Potter-esque closet of a room in an apartment with two rugby players from the UK. They took me under their wing. Although I often asked for help, we weren’t close friends and as I failed to adjust to China, I felt like I was becoming a burden on them. With the language and cultural barriers, I had trouble completing basic tasks. The things I was used to doing in the US could now make me terribly sick.
It started with buying seaweed snacks at the local grocery market. They left a sour, metal taste in my mouth, followed by nausea. The next thing I knew, I was vomiting for twenty-four hours. It was mercury poisoning. The bathroom smelled like low tide for the rest of the weekend. When I recovered, the rugby players took me out to their favorite bar to celebrate. I stopped at the cart across the street to order a couple meat skewers. (All that barfing had left me hungry.)
“Don’t eat the meat,” my roommate warned me.
“This meat is too cheap. You don’t know what it could be. ‘Lamb’ is usually a stray cat,” he explained. I grimaced, dumping what I thought would be a delicious late night snack into the trash can beside me. The next morning, I threw up again, so violently that the pressure made me cry. It wasn’t a hangover, but fake alcohol: someone in the bar’s supply chain replaced real liquor bottles with fake ones. Counterfeit “Jack Daniels” bottles were oftentimes filled with improperly made alcohol that could make you sick and cause you to go blind.
After that, I stuck to home cooking, but my luck didn’t improve. A few weeks later, caught in a typhoon without waterproof shoes, I suddenly developed an intense rash on my feet and a high fever. Scared to go to the doctor, where I wouldn’t be able to read any signs or communicate my symptoms, I turned to Google. Big surprise: the internet told me I was dying.
“It is definitely not foot and mouth disease!” My British roommate erupted into laughter when I told him my search results. I made a panicked call home, and my grandmother suggested that maybe the rubber glue in my shoes melted in the water, causing an allergic reaction. Luckily, after three days alone in my room rubbing garlic and lemon on my feet—tips I’d found on Reddit; thank you, weird foot fetish friends—my fever subsided and so did my foot rash. The shoes, of course, were wrecked. With the rainy season coming on, I needed waterproof boots. I scrolled through American websites, looking at shoes that I’d never wear, that didn’t ship to China, that were glued together with good old American pony-bone glue. Could I really survive in Shanghai? Could I even make friends here? I couldn’t even snack in safety. Hanging with the rugby boys was fun, but I needed to find a way to make close friends, the kind I could turn to anytime. As I clicked on a Chelsea boot, tears poured down my face. Great, it was my personal rainy season, too.
Just as I hadn’t made plans for my most basic needs, I hadn’t thought about the emotional impact of being away from home over the holidays. I’m not a big holiday person to begin with: aren’t they just about a large man in a bright red and white suit, or a bunch of pilgrims in big-buckle shoes deep-frying a turkey? In New York, I’d smirked at the over-the-top ornaments draping the flagship stores on Fifth Avenue, but now that I was living in a country where December looked like any other barren winter month, I missed that commercial extravagance. On top of the lack of Christmas cheer, I was alone. The pilgrims had each other. Santa had Mrs. Claus. In China, even if I managed to find some other Americans, I would still be a relative stranger to them all.
Luckily, I’d secured an invite to a holiday party from the ex-boyfriend of my Shakespeare-obsessed friend from high school—in other words, very much an acquaintance, but I was going to make this work! I knew the guests of this potluck feast would be mainly Americans and friends of Americans, celebrating together as expats abroad. At parties back home, my move was to stand near the food table and use a mutual interest in eating as a way to make new friends.
“Oh no, you don’t want to try that, too dry,” I’d advise, pointing to the peanut butter cookies, “But the eggnog, let me tell you. I’m already on my third.”
That wasn’t going to cut it in Shanghai. I was lonely, depressed, and disappointed in how unprepared I was to live in another country. At this point, I was grasping at straws to give my new life some sense of normalcy and the comfort of home. For this party, I had a plan: I would bake a pumpkin pie, something I could use both as a conversation starter and as something that would make the holidays feel more like I was back at home. I imagined a pie as basic as a white girl in Uggs: the traditional, from-a-can version with its delicious smell, soft and friendly jiggle, and divine cinnamon-and-spice flavoring. Baking this pie and attending this party felt like my last chance to make my new home feel like “home.” I’d failed spectacularly at everything else.
But first things first: I needed the ingredients to make this delicious, friend-winning pie. Entering the expat-friendly grocery market, I hustled past live fish gasping in huge tanks, durian fruit that smelled as ripe as my roommate’s rugby socks, and a rack of irresistibly glossy egg tarts. I beelined toward the canned vegetables. Beans, peas, carrots, beets, those cocktail onions that reminded me of peeled eyeballs. Nothing for pie. I didn’t see any canned pumpkin mix, much less an unflavored puree option. I switched aisles and pawed through the baking section. Still nothing. What about the random American food section? Four Loko (which, at that point, was banned in America), Pop Rocks, and Spam, but no canned pie.
This had never happened before. This grocery store always had what I was craving: the official taste of America. The magic of American food is that we’ve biologically engineered the most concentrated, serotonin-triggering foods possible. Our globally recognized scientific leaders have spent years on genetic research and groundbreaking chemical experiments to bring us new flavors not found in nature. As Americans, we are pioneers. We don’t feel restrained by the whole spectrum of flavors found in the wild. Instead, we use that as inspiration to create something more, something out of this world, made using every element from the periodic table. Why shouldn’t yogurt be liquidated into a tube, dyed neon green, and rebranded “Go Gurt”? Cheez-Its, goldfish crackers, Cheese Ritz Bits—do they actually taste like cheese? No. It as if you took the essence of cheese, turned it up to eleven, added some addictive illegal substances, and then packaged it into the perfect size for easy snacking. No other country has ventured where we have bravely gone to seek out new flavors with a dash of worthwhile chemical aftertaste.
Leaving the grocery market, I slipped on my mask. Everyone wore them: before COVID-19, this was to prevent breathing of heavy pollutants in the air. I headed to the Spanish grocery market and a strip mall store owned by the “avocado lady,” a local woman who somehow had a hookup for a number of foreign suppliers, selling avocados, goat milk yogurt, quinoa, and other foreign foods, at a lower price than the international markets.
“Hello,” I said in broken Mandarin, “Do you have can of pumpkin pie?” Not only was my accent off, but I wasn’t sure my translation app could capture “pumpkin pie mix.”
The avocado lady gave me a blank stare. She walked me over to a basket full of yams.
“No, no,” I waved my hands in the air and pulled up a picture of pumpkin pie on my phone. She thought for a moment, then walked me over to the cake mix.
“No, no,” I waved my hands again. Then showed her a can of pumpkin pie mix. She pointed at the canned beans, having already given me a tour of nearly her entire shop. A pie made of pinto beans? I grimaced. I had struck out, yet again.
I had one last hope: the Japanese grocery market.
This market was like a jewel box from the future, its clean lines reminiscent of a sculpture I’d seen at the Guggenheim. Inside, the shelves were clear plastic sandwiched between pale wood and illuminated from the back, as if the cans of soup were posing for Andy Warhol. I walked along the rows looking for the American food section. Still no pumpkin pie mix. Why was something I took for granted as basic so hard to find? I started to panic. If I couldn’t find pumpkin pie, maybe I could settle for pecan? I turned on the VPN on my phone to get around China’s firewall, which is used to block foreign websites, and searched for “pecan pie mix.”
Suddenly, tears were pouring down my face. I was alone for the holidays, in a foreign land, without seasonal comfort food or a shoulder to cry on. This was a choice I’d made, to venture out on my own, and now it felt like a huge mistake. I would never get back the moments I was missing with the ones I loved back home.
As I honked into my sleeve, other shoppers edged around me, clutching their baskets. I’m sorry, I wanted to tell them. I’m an American and I have a thing about seasonal gourds. Crying over pumpkin spice was a new symptom, but I was too bereft to google it. I bawled as though everyone in my family, including my cat, had just perished in a freak accident.
“Excuse me, miss?” a polite store clerk asked me in Chinese. When I turned to face her, she jumped back in shock. My cheeks were streaked with clownish black tears as mascara ran down my face.
“I need help,” I told her. The Chinese word for pecan wasn’t in my vocabulary, so I looked it up Google Translate and showed her the screen. She cocked her head, thinking.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, pointing her finger in the air. I followed her, trying to wipe the Gene Simmons off my face. She took me over to a big bag of walnuts.
“Thank you,” I responded in Chinese. She smiled brightly, and I tried to do the same, even though my pumpkin fever was spiraling quickly into despair. With a kind nod, she disappeared back between the aisles. Once she was out of sight, I pulled out my phone, reactivated my VPN, and typed: “Are walnuts the same as pecans?”
Yes and no. Apparently, walnuts are sweeter, but that didn’t matter in a pie. Turning nuts into dessert meant bathing them in a pool of brown sugar and corn syrup, two more ingredients I searched for and was unable to find. America’s reliance on corn as a sweetener was really ruining my holidays. After impulse-buying a chocolate Santa, I bit his head off as I sat in a taxi. We zipped through the polluted, gray fog of the city, which only reminded me of winter mornings in New York. I took another bite of Santa and stifled a sob.
My roommates were in the living room when I got back to the apartment. I rushed to my little bedroom, not wanting them to see I’d been crying. Between mercury poisoning and foot rashes, I was already the “crazy roommate.” I threw myself on the bed, moaning. Why was I crying over a can of seasoned squash?
I heard a knock on my door. One of the guys said, “Something came for you.”
I opened the door a sliver. He handed me a flat brown parcel and, seeing my puffy face, asked if I was okay.
“I couldn’t find pumpkin pie mix,” I sniffled. Just saying the words set off a new crying jag. I assured him I was fine, just a bad case of culture shock.
I closed the door and hugged my braided wool accent pillow, realizing it wasn’t going to provide the emotional warmth I needed. I was all alone here, just me and my pillow, in a country I’d moved to on a whim. This wasn’t China’s fault. This was all me. I wiped my eyes and unwrapped the parcel: an advent calendar. I held it close to my face and inspected the slightly blurred figures ice skating, gathered around a nativity scene, caroling, and enjoying all the festivities of a traditional American Christmas. I turned it over and found a note.
“Merry Christmas! I know you’re far from home, but we miss you! I got this at the MoMa while touring New York with your cousins. Love you, Mom.”
My eyelids nearly swelled shut as the tears sprayed out of my already puffy eyes. I missed my mom, my family, and even the country that was so boring I’d fled to China to find a little excitement.
When I calmed down, I gave myself a pep talk. It was starting to sink in that I couldn’t force my American expectations for Christmas onto my life in China. But maybe I could make this new foreign experience work? First, I would have to accept the fact that my isolation was making me batty.
“Yes, you’re celebrating the holidays surrounded by strangers, without the sweet, sweet goodness of pumpkin and spice and everything nice, but you can get through this,” I crooned to myself.
It wouldn’t be perfect, and it wouldn’t be like the holiday season I was used to, but maybe that was okay. Maybe I could create my own kind of holiday experience, tailored to my needs. Without pumpkin or pecans, I realized there were plenty of ingredients on hand. I could recreate a little holiday cheer even though what I was craving was no longer available to me.
I headed for the kitchen and pulled out a box of brownie mix I had stowed in my luggage for special occasions. Hello, Betty Crocker. It was America, in powder form. As I poured it into a bowl and added copious amounts of microwaved butter, I imagined snow drifting into the streets of New York. I saw my family, sitting around a brightly decorated tree. The smell of cocoa hit my nose, lighting up the parts of my brain that had been dormant since my arrival in China. My holiday homing instincts tingled. I thought about the party to come and made it a goal to leave with a few potential new close friends with whom I could spend future holidays. Even if I couldn’t dazzle them with my nostalgic dessert or my ability to rate the buffet items from best to worst, maybe they’d give me a chance.
This recipe was simple and big enough to share. Emotional support brownies hit the spot when there wasn’t a spiced pumpkin in sight—canned, Chinese, or otherwise. For the taste of home, try my handcrafted holiday treat to get through the season.
¼ cup cold water
5⅓ tablespoons of butter
1 box of Betty Crocker’s Delights Supreme Chocolate Chunk Brownie Mix
1 pumpkin-adjacent beverage or, ideally, mulled wine
1-2 Zoom calls with loved ones
A dash of holiday cheer
Set up some holiday cheer in your home. Garlands, a Christmas sweater on your cat, some Christmas lights—do you! Turn on a holiday playlist to set the mood.
Heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit for a nonstick or glass pan. Grease the bottom of the pan.
Consume one pumpkin spice-related beverage. Trader Joe’s pumpkin spice coffee is kind of nasty, but their flavored almond milk is pretty good. You can mix that with some cream, nutmeg, and cinnamon and heat it up with some Bailey’s. It’ll warm the heart.
Call someone you love over Zoom. Toast them with your pumpkin spice beverage.
Stir brownie mix, water, melted butter, and egg in a bowl until well blended. Chat with your loved one as you clean up your spill from laughing too hard.
Spread brownies into a pan. Search your cabinets for any leftover red and green sprinkles to add on top.
Bake until a toothpick inserted comes out almost clean. Cut brownies into large portions.
Set up a hot bath or dance to your holiday tunes. You can do whatever you want! It’s your holiday, baby!
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.