A related question is, What really matters? As a society and business culture, we still tend to equate money with success.
"What's your definition of success?" we asked Needleman. His answer: "To be totally engaged with all my functions, all my faculties, all my capacities in life. To me that would be success. I grew up around the Yiddish language, and in Yiddish there are about 1,000 words that mean 'fool.' There's only one word that means an authentic human being: mensch. My grandmother would say, 'You've got to be a mensch,' and that has to do with what we used to call character. To be successful means to have developed character."
The seeds of this journal were planted very early on when I was young. My first clear memories of good food started with my mother. I remember Sundays when I was 5, she would prepare a special lunch for us in our small house in Santolan. On weekdays I would normally have either my favourite canned sardines in tomato sauce or some forgettable viand, but on Sundays we would have something special like baked mussels, grilled veggies, clam pasta, or the very rare steak.
My mother's ascending career as an investment banker introduced her to upscale restaurants where she dined with her clients and friends. She would normally treat my brother and I to these same places so we may taste the experiences she had. At nine years old, I got my first introductions on taste, texture, plating, food styling and interior design.
My grandfather was the real cook of the family, his talent borne out of his love for my grandmother, whose skin he did not want marred by heated oil that jumped out of the pan or the sharp knife’s mistaken movement. Whenever his children and their families gathered in their house in San Pablo, he prepared for us his creamy kare-kare and other specialties. My aunts and uncles helped prepare the ingredients, and, as early as ten years old, I became head dishwasher (knives included).
What forced me to dabble with cooking was an unfortunate incident during my secondary school years, when my brother, my cousin and I spent the summer with my grandfather. Us Manila kids were used to waking up late in the morning during vacation, and four days into it my grandfather threw a fit for not having any breakfast prepared for him in the morning. As I was the eldest grandchild and only female in the household at that time, I took on the responsibility of making sure the household was fed. I woke up at 6 am, got creative with breakfast selections to keep my grandfather interested (usually the output was burnt or tasted weird – I tried! – but he still ate them... slowly), and spend the afternoon learning from him as we plan and prepare our dinner.
I started this journal one night in March 2009, one of those nights in Singapore when the pangs of loneliness gnawed deep into my skin. I knew I was not going to stay in the country very long, and I wanted to create something that will prove to myself that I will have grown during my stay. It initially served to chronicle the dishes that I cooked to help me measure the progress of my cooking expertise, taking the tips I learned from my grandfather that summer when I was 16. But cooking and cleaning, coupled with lots of overtime from work, became a chore. Also, the culture in Singapore encouraged people to dine out. And why not? With Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western influences in the island, the country is a rich prosaic of food and culture. And so it became my mission to discover the country through its food. I knew the basics of food presentation, thanks to the exposure that my mom lent me as I grew up in Manila, and all I had to do was match it with my skills. The only way I knew how to battle loneliness was by being productive.
The funny thing about this hobby of journaling the food that I eat is that because I assumed a blog audience, I left out the details that I were more important to me. When I try out a restaurant (I pay for all my meals unless I state otherwise), it is because I want to taste something new, travel to a new place, and use this social experience to deepen my relationships with other people . And always, when I post entries, it is because it marks a a unique experience. Each post has a back story, each dish weaves into it a memory of the person I shared it with. Sometimes, when I enjoy a meal with only the company of my thoughts, my senses and consciousness are fully engaged in the dish in front of me. Alone but never lonely.
Yet, in the end, I am still only left with my entries, and I write, like an art lover running out of a burning museum, I grab whatever I could – a color, a texture, a fleeting emotion, flashes of light – to salvage from perishing, to preserve. At least, until time blunts the edges of those memories.
Measure your life in love. Inasmuch as this journal has been a measure for me of the countless and unique experiences I shared with my family, my friends and life mentors, it is also about my love for adventure and new experiences. I love learning, and wading through unchartered territory excites me. In a way, the internal pressure I place upon myself to post something new, for my readers but especially for myself, compels me to seek out new experiences and take as many bites of the world as I can.
I was sharing a bite with my mother in Burger King in Beijing’s Capital International Airport. This is the third time she is seeing me off in another country. My heart weeps at the thought of parting from her, it always does, each time: when she was about to board the ferry heading to Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, as she headed down Harbourfront MRT station in Singapore, and now, as she walks towards the Chinese immigration, and into my oblivion for the next 5 months. My eyes welled up. In her infinite wisdom and understanding, she succinctly reminds me: You chose this, anak. It is always your choice.
I end with that: the element of choice. Today I am in a city where nobody understands me, staring at menus I can hardly understand, my social life limited to my darling flatmate and the only place I know how to get to is the supermarket around the block as I still get lost on the way to the city center. I traded my heels for sneakers and removed myself from the corridors of Singapore’s corporate life to walk the vast grounds of China’s oldest university. I am dealing with my existentialist angst by working on ticking two items off my bucket list. It feels amazing. In this moment, I feel infinite.
Knowing that this choice is fully mine and that it does not operate within a defined life stage (high school, university, work, family) henceforth increases the potency and value of each action I take. I aim to have that mindset reflect not just on entries that may be more informative and daring in content, but on my life choices as well. After all, I think the biggest quest of our short lives is to gain richer experiences on our road to being fully human.