“What do you think?” Regina asked as I began to chew the small white lump she offered from the plate of cookies she held in front of me. She leaned closer as I caught sight of her son, Patrick, shaking his head. My taste buds registered their complaint at the same time that my mind registered Patrick’s reaction. This wasn’t going to be good.
Regina and I had become friends three years before after my husband and I moved to the Peoples Republic of China. We had been hired to teach English in one of their numerous universities in northeast China. Regina was one of three native English teachers already employed by the university. Her command of the English language was very good, and we quickly became close friends in spite of our cultural differences.
Regina was an amazing cook. We spent hours together as she taught me the art of Chinese cooking. I, in turn, taught her how to bake in the small countertop ovens (that were not much bigger than the Mattel Magic Bake ovens) that had recently become available in their state-run stores. While learning to blend the right spices for the dishes we shared, our lives also blended together during our long talks and shared experiences. It was an unusual friendship that I treasured more with each day.
My taste buds were now in full complaint from Regina’s latest culinary attempt. One thing was certain: this was no cookie!
“Mom, they don’t taste like Karen’s,” commented Patrick as he looked at me with eyes of compassion. I noticed belatedly he wasn’t eating her cookies. Neither was her husband. All three stared at me as I continued to chew. The crumbly concoction stuck in my throat as my mind raced for something kind to say.
“What did you put in them?” I asked stalling.
“Well, I followed the recipe,” she began, “except I cut out two-thirds of the sugar and substituted pig lard for the butter. Oh, and I didn’t think it really needed two eggs, so I only added one,” she concluded. Her practical and conservative Chinese upbringing made it difficult for Regina to follow what seemed an extravagant use of ingredients.
Our approach to cooking mirrored the vast cultural differences of our lives, and yet somehow, in spite of the gulf between us, a bridge was built as we shared not only our recipes but also our lives.
When I gave birth to my first child in a Chinese hospital a couple of years later, it was Regina who stood with my husband and me, holding my hand and offering words of encouragement. A few months later, when her mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly, I offered her a shoulder to cry on and prayers for support.
As I look back over our friendship, I realize how easily it could have been lost. Differences in language, in culture, in lifestyle—how much we miss when we build friendships with others only like ourselves.
In a land far away from my upbringing, I found that the ingredients for a lasting friendship—love, acceptance, and understanding—are always the same and always yield rewarding results when we are careful to follow the recipe.