Last Thursday was Chinese New Year (китаийска нова година) and on Wednesday night I had 8 co-workers plus one significant other over for New Year’s Eve dinner. It was my first time preparing anything like this, and I rather think there wasn’t quite enough food, but there was plenty of wine and people seemed happy. I made Taiwanese mei fun (long noodles for long life), dumplings from scratch (for good fortune), fried stuffed eggplant, and a tofu dish from a packet that I thought was ma po tofu but turned out to be absolutely nothing of the kind. It ended up tasting something like salty glue, although my gallant co-workers said that it was perfectly acceptable once you dumped loads of chili sauce on it.
There are two problems with acquiring Chinese groceries in Sofia. One is that there aren’t a lot of places to buy ethnic foods. Hit and Carrefour both have slowly expanding ethnic food sections and there’s an organic food store in the mall that carries some stuff as well, but the focus is mostly on Japanese (mainly sushi supplies) with some Thai. I sought out this promisingly-named store downtown…
…but found that it mostly stocked with kitchenware rather than groceries (I might go back to further inspect their wok selection, however). This was where I bought the cursed tofu packet, and where I encountered my second major problem with acquiring Chinese groceries in Sofia: the ingredients and instructions are all written in Chinese and/or Bulgarian, neither of which I am fully literate in. (The sad thing is that I might actually be more literate in Bulgarian now than I am in Chinese.) Hence, glue-like tofu requiring copious amounts of chili sauce.
This whole process made me think more about being Chinese in Bulgaria. It reminded me of a poetry discussion I had with my seniors about Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “to the Diaspora” where we talked about the Bulgarian diaspora and the fact that Bulgaria is losing population (perhaps soon to include these seniors) and what happens to cultural identity when you leave the motherland. Not that I am really from the motherland to begin with, but I somehow do feel it’s more important to me here to preserve aspects of Chinese culture because it’s more unusual here and I feel like I have to represent, or something.
My students are extremely interested in all aspects of Chinese culture that I can tell them. They marveled like kindergarteners the day I showed them some Chinese song lyrics in traditional characters, and they love me telling them how to say simple words and phrases in Mandarin (and they can’t tell that I speak terrible, terrible Chinese). But even with my students, this can be both a fun and frustrating experience. Living in a largely homogeneous country, Bulgarians don’t have the same kind of multicultural awareness that most students growing up near major cities on the East Coast, for example, would have. They don’t sing songs about tolerance and unity and holding hands in elementary school the way I had to. They don’t read picture books about Christmas AND Hanukkah AND Kwanzaa AND Chinese New Year. They aren’t fed even the most basic “colorblind” rhetoric that a lot of American students get. There simply is not as much “need” for Bulgarians to learn how to operate in a society with other ethnicities.
It can feel, at times, a little primitive. Like you encounter voiced stereotypes that just about every American would know better than to say in company, and they’re treated as fact. There’s a lack of any kind of critical awareness (among other types of critical thinking, as noted previously) of the role of race, conflict, and difference in society. And I can only imagine the culture shock many of these students receive when they go to university in the UK or US and suddenly find themselves part of a hodgepodge of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
Not that anyone is hostile or discriminatory (although as I understand, the case can be different for Black people – trying to teach about the n-word for my Huck Finn unit was…interesting – and of course for Roma, which is another situation entirely). If anything I think that, like my students, they are genuinely surprised and a bit curious. But as evidenced by the little girl who stared at me in the FujiFilm store, I stick out. I am noticed more, in a way that I am not when I’m at home in the Greater Boston area.
So to that, I say… 新年快樂! Rabbit, rabbit, y’all.