Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Magic of Soup

When you are feeling sick, helpless, and miserable you are likely to recall your own mother’s wise words of advice for times such as these.

“Get your rest, drink plenty of fluids, and try to eat some hot soup.”

Yes, that universal panacea, soup has some amazing powers all right. This past week when I was battling my own bug, I included soup into my arsenal to combat my own uncomfortable and aggravating symptoms. I had no idea however, how a simple bowl of soup could help cross the chasm of communication.

Feeling horrible yet already committed to an office-opening party by one of our partners on Friday night, I could feel it getting stronger. In between the meaningless chit-chat forced upon me by this work-like setting, I could feel the congestion starting to build in my nose. All through dinner, while listening to some British blow-hard compare his Palm Pilot feature-by-feature with the Pocket PC of his colleague, I came to accept what was soon becoming my reality: I was coming down with something. Feeling a little punchy because of the early onset of my symptoms, and also because I had truly reached my breaking point with Inspector Gadget sitting next to me, I barely thought twice when the fine English gent asked me what kind of gizmo I had. Reflexively I said to the group of people gathered at our table, “Holy Cow, are you still talking about your Palm Pilot? I thought that was the dinner topic from two courses ago.”

The local Singaporeans at my table erupted in laughter and the Englishman was left fumbling with his stylus. I excused myself from the fascinating conversation, said my thank you to the hosts, and went downstairs to hail a cab and head home to bed. That night’s sleep would be the last real uninterrupted sleep I would get for the next three days.

I awoke the next morning with a horrible sore throat which was caused from my nasal congestion forcing me to sleep with my mouth open. Because of the climate in Singapore, I have never been able to sleep a whole night without air conditioning, but AC is no friend of a sore throat. I spent the entire weekend in my apartment battling my bug with the age old triple-threat combination of rest, lots of fluids, and eating hot soup.

I got kind of tired eating the same soup I had in my kitchen all weekend, so I decided to head down to the local Hawker Center which is located within East Coast Park right across the street from my apartment. I decided to bring my Mandarin Chinese language book with me to help pass the time after eating and to study for my lesson which was due the following day at class.

Some of the local food vendors are beginning to know me now. I pay them patronage quite regularly and some are getting to know my order before I even open my mouth. There are the friendly brothers who own the drink stand who serve me up my Lemon Juice with a smile. There is the Curry Puff man who sells me one of his hand-rolled pastries filled with curry and potatoes which he makes from scratch throughout the day. There is the hard working Malay father and son team manning their bar-b-que, which serves up the best lamb satay you’ve ever tasted along with peanut sauce for dipping. That day, I was looking to add a new item to my culinary line up: soup.

I approached a new vendor who I had never visited previously which specialized in soup. He and his wife prepared all kinds of noodle soup with vegetables and pork. His menu had a photo of dumpling soup, which sounded especially good to me in my sickly condition. When it came time for me to place my order I stepped forward, pointed at the photo, and asked for a bowl of the dumpling soup.

The man jumped into action and swirled around his multiple containers of steamy broth kept piping hot via a gas burner. His ladle was like a magician’s wand as it effortlessly gathered spices and ingredients from other containers and added them to the steaming compartment. He then grabbed five hand-folded pork dumplings and plunged them into the hot water for steaming. His magic ladle never motionless, brought the soup’s contents together as one as he quickly served up my bowl of dumpling soup.

As I was digging in my pocket to pay the man, his eyes glanced down at my Mandarin book. As he took my money he questioned me in Chinese. I panicked briefly, as this was the first real-life question in Mandarin I had ever received outside the classroom. I slowly deciphered the words in his sentence and realized he was asking me, “Are you studying Chinese?”

Although I knew what he was asking, I could not think fast enough to answer him back appropriately. Not wanting the moment to drag on and for him to think that I was clueless to what he had just said, I answered back in English, “Yes, I am studying Chinese.”

“You need to speak more Chinese. It is good”

The man said in a thick Chinese accent. I pondered his comment and without much thought said smiling,

“OK, the next time I come to your stall I will place my order in Chinese.”

The man took on a broad smile and thanked me, in Mandarin no less (Xie xie), for my order and I left to enjoy his soup and battle the demons that sickened me.

I went into the office that Monday late in the day, after feeling sick and working from home in the morning. Truth be told, I only went in that day so I could take my Mandarin lesson.

I told my teacher about the experience I had the day before and that even though I could not answer right away, I was able to figure out what was being asked of me. My teacher was pleased that we were starting to develop enough of a functioning vocabulary to be dangerous.

I then told the teacher of my commitment to the Soup Man. I asked if she would please tell me how to place my order in Mandarin. She went to the board and wrote out the phrase and then we worked on pronunciation. I jotted the phrase down feverishly in my notebook for future reference and practice.

On Tuesday I broke down and went to the doctor. Things had not progressed, even with the soup, and I needed relief. I hadn’t had a solid night’s sleep in three days and I was a hollow representation of my normally healthy self. I walked into the clinic, which was on the main floor of our office tower. I approached the receptionist and asked for an appointment to see a doctor, fully expecting her to tell me that the doctor was booked up, but that she might be able to squeeze me in around 4:00. To my utter amazement, the receptionist told me to take a seat and the doctor would be with me soon. I had just gone in there to make an appointment and I had no idea I could actually see the doctor on-the-spot. I explained to the receptionist that I only had about 20 minutes before I had to get back to a meeting. She told me that was enough time and that I shouldn’t worry about being late for my meeting.

The doctor personally came out to the waiting area and greeted me, and invited me back into her large office, where I sat in a chair near her desk. She asked about my symptoms, listened to my chest, pressed her fingers firmly around my cheek bones and nose and asked if it was sore. It was. She diagnosed me as having a sinus infection and wrote out prescriptions for a battery of drugs that included an anti-biotic, antihistamine to dry out my watery eyes and runny nose, and an anti-inflammatory to reduce the swelling in my congested sinuses. It was over in a heartbeat. I then walked back outside to the waiting room, where one of the assistants filled the doctor’s prescription for me from the office’s own medicine stock, and then walked me through the procedures and frequencies for each medication. I was done from start to finish in 15 minutes and made it back just in time for my meeting.

I worked from home, as recommended by the doctor, for the rest of the week. Feeling hungry and wanting a change in scenery I decided to head to the Hawker Center. Before I left the apartment I grabbed my notebook from class.

As I walked through East Coast Park on my way to the Hawker Center I practiced the phrase in Mandarin again and again. I mumbled the words over and over to myself as I strided through the park. I was a little nervous because I didn’t want to mess up the phrase in front of the Soup Man. I wanted it to be perfect so that he could understand me.

I finally arrived at his stall and got in line. I practiced the phrase a few more times before it was my turn and then shut my book. The Soup Man’s wife had come out to take the customers’ orders and she smiled when she got to me remembering me from before. She asked me in English what I would like. I looked around and felt the eyes of two local Singaporeans staring at me probably because they wished that I would hurry up so that they could order. I waited another second until the Soup Man himself was now looking at me, and with that I opened my mouth and uttered,

“Wo yao yi wan shui jeao tang”

The Soup Man’s wife looked at me with endearment and turned to her husband as if to say, “Did you hear that?” The locals in line behind me smiled acknowledging that a foreigner was actually attempting to speak Mandarin. The Soup Man himself stared at me with his ever-swirling ladle,

“Louder! You must speak Louder!”

He said in English. I approached his gas cooker and repeated my phrase in a more confident tone: Wo yao yi wan shui jeao tang

The Soup Man smiled and then threw me a curve ball. He asked in Mandarin whether I wanted my dumpling soup with or without noodles. After a split second I responded,

“Bu yao mein.”

This meant without noodles. The Soup Man’s ladle stopped stirring for the first time that I had ever seen and with this pause a large smile came over his face. I had passed the test. He leaned in closer and pointed to my waiting bowl of dumpling soup. He had placed an extra dumpling inside the bowl than what would have normally been served.

My soup tasted better than ever that day. I was feeling better. Some may argue that it might have been the medications that were now bolstering my resistance to the bug, but I like to think it had a little something to do with the magical power of a very special bowl of soup, which was served up with a hint of friendship, a dash of cultural appreciation, and of course one extra dumpling!


At 8:56 AM, Blogger Ferg said...

Another classic, Fos! I'm glad to hear you're feeling better.


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