My arrival in Durban, South Africa was a very particular brand of disorientation. Nothing seemed familiar. Rand. Paranoia. Koombis. Xhosa. The remnants of apartheid. Humidity. Food-stealing monkeys. All of it felt foreign. I decided to study abroad for one year in college to get some field research experience in another country. But underneath the academic pretense, the truth was I’d never spent any real time away from home. An avid reader of news and travel magazines, and having aspirations of working in international development, I only knew the outside world through the words of others. This trip was my opportunity to palpably change my worldview; I hoped to broaden not only my horizons, but my heart—to let a place change me.
But no matter how excited I was about this trip, I could not help but feel lost and uprooted. The unfamiliarity was overwhelming and my own memories of home seemed to slip away. I craved something familiar and comforting. This longing for a sense of home was not fulfilled until I attended my first Mass service. Still unaccustomed to deciphering the South African accents, I pathetically and unsuccessfully understood the Bible readings or homily. Then came the universal Mass parts that were the same no matter what country I visited. The songs and prayers were said in Zulu or Xhosa, but I knew that while they were singing Baba Wethu, we were all actually saying the Our Father; different words, same reverent prayer. This was my first feeling of home. It was a clear collision of familiarity and unfamiliarity, meeting to move my soul in a new-old experience.
An avid reader of news and travel magazines, and having aspirations of working in international development, I only knew the outside world through the words of others. This trip was my opportunity to palpably change my worldview; I hoped to broaden not only my horizons, but my heart—to let a place change me.
Navigating eventually became easier. The foreignness and differences began to melt away, and the clarity of God’s united world rested my mind and heart. But a couple of weeks into the trip, another hunger pang came over me—specific, unrelenting, and unexplainable. I was enjoying the delicious fare of Durban cuisine: spicy Indian curries, briyani, and rotis; stewed meats, samp, and vegetables coupled with some form of mash maize like phutu; biltong, koeksisters, and bunny chow. But still, there was a gnawing void inside, begging for only one thing: a big bowl of pho with a warm French baguette. This popular Vietnamese noodle soup of rich broth, flavored with cilantro, lime, and chilies is not from my childhood, nor does it trigger profound memories. I grew up eating a mix of Filipino and American dishes, a cross between Dinty Moore Beef Stew alongside pinacbet and rice. But this bowl of soup inexplicably puts me at ease.
Unfortunately, the dish’s popularity had not yet reached Durban. I allowed the idea of this luxury to wane, hoping that it would go away, until finally, I had a fantastic idea—I would make my own bowl of pho.
Internet recipes were plentiful, but finding certain ingredients proved challenging, and I had to improvise substitutions. Nevertheless, there was a giddiness surrounding this meal, a call for celebration. I decided to invite the others from my floor to share in the feast. My floor was a diverse mix of local students; international students from Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Kenya; and myself, a Filipino-American. I worked on the soup for hours. Unexpectedly, the others decided to join in the cooking frenzy. One of the women taught me the art of cooking phutu—only a wooden spoon can be used to mix it. Another boiled some madumbes, while still another made her favorites: baked beans and popcorn.
Before this, I had only attempted short conversations with my floormates in an attempt to cross language and cultural barriers. But in that kitchen, I began to know them despite those barriers. We casually lounged around the communal space, swapping stories of home, unfolding our lives starting with the simple comfort of the foods before us. This was one of my favorite moments during that year in South Africa. The pho itself did not come out very well. But what could have been merely a culinary failure opened the door to many more fellowships that would follow.
During my time abroad, I had many memorable experiences. I went ponytrekking through the beautiful country of Lesotho, rafting at Victoria Falls, and toured the entire coast of South Africa. While these moments were undoubtedly exhilarating, it was my experience fellowshipping and cooking in my floor’s kitchen that I felt most at home.