Ceci n’est pas une Pecan Pie

I started writing thinking this would be a simple essay about my grandmother’s pecan pie (pecan pronounced pah-con). My grandmother, Helen Frances Houk, is a spitfire of a woman from Kentucky. She has absolutely no filter when speaking, and she makes pecan pie for all occasions. For every homecoming, church potluck, and holiday, my grandmother makes a pecan pie. Truth be told, she makes this pie so often it never really seemed special. But I became acutely attached to this recipe once I knew I was moving to Okinawa. However, when I looked through a collection of my grandmother’s recipes—handwritten and given to me as a wedding gift—the pie was nowhere to be found. Two different punch recipes, four types of cake icing, and five fruit salads (she must have thought I’d be throwing a lot of tea parties), but no pecan pie. I had to dig out her old church cookbook to find it—right next to five of her friends’ pecan pie variations.

Recipe in hand and homesickness at its peak, I set out to make this little piece of nostalgia. But wouldn’t you know, the two main ingredients—pecans and corn syrup—are not easy to find on this little island. I soon found myself sitting at my computer, poised to click “purchase” and spend forty US dollars on a bag of pecans and one bottle of corn syrup while Helen quietly napped in her crib, when my inner voice shouted: What is so incredibly important about making  this pie?

Trailing spouse, stay-at-home mom, shufu: these are just a few terms describing the identity I acquired when my husband and I moved to Okinawa to pursue his PhD. Even though I fully participated in this decision, I found the result was not as I’d pictured. Growing up I idolized my mother—a mechanic for the US Air Force who later served as president of a chapter of the National Organization of Women. “You tell your friends your mom does wear combat boots!” she  often joked. When I started my undergraduate degree, she started her PhD in nursing. My stepfather has a PhD in chemistry. On top of this, my father works at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, so of course I wanted to be an astronaut from a very young age. My mother wanted me to be a doctor, but I decided against that when I saw what happened to the Thanksgiving turkey.

Above all else I knew I needed to impress people! Looking back, I can see I’ve made almost every academic and professional decision based upon this belief. Why major in English, when I could double major in that plus creative writing and graduate with first class honors? Oh, and I’ll do all this studying in Canada, too. But why stop there? I’ll make it a master’s degree. And I’ll teach English at a local college so I’m able to use that degree—despite the fact that I’m an adjunct  working two other jobs just to pay rent. I’m impressive! What do you do, Virginia? Oh I teach college English. Did I mention I have a master’s degree after studying the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of Canadian national identity during the Cold War, as reflected in the Modernist and Post-Modernist literary works of Earle Birney, Phillis Webb, and Leonard Cohen? You’ve never heard of any of these people? Well they’re really big in Canadian literary and music circles.

So imagine my surprise when my husband and I arrived in Okinawa and I found myself twiddling my thumbs at home. I’d arrived too late to meet anyone at the start-of-semester events or join a Japanese class. I had no idea how to get around the island. When I did go out it was always dark because that’s when the buses ran. I couldn’t read anything in any of the stores. I couldn’t speak to anyone off campus. I couldn’t find a job on campus. I couldn’t even enter the lab where my Japanese class was held because I wasn’t allowed an entry card. Overnight I became almost completely isolated—socially, linguistically, culturally—and I felt entirely overwhelmed. Unimportant. Unimpressive. Did I mention I have a master’s degree? I began to feel ridiculous when I realized how often I slipped that into conversations, trying to prove I was more than just a trailing spouse. I belonged here, too. Then I became pregnant and the isolation only increased.

After leaving my home, my family, my job, my language, and my sense of self, my grandmother’s pecan pie became an anchor to what remained of my identity. It was my home, tying me back to the Southern United States; my family, bringing me back to my grandmother’s kitchen; my new job, carrying on this culture and love for my own child; my language, in the very way I pronounce pecan; my self. Instead of spending forty dollars on pecans and corn syrup, I looked beyond the pie and found what I truly desired: knowing who I am and knowing that who I am still matters.

For the first time I can’t map out the next five steps in my academic and professional life, and it is both frightening and freeing. I have no plan and, as I’ve adjusted to Okinawa and rebuilt my life here, I’ve been forced to look outward instead of in—and to lean on so many: Julia, who invited me into the CDC family; Makiko-san, who has  helped me find the answers to so many questions; Bethany, who brought dinner after Helen was born; Yoko-san, who celebrated with us when our daughter’s MRI brought good news; Elizabeth, who spent countless Friday afternoons showing me around the island; everyone who came to my Thanksgiving potlucks; the Kuroshio team, who welcomed me into their professional development group with open arms; and my husband and daughter, who have loved me unconditionally through it all. With all pretense stripped away, I’ve come to realize life’s value resides not solely in accomplishments and acclaim, but within the support of the community along the way. Now it is my turn to give back.

A pie, after all, is meant to be shared.