Saturday, February 6, 2010

Normalized Eating and Travel

I spent six weeks in Vietnam last year in a fit of post-layoff malaise. And while I was there: I ate totally normally and didn't think about it.

I thought about my intake, of course; I made a point of walking everywhere to burn calories; I noticed that I was losing weight and was pleased. But as far as what I was actually eating: I ate with pleasure and gusto when the occasion called for it, and treated food as tasty sustenance when that was appropriate. I didn't overeat; I didn't restrict. I wasn't forcing myself to stay in line--it just happened, which, even at the healthy place I'm at right now, seems sort of miraculous.

Part of it was the lack of boredom, and the general lack of stress--I do fine in immediately stressful situations that travel calls for and am not a freaker-outer; the stress that triggers symptoms in me tends to be more of the chronic kind. Part of it was not wanting to miss out on the delicious foods surrounding me; to only stick with the familiar (which would have been impossible anyway) would have robbed me of an essential part of the adventure; part of it was the need to keep my energy up so that I could see all I wanted to see.

But what really made it felt so natural to eat normally in Vietnam was that I was culturally displaced. All of a sudden, food was how the rest of the world saw it, not how I've spent decades seeing it. Food was not comfort, food was not love, food was not a salve for anger or irritation or boredom or self-loathing, or an enemy to be conquered in order to feel like I had a right to exist. Instead, food was a way of connecting with my surroundings; a way for me to garner energy; a way to get to know people; a way for me to utterly enjoy myself; a way to be surprised. Half the time I had no idea what I was eating, and instead of being panicked by it, I went with the flow (even when it turned out I was eating half-hatched duck eggs). If I wanted to have rice crepes with barbecue sausage at 9 p.m., I had them--there was no cultural cue telling me that it was "wrong" or that I would need to somehow compensate for it later. Other people were doing it, it was available, I was hungry, so: I'd eat.

The Vietnamese do eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner of sorts, but there are also foods that are eaten at different times of the day (and different times of the day only--some vendors would sell their goods only from 3-5, for example), and besides, my idea of what a meal was became irrelevant. All of a sudden I was beginning my day with a steaming bowl of beef soup--I couldn't cling to my rigid patterns or treat every variation as an "extra" or "indulgence."

If I was to feed myself at all properly, I had to simultaneously A) look at the people around me and deduce from their food what was appropriate at any given time, whether that meant eating pho for breakfast or ordering multiple milky che drinks because one just wasn't enough, and B) let my body guide me to what it wanted. Rather, let my body guide me to when I wanted, because what I wanted was also irrelevant, as I never exactly got the hang of how to find exactly what I wanted to eat. But that also normalized my eating: If I was craving glass noodles and could only find buckwheat noodles, well, that's just how it is, and isn't it good anyway?

I'm going to be spending a couple of months in the Czech Republic soon, and I'm nervous about what this will mean for my meal plan. I've sort of gotten my meals down pat--still allowing for variety and flexibility, but I pretty much know what I'm going to be eating every day. I'll be thrown into a country with completely different food, with a lot of fear foods to boot--potatoes, breads, dumplings, etc. I'm trying to remember what Vietnam did for me--and that was unintentional, and before I had the tools that Renfrew gave me. But European culture is closer to American culture than Asia was--I will still be in a new place, but will have neither the continual awe I had in Vietnam, nor the sense of total displacement that forced me to go with my gut in an eat-or-die sort of way.


  1. Hello :-) Just came across your blog and thought it looked really interesting...

    I've often wondered how a stay in a foreign culture might impact upon my relationship with food.

    It's great that you can embrace challenges like these and no doubt they can be extremely helpful in the recovery process.

    Sarah x

  2. Hi Sarah--glad to have crossed your path; I'm enjoying your blog.

    And that is a very good point--the challenge of spending time in a foreign culture IS helpful in the recovery process, regardless of the actual food itself. It's something that keeps me engaged, which is enormous for me.