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Be a Sichuan chili pepper

| Wednesday, November 11, 2015

“What kind of base would you like?”

“Can I have the Sichuan base?”

“Sriracha?”

“Um, no. Sichuan.”

“What is that?”

Helplessly, I pointed out my choice of stir-fry base on the menu: “This one, Sì-Chuān.” I pronounced the word with perfect tones: fourth, first.

“Oh! You mean Szechuan!” The cook exclaimed in English, her native language, “Now I get it!”

Well, maybe you did not get it. I said, “Sichuan.” And I meant it.

For the first four weeks of school, I insisted on using the correct pronunciation whenever I had stir-fry in dining halls, and my pronunciation would cause confusion every single time. My friend once asked me, “Why don’t you just say Szechuan? It will save you so much time.”

I did not know how to articulate to him the magical power of the word “Sichuan.” As an international student, there is a special pride in seeing my own language in a foreign country and being able to pronounce it aloud in my native tone. It almost creates a power dynamic in which I am finally on the upper level. More importantly, the word reminds me of beautiful memories, of my past, of China: The time when pork dumplings, dipped in the capsicol made by the Sichuan chili pepper, set my mouth on fire and kept me warm on the coldest winter day. The time when a boiling hot pot called back all my family members drifting in far away places and gathered us around the dinner table on the evening of Spring Festival. The time when my dad said to me with a very serious face that a person who did not have the courage to take a Sichuan chili pepper could never accomplish great things. It is from those memories that I seek my strength, my root and myself. It is by looking back to my past that I understand why I am here and where I am going. I cannot stand that I have to “correct” my pronunciation of “Sichuan” — a word in my native language, a word that means so much to me — in order to be understood here.

“I want to transform the way people on this campus say ‘Sichuan,’” I told my friend, “We need to celebrate the spirit of diversity by using the correct pronunciation.” I had a plan already. I promised myself that I would never succumb to the Americanized pronunciation “Szechuan.” I need to reassert the identity of that stir-fry base.

But transforming others was much more difficult than I thought. Day after day, I would show up at the stir-fry section and pronounce the word as clearly as possible, only to find a very confused face staring back. I started to feel less confident, not only in my ability to transform others, but also in my past, in those beautiful memories and in my own culture. Perhaps they were just not worth that much I thought to myself. I started to lower my voice and stare at my tray when pronouncing the word. My proud fourth-tone “si” started to blur toward a toneless “sze.” And then, one day, a miracle happened.

“Hi, what can I get for you?”

“Hi, can I have the Sichuan base?”

“Sure.”

I looked up from my tray and stared at the cook in surprise. A middle age man, wide forehead, black hair and black eyes.

“Are you Chinese?”

“Yes, I am.”

We had a long conversation later that evening. I told him about my aspiration of transforming how people say “Sichuan” on Notre Dame campus and how I had failed. I also complained to him that it pained me to see people not understand or appreciate my culture, the value of which I was beginning to doubt. After quietly listening to my rant, my awesome chef friend told me a story of the Sichuan chili pepper.

The Sichuan chili pepper is one of the spiciest peppers in the world. It will take the amount of water 500,000 times the pepper’s weight to fully remove the spice of one single pepper. It is renowned for its quality, and yet, nobody will appreciate eating only the pepper itself. It is simply too spicy to be approached. In Chinese cuisine, the most authentic way to savor Sichuan chili peppers is through making a hot pot. To make the soup base for hot pot, people throw Sichuan chili peppers into boiling water with a large variety of other spices. After an entire night of frying, boiling and stirring, the Sichuan chili pepper would lose much of its spiciness, which is moderated and balanced by varied flavors of other spices, but the pepper still maintains its unique taste in the hot pot. Hot pot is loved by people from all over the world and is considered the best way to appreciate the value of the Sichuan chili pepper.

“To realize its full value, the Sichuan chili pepper has to first make itself approachable by diners. What about you?”

“I guess to help others understand my culture, I have to first make my culture understandable.”

He looked at me and smiled: “You got it. Be a Sichuan chili pepper.”

“Hi, can I have the Sichuan base?”

“The what base?”

“Szechuan. It is pronounced ‘Sichuan’ in Chinese.”

“How interesting! It is originally from China, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is one of the eight major Chinese cuisines.”

“Really? I never knew that! How do you pronounce it again?”

“Sì-Chuān.” I proudly pronounced the word with perfect tones: fourth, first.

“Sì-Chuān.” The cook repeated after me.

As Notre Dame students, we are encouraged every day to foster understanding, to bridge the gap, to reveal the beautiful, to change the world into a better place, but we cannot transform the lives of others until we first let ourselves be transformed.

Be a Sichuan chili pepper, and go transform the world. Oh, by the way, don’t forget: It is “Sì-Chuān,” not “Szechuan.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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