How to Learn a Language


Three people walk in to a London pub. The first is a transgender man named Toro. He holds his head high and smiles at the bartender.

“A vodka tonic, please.”

The second is Lara, a 20-something bohemian woman with big dreams and small feet. She orders a local rosemary beer and sits down next to Toro, the bells on her worn-out boat shoes dangling like a dog collar.

To complete the ensemble, a hairy, plump man slides on to the barstool next to Lara, the buttons on his plaid shirt popping out precariously. The bartender smiles and says “Hey, Phil ! What’ll it be ? The usual ?”

“You got it, Dave,” says Phil.

“I’ll have those out for you in just a couple minutes,” says Dave. A hazy-eyed philosophy masters’ student, Dave generally has just enough money for rent and groceries, but not enough to get a haircut. Which explains his floppy cowlick and subtle charm.

Lara turns to Toro and makes an animated remark in Japanese. Phil pulls out a notebook and begins writing down everything he wants to say in return. You see, Phil’s mother is Japanese, so he can understand the conversation. He just can’t respond. It’s frustrating to have these thoughts bottled up in his brain, like artichoke hearts waiting to be properly pickled. After furiously jotting down two pages of words and expressions, Phil shakes out his achy, calloused hand.

Dave sets all the drinks in front of the trio with a flourish. “Vodka tonic, 312, and a Scotch on the rocks for my buddy.” He grins and puts their check in a shotglass. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Toro whips out a Japanese dictionary and gives it to Lara. “Can you take care of this ? I have to check the news, and I don’t get reception in here for some reason,” he mutters.

“Sure,” laughs Lara. “News junkie.”

Toro slips out the front door while Lara scoots closer to Phil and explains the different verb tenses, slang phrases, and character construction. No doubt about it–Japanese is a totally different beast from English.

“Who would’ve thought this guy would get so good at Japanese ? I remember a few months ago he was slurring his words in English.” Dave smirks, relishing Phil’s low point like a feasted fox.

After pulling the door instead of pushing it, Toro walks back inside briskly, and the two-way exchange becomes even more profound. He and Lara chat about the newly established pipelines and the protesters that are adamantly against their construction. Half-listening, Phil sips his scotch pensively, chiming in at all the right times with accented but correct Japanese. As long as he listens to the radio, his comprehension skills keep improving with each passing day.

Dave looks on from the corner of the bar, fiddling with the ancient record player perched on a wide shelf above the countertop. “Jeez,” he thinks to himself. “Maybe I should start learning a new language. It would definitely help me with school if I learned German.” Without any hesitation, he discreetly pours himself a shot of gin and takes it down in one gulp. The pine-iness prickles his throat, inspiring him to take a chance on his freshly budding intellect. After all, it’s only a short trip to the great Germanic forests of yore from where they are in London.

After his shift, Dave hangs up his apron and walks down the block to the nearest bookstore. He buys a used copy of German 101 with its audiobook accompaniment and saunters over to the nearest park to check out the material. Apparently, eavesdropping and a shot of gin are enough to motivate even the laziest pubman to expand his horizons.


Japanese Green Tea Chiffon Cake


My family has a cake recipe that has been passed down so many generations that I call it the “cave era cake”. It has honey, walnuts, raisins, and is dark brown with a crispy crust. My grandma would bake it around New Year’s day to celebrate having a sweet new year of life. My father now makes it, but with one change : he uses sultana raisins instead of regular ones, to match the cake’s neutral colors.

When my grandma passed away, I decided to remake the cake based on a Japanese recipe for green tea chiffon cake. Even though this is a big departure from the honey nut cake of which my family is so fond, I knew I could make them appreciate it. After all, Asian cuisine is my favorite.
Green tea powder (can be found at most Asian supermarkets) has antioxidants and a distinctive taste, unlike honey, which is just intensely sweet.  Instead of castor sugar I used raw brown sugar, which is less processed than honey and white sugar. I also used baking soda and arrowroot powder instead of baking powder, which contains the harmful element aluminum. The new recipe called for vegetable oil, so I used grape seed oil, which has a higher omega-3 content than olive oil. The cave era cake always had butter, and although it felt strange departing from that tradition, I liked the idea of making something new.
The batter was so thick that it was stuck in the metal whisk I was using like gooey green algae. By the time I had cleaned the whisk to the best of my ability, I had some major doubts about this culinary endeavor. Had I made a mistake by using arrowroot powder, making dough that had too much gluten ? I put the goo in a pan and hoped it would turn out alright.
45 minutes later, the cake was perfectly browned on top and popped right out of the pan when I used a spatula to invert it. I let it cool for only two minutes and had a cup of green tea ready to go. In order to get the most out of this green tea cake, I would dip it in some authentic Japanese green tea and then consume it. Little did I know that this trick would cause me to eat much more cake than I had originally planned. Upon tasting my concotion, my family exclaimed “It’s like feathers !” And it was. The cake recipe calls for so little oil and sugar that it is light, spongy, and blissful going down the throat.
Family recipes get their beauty from their simplicity and connection to history; every ingredient means something to each member of the family unit. For me, green tea evokes memories of the Asian country in which we were born, and a minimalist lifestyle that values quality over quantity. As people change, so do their tastebuds. Recipes, then, must evolve to please people’s palates, and this is exactly why my family’s decadent honey cake has evolved in to an angelic green tea chiffon cake. It may not sound sensical, but it works for us.