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The Wok of Shame
Some fragmented thoughts on a disastrous batch of fried rice, the lessons of Ted Lasso, more tomatoes from the garden, and supporting me in my work
Thursday, August 18
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Hello, gentle reader.
On Tuesday, I made the worst fried rice ever to have come out of my kitchen.
This is not false modesty. The flavor wasn’t terrible, but the texture was all wrong—heavy and dense, not light and fluffy. In good fried rice, even as the individual ingredients are unified by the soy and the egg, they should remain distinct and identifiable. In this fried rice, everything had congealed into mush—and “congealed” is never a word you want to use to describe fried rice.
“It seems almost like risotto?” Tristan said gently. Which was honestly insulting to risotto.
Was the leftover rice too wet? Were the proportions of the ingredients off? Am I struggling to adjust to cooking with my grandmother’s wok and the new stove? Maybe all of the above—I’m still not sure. But the fried rice was so bad that I, the child of a thrifty family that finds a way to salvage almost anything for an extra meal, put the leftovers in the compost bin.
Even worse than eating the fried rice was the feeling of having cooked that fried rice. I’d let both my ancestors and Tristan down. Honestly, I felt ashamed.
This might seem melodramatic. It was just one meal, and even the best cooks sometimes screw up in the kitchen. But amidst a season in which I feel I’ve failed others repeatedly, even one of my go-to strengths failed me.
Anyway, this wasn’t really about the fried rice. As I thought about my disproportionate reaction, I had to acknowledge: As much as I might like to claim otherwise, I still haven’t come close to conquering my fears of rejection. I’m still worshiping the god of human approval. And I’m still struggling to believe that, apart from my utility, whether at the stove or at my keyboard, I matter.
The culture in which I was reared heavily emphasizes the communal. In Chinese society, you are largely defined by your relationship and your service, particularly to your family. This has its benefits: Especially in a more individualistic society like we have in the United States, I’m grateful for how my parents and grandparents taught me the importance of caring for others and the manner in which my actions could have repercussions for our good name. But there can be significant downsides too, not least the sense that your worth is contingent on your performance.
The other night, we finally finished Season 2 of Ted Lasso. I rarely watch a show when it first comes out, especially if it’s wildly popular and particularly if people are raving about it on social media. I loathe those tweets that basically go: “Whoa. What just happened?” (This is not to say that people shouldn’t tweet things like that; it’s my job to manage my own reactions and feelings!) But once the crowd moves on, sometimes I move in.
At first glance, Ted Lasso might seem like a sweet show about an English football club with a pathologically upbeat American coach—and it is! But at its heart, I think it’s a stirring exploration of the universal predicament of being human. It delves into memory and trauma, love and loss, individual worth and team spirit. It wrestles with fear, vulnerability, and belonging. One theme revealed in distinct yet recognizable ways in pretty much every major character’s story is the desire to matter.
Some months ago, Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a moving reflection on Ted Lasso. She dwells in particular on the curious case of Nate Shelley, who goes from AFC Richmond waterboy to Premier League “wunderkid.” Underneath Nate’s meek surface, he seethes with a hunger to be seen and accepted. He craves being celebrated. He wants desperately to matter.
In this, Nate is not so different from most of the rest of us, though many could—and many have—criticized him for his pain-management strategies. Not Nadia. “I want to see Nate’s pain transformed. I want to see him be forgiven. And for sure I want to see him forgive himself,” she writes. “OK, ok. I really just want all of this for me. And I want it for you.”
Amen and amen—but how?
This is the eternal conundrum and challenge of being human. We were made for relationship, yet we are so often devastated by it. We want others not to hold our foibles and our sins against us, yet we struggle to do the same for them—and often we struggle even more to show such grace to ourselves. We crave the transformation of our pain, yet we shy from the hard work—yes, the work—of healing and change.
I confess that I’ve sometimes seen forgiveness as a one-time transaction. It’s not. To forgive is a discipline. Whether you’re forgiving yourself or someone else, it requires you to commit and then recommit, over and over, day after day, to living as one freed from the scourge of sin done against you. It asks you to surrender bitterness. It invites softness where hardness is only natural.
Likewise with grace, at least on the human scale: People in my faith tradition like to say that it abounds, and I believe it does. But among fallible and fickle folks, as we all are, its abundance can’t be taken for granted. Grace gathers its gentle strength from our gratitude, which needs our effort. Perhaps we can imagine it to be like the unspooling of an infinite thread, one which might sometimes slip from our grasp but is always there waiting for us to find once again.
Mattering, too: I suspect it will be the work of the rest of my lifetime to return myself to the truth of my belonging—to God, to community, to this wondrous but imperfect world. Over and over, I will have to outshout my fear. Repeatedly, I will have to rebuke the lie that human approval will give me the nourishment I need. Again and again, I will have to whisper to myself the good news that I do matter, not least because of the love that gave me life. As it is with the hungers and thirsts of our physical bodies, so too it is with our spirits and our souls.
I will cook fried rice again. Maybe next time or the time after that, it will turn out great—and maybe next time or the time after that, I might fail. Either way, it will be fine. The wok will still be there, waiting to do its part in transformation, if only I’ll do mine.
What Else I’m Cooking: For my birthday, my in-laws sent a gift card to a local cheese shop, so the other day, Tristan and I walked over and picked up some burrata—a ball of goodness that is mozzarella encasing a center of stracciatella and cream. Then, I sliced some of the larger tomatoes from the garden and halved the little ones, chopped some of our basil, and doused it all in good olive oil and a little bit of balsamic vinegar. This, to me, is summer on a plate: the tomatoes’ sweetness, the vinegar’s zing, the basil’s herbaceousness, and the luscious cheese coming together in celebration.
Housekeeping: I began writing these letters to you early in the spring of 2020, just as we were beginning to grapple with the reality of the pandemic. Since then, I’ve written you most weeks. Every time I send you something, I try to point you toward beauty and hope. Writing to you compels me to look for such goodness around me—and then you point me toward more, as so many of you have been generous in sharing in return.
A few of you have reached out to ask how you might support my work, and other writers have wondered why I haven’t put up a paywall. I won’t lie to you. Part of what’s stopped me is fear. I’m afraid to put some monetary value on my writing, and I confess that my fragile ego doesn’t want to know if you think this newsletter is worthwhile only if it costs zero dollars. Another part of it is my discomfort with the models I’ve seen out there, as if hope—even my little expression of it!—should come with a price tag. Yet I also can’t deny that this is work; I invest hours upon hours each time I write one of these letters.
So here’s what I’ve decided: All my writing here will remain available at no cost. If you wish to keep things exactly as they are, you’re welcome to—truly. But I’m also opening up the opportunity to support me and my work if you’d like to do so. Substack doesn’t give me total flexibility; I’m setting the payment options as low as it allows ($5 a month or $50 a year). You can also name your price if you wish to chip in more. Your backing will, among other things, help me pay my health insurance, buy the books I need for my Ph.D. research, and keep Fozzie rich in treats (he really likes treats).
That’s all for today. Thanks for reading. It’s always a gift to hear from you. If you’re a Ted Lasso fan, I’d love to know what you’ve loved (or not) about the show. It’s always a privilege to pray for you too. What’s weighing on your hearts?
As always, you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or just reply to this letter if you got it by email. I will do my best to write you back within the calendar year. And as always, I’m so grateful we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.
With gratitude and in hope,