A Journey through Ma-Po Dofu

The other night, Marty and I decided we were in the mood for Chinese food. For some reason, I ordered a dish I haven’t had to date at our local Chinese restaurant—Ma-Po Dofu, sometimes also called, with the Japanese pronunciation, Ma-Po Tofu (the Ma-Po is short for “pockmarked grandmother”, which may describe how the dish sometimes looks). It is a Sichuanese dish, usually quite spicy, but is served all over Asia and in most Chinese restaurants in the U.S. as well.   I have to say I didn’t care for the version here—the tofu chunks were too large, and the sauce was not spicy enough and too heavy on the soy sauce.

This led me on a quest when I got home for the recipe I recalled from my graduate school days, from my fellow student and friend from Yale, Barbara Brooks. Barbara and I were in beginning Japanese class together in the Japanese Studies program at Yale—she did much better than me because she had already established some fluency in Chinese—and we became friends as well.   She was a good cook and because she was living with a Chinese roommate at the time, also had access to authentic Chinese style cooking.   Unfortunately, while I found a recipe in her handwriting for cheese balls (equally delicious, though not Chinese), I did not find the one for Ma-Po Dofu.

In the past several months since my diagnosis, I have reconnected with a number of old friends with whom I’d lost touch, and realized I had missed Barbara. We had last been in contact maybe 20 or more years ago, and I knew that she had gone on to get a Ph.D from Princeton, had married and had a daughter, and was teaching Japanese history at City College in New York. So I Googled her in the hope that I could locate an email address—and not only reconnect, but with the thought that perhaps she still had that great recipe for Ma-Po Dofu. To my shock and dismay, the first entry that appeared in my search was her obituary. She died at 60 more than three years ago—of metastatic breast cancer.

This hit me hard, not only because I regretted not contacting her before, but also because we had the same diagnosis. It led me to reminisce and find some pictures of the times we shared so many years ago, at Yale, in Japan, and even in Hong Kong. Some of those pictures—including the more serious one of Barbara posing for me at the Yale library (I was studying photography and developing my own film as a way of de-stressing from graduate school), are here. Who could have known then that we would share not only these good times, but the same fate in terms of the way we would leave the world?

partyyalein japan

Yalies at my apartment in Japan. Barbara is second from the left, directly behind me.

barbara at yale library

Barbara posing for me at the Yale Library.

Perhaps our most interesting adventure was my visit to her in Hong Kong, where her father and mother were stationed on a temporary basis.   Due to her father’s work, Barbara and her siblings grew up internationally, and she went to school in India and, if memory serves, Thailand as well. She showed me all over Hong Kong, and she cheerfully accompanied me by hydrofoil to Macao to the Temple of Kun Yam, which figures prominently in the opening paragraphs of my friend Warren Cohen’s history of Sino-American relations, America’s Response to China.   Here, in 1844, at the table pictured with the smiling Chinese man, the first treaty between the U.S. and China was signed. Barbara, with her fluency in both Japanese and Chinese, would go on to study and write about Sino-Japanese relations as well, making her own significant contributions to the understanding of East Asian diplomatic history. But in those days, we were two young women on a day’s adventure—as close to the then unrecognized People’s Republic of China as I would get until the early 1980s, when Warren and I made an advance trip for the governor of Michigan’s visit to Sichuan Province in preparation for the signing of a sister state agreement between Michigan and Sichuan (and though I don’t remember clearly, I’m sure I had some Ma-Po Dofu both in Hong Kong with Barbara and later in Sichuan).

I am both saddened by Barbara’s passing, and saddened that we share the same fate.  I guess we will meet again in the future–just not someplace in New York, but another venue altogether.

In other news, I am scheduled to start a new clinical trial at Mass General next week, or Plan E, as my doctor calls it (let’s hope the E stands for Effective).   I don’t technically meet all the qualifications for the trial—it is aimed at what’s called triple negative breast cancer, which means a complete absence of two hormonal markers and another marker called HER-2.   I am negative on two of the markers, but not the third. Nonetheless, my doctor and the study doctor felt that since the hormonal treatments have failed, I was a good candidate for this combo—it is a kind of Patriot Missile of therapies, as it delivers 200X the amount of drug to the cancer cells as IV chemo—and the study doctor was able to get me in. It will be somewhat harsher than the treatments I’ve had so far, but here’s hoping it also beats the cancer back more decisively.

“Shikata ga nai “ 仕方がない

During my lifetime, I lived a little more than 8 years outside the United States, all of it in Asia and Southeast Asia—Japan for more than four years, India for nearly three, and China for a little more than a year, where I also spent quite a bit of time in rural Korea.  I also worked for a Japanese company in the U.S. for 11 years, where I had many opportunities to interact with both the Japanese assignees and their families.   I have often wondered the impact that living in Asia and working with people from Eastern cultures has had on both my attitudes and approach to life—and death.

I was thinking about this more lately not only because of the latest setback in my treatment, but also because on our trans-coastal flight from San Francisco to New York in June, I watched a Japanese film called “Hana-chan no Misoshiru” (Hana’s Miso Soup). It is based on a true story, and is about a young woman diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before her wedding, who then goes on to have a child, which is risky because it can cause recurrence. Indeed, several months after her daughter’s birth, the cancer does return and is metastatic.   Although she is able to beat it back temporarily with more chemotherapy, eventually the disease progresses to the point where nothing more can be done. Wanting her 4 year old daughter to learn how to be self-sufficient, she teaches her how to cook, including how to make miso soup, a staple of Japanese cuisine—hence the movie’s title.

Throughout this ordeal, Chie, the mother, refuses to be a victim, understanding that her cancer may return if she goes through with the pregnancy, and later, that she is likely to die while her daughter is still a small child. While being proactive about treatment and her diet, she also accepts her fate without rancor or anger.

Which brings me to the title of this post—shikata ga nai (or sometimes, shou ga nai). Literally, it means, “there is no way,” or more colloquially, “it can’t be helped.”  I probably heard this phrase at least daily when I lived in Japan, applied to all sorts of situations—from a traffic jam in Tokyo to an earthquake to someone’s death, all of which were events that were not in an individual’s control.   Certainly it has come to my mind often when I think about having cancer.  Sometimes misinterpreted as passivity, “shikata ga nai” doesn’t really dictate that you do nothing—as Chie in the film demonstrates. It does mean an acceptance of the circumstances you have been dealt, without anger or self-pity.

I vividly recall a situation when I was working for Mazda that illustrates this latter point. I was interpreting a media interview for the then new President of the manufacturing company, who did not speak much English. He had been born and raised in Hiroshima, and was a small boy at the time of the dropping of the first atomic bomb.   Because Hiroshima was viewed as a target towards the end of the war, he, his mother and siblings had relocated to a nearby area in the country, but his father continued to work in the city.   The father, like so many others, was killed in the bomb that was dropped on August 6, 1945.   The reporter was very curious about my boss’s reaction to this, especially since he was now living and working in America. He wanted to know if he “resented” America or Americans or had been “angry” that he lost his father due to the bombing—certainly there were many in Flat Rock, Michigan, including the city’s mayor (who had a statue of Iwo Jima in his office) who had a hard time getting past the Japanese being our enemy in World War II. My boss replied simply, “No”—and used that well worn phrase, “shikata ga nai.” Then he added something I have never forgotten: “I was of course very sad that my father had died. But I was also grateful that my mother and my siblings still lived.”

I am not sure the degree to which this mentality—of acceptance of the things not in one’s control, without being consumed by anger and resentment—has penetrated my consciousness. I suspect it has to some degree.  It is balanced—as it is in Japanese society as well–by another well known phrase, “gambaru”—to persevere, or to slog on through tough times.   This Sunday’s New York Times magazine contained what may be viewed as an extreme example of that—the man who has been on more than 100 scuba dives in the attempt to locate the body of his wife, who died in the Sendai tsunami. Acceptance tempered with perseverance—it seems like a good formula.