Posts tagged culture
Posts tagged culture
When I was a little girl, I’d often watch The Miss America or Miss USA Pageant with my family. My parents had amusing commentary, usually along the lines of, “Lynn could do that” and I would dismiss them, knowing someone who looked like me would never be accepted in a world dominated by blonde-haired, blue-eyed women.
Tonight, not only was Nina Davuluri the first contestant of Indian Heritage to be crowned, but her runner-up was also Asian-American, Miss California/Crystal Lee.
Honestly, the racist reaction isn’t surprising to me. It’s what I imagined, as a child, that I would hear when it finally happened. I just can’t believe it’s taken SO LONG for this to happen.
FYI our new queen also struggled with body image and eating disorders:
She is sick of the pain caused in America by use of the word “skinny.” Davuluri is aware of the impossible body image too many girls equate with “beauty contests,” and she knows about clinical associations between eating disorders and childhood pageants.
She has struggled with her weight since she was a child, and she thinks the American emphasis on being slender is a false and dangerous ideal, leading too often to a destructive path.
For that reason, she declines to reveal what she weighs now - not out of vanity, Davuluri said, but because she worries about girls who might try to make her ideal weight into their own goal. She said the perfect weight, for any individual, is the plateau where you are healthy and feel good about yourself.
Davuluri hopes young women watching the pageant will contemplate the healthy aspects of what she calls her “weight loss journey,” and she said the weight that she’ll take onto the stage is hardly a level she’d define as “skinny.”
Ann Taylor Pittman wrote this article for Cooking Light, which won the 2013 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award in the Food and Culture category.
Southern to the bone, I don’t look it. I look Korean or, as I sometimes still overhear in the South, “some kind of Chinese.” But I speak no Korean and, before going on my pilgrimage, knew embarrassingly little of the culture. To me, Korean heritage was mostly about food: the traditional dishes my mom would cook every now and then, after driving up to Memphis for ingredients at the closest Asian market. We loved some of the dishes she made—especially sweet-salty marinated meat and any kind of noodle dish. But she also made funky soups, always in this little gold-colored pot. The rest of us wouldn’t join her, wary of the burly flavors.
Those were dishes my mother made for herself: comfort and consolation, taken in solitude. I imagine how it must have been for her to make food alone and not have anyone to share it with—sad for any mother, especially in a place where no one spoke her language and where this was the only part of her culture she could re-create. I ask her now if this hurt her feelings. “No. No, noooo,” she says. “Because the food was so different. So strange from what Westerners are used to.” My mother, I discovered, didn’t have the luxury of learning to cook from her mother; instead, she taught herself to cook in America. “I just guessed,” she says, “remembering the taste I had a long, long time ago.” She adds, with a confidence that makes me proud, “I’m pretty creative, you know.”
Our family never went to Korea when I was a kid, and later I assumed this was because Mom, having escaped, was in no hurry to return. Fine by me. I didn’t want to go. I was ruled, well into high school, by a childish hunger to just be like everyone else. But as my dad now explains, “We just didn’t have the money to do it.”
It wasn’t until college that I began to use the K-word to define myself. That’s also when I started researching and cooking Korean food, working—as my mother did—from memory rather than instruction. Finally, at 42, having long been immersed in the world of food, I figured it was well past time for me to go to the place from whence, through my mother’s side of the family, I half-came. Food would be the obvious door-opener. On the Web, I easily found food bloggers and experts who would welcome me. I would eat my way around Seoul, nibble through the coastal city of Busan, where my mother is from, and then head to the small town of Hapcheon, where I would finally meet my Korean relatives.
In Seoul, no one spoke to me in Korean; apparently they knew by glancing at me that I was not one of them. This was a bit of a disappointment. I decided that, at 5 feet 8 inches tall, I am simply American-sized.
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School was awful. I had to leave during the middle of the day for physical therapy that involved swimming and returning to class with inexplicably wet hair. Lunch sucked. My mom would pack the dumbest garbage. She once smeared bits of raw garlic left over from making kimchi onto white sandwich bread, thinking that’s how the garlic bread advertised at Pizza Hut was born. I waited until she got off work that night and yelled at her with rank breath. I’d eaten most of the seemingly innocent square, elated that a sandwich had turned up at all in a lunch box that usually contained punishment food that sometimes had eyes. The stress of navigating school as a teeny-tiny uncomfortable person with an enormous gimp wing was taking a toll.
One lunch, I was dragging myself around the playground when I saw my mom standing by the fence, waving big and calling my name. I wanted so badly to ignore her. She was supposed to be at work and I didn’t have physical therapy that day so I was immediately suspicious. As confusing as her presence was, my curiosity did not outweigh my desire to be left alone. Especially by her. I began to back away so she started shouting loud enough to be heard over the playground din. I shuffled towards her with every intention to roundhouse-bludgeon her with my plastered arm. She held out a paper box. It was a McDonald’s happy meal: a cheeseburger one, which was my favorite. The offering was so out of character that I considered it a bribe. I wondered if my parents were getting a divorce since that was huge at my school at the time. I asked her what was going on. She mentioned something about how she wanted me to have a lunch that I liked.
I then did what any normal kid would do and yelled and yelled about how embarrassing it was to have her at school with me during lunch of all times. She presented me with a sack of cheeseburgers that I could give out to my friends. I refused the damp bag and screeched about how it was so cheap that she didn’t spring for bright red boxes with toys for them as well. I made her take the burgers back with her. If I were an actress and had to think of something sad to make me cry in a scene, I would think about this moment. This and the time I was 13 when I kicked my mom across a room and ran away for two days because she tried to ground me — for breaking curfew after my friend Jacinta stole money from her dying grandmother so we could rent out a nightclub and write the names of those blackballed on the sign outside. For the record: I don’t know why people have kids.
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I am partly Asian. Indonesian, in fact. My mother is from Indonesia and my father is an Northern African Jew. If you know nothing about that, Northern Africans have a big thing with food, like Asians. Jews do too. The one thing they have in common: for every event or reason, good or bad, food is used.
You can imagine there was a lot of food when I grew up. Especially if you are a girl. My Indonesian family were always busy with food and some kind of nuts. And soy sauce. Lots of soy sauce. When I went to the other family, the Arab Jews, it was cous cous, lamb and plenty of other Jewish food.
Somehow, my physique was an issue to them. In both families they agreed I was too skinny. My father thought that he’d give me steak, which would fatten me up. I have no idea what that is based upon, but I am pretty sure that action is responsible for my health. My Indonesian family thought I’d have to fatten up by eating lots of noodles and pork. As a child being brought up a Jew, eating pork is a bit contradictory; that bit helped me survive this strange mix of rules and behaviour.
My Indonesian cousin and my aunt are suffering from an eating disorder due to this. My Chinese best friend struggles with her weight all the time.
Reviewing all of this, I sometimes get so tired with food. I even get tired of people who are in denial about it.
But in the end, I am Indonesian; I am an Arabic Jew and I go from culture to the culture. I use my Jewish wits to say no in a polite way when I am really not in the mood for some food. But I am ME. My health and prosperity are most important. And my family accepts that about me now. Sometimes.
Barring a formal setting, initial introduction to a stranger, or severe lack of imagination, Chinese people do not say “Hello.” I notice this during one of my trips to the mainland, to visit our extended family. While on a walk with my grandma and her dog, we pass a neighbor coming home from work.
“Have you eaten yet?” my grandmother asks. Chi le ma?
“Not yet,” she replies. “Have some dumplings left over from the weekend. You?”
“Just finished. Digesting now.”
“Good, good,” she says and enters the apartment. The only thing more redundant than “Hello” is “Goodbye”.
My father’s mother is the type of woman every child wants as a grandma. She wears her hair in a perm and huge rhinestone sunnies on her head when she goes outside and dresses her child-dog NiuNiu in sweaters she knits herself. Everyone on the block knows and loves her, and all wonder the same thing.
“Have you eaten?” asks Little Chen, the security guard.
Then the produce vendor. Then three other neighbors. I suddenly hear the question repeated ad nauseum all around me. On this evening and every evening, across the country, people inquire about each other’s dinner status with the tenacity of a census bureau. It’s not that they’re extending an invitation to eat—this is clear when you say “no”—but rather using an affectionate turn of phrase. “I care about you enough to ask if you’re eating but have nothing particularly interesting to stop and talk about.”
The first word I spoke was Mama and the second was eat.
Chi, chi, chi. I said as my grandparents set the table for meals. When they returned to the kitchen they found me pawing rice out of the pot, smearing it into my face.
With so many food references in the fabric of our language, it is no surprise that fine Chinese culture consists of 90% eating, 6% calligraphy and 4% Mahjong. And even then, you can’t escape the act of consumption. In board games ranging from checkers to chess, you beat the opponent by “eating” his or her pieces. Such difficult problems are best approached by “eating the tough bone” to find a solution. If, however, you’ve “eaten bad luck” on a particular day and “eat a ticket” for parking your car in a wrong area, remind yourself that “eating a grievance gains you a lesson”—and it won’t go straight to your thighs, either.
“Eating vinegar” is for those prone to jealousy and “eating a fly” is certainly one of the most awkward, disgusting experiences you can suffer. Most of us want to “eat sweet days” ahead of us, as if we’ve “fallen into the honey pot.” If you happen upon a stroke of good luck, it’s your time to “eat delicious”.
Above all, the most highly respected characteristic in China is the ability to “eat bitter,” meaning you can withstand difficulty in times of “eating strength” without “indigestion” for life’s knocks. No one likes an “eating tramp,” a bottomless “rice bucket” or a troublemaker who’s “stuffed to the brim” and has nothing better to do. These are facts of life, simple as “eat and elude hunger.”
There is no escape. As we grow up we seek our “rice bowl”—something lucrative and gratifying to contribute to society and support ourselves. As a bachelor, I “feed one person and no one in the whole house goes hungry” but with the addition of “each extra mouth” the task gets harder.
Having heard all these examples, one might ask, “So what?” or “Does it grow meat on your bones?” (As an angsty teenager this was my particular favorite). Here’s some food for thought: All day long, my grandmother is either preparing food, eating, or discussing the next meal. When I visit her, she goes to every produce stand and butcher looking for the best ingredients to ensure that there are homemade dumplings on the table. For the Chinese, there is no other way to greet and send off a loved one.
She mixes the dough in the morning and chops pork and chives on what looks like an ancient tree stump. If her maid can’t make them small enough to her satisfaction, which is often the case, she folds each ear-like bundle herself, murmuring that giant boat dumplings don’t taste or look nearly as nice.
And no matter how I’m feeling, whether or not “I’ve eaten” and despite my usually staunch vegetarianism, I never don’t feel like eating her dumplings. The whole family bows around the dining table and we let our chopstick clinks and loud slurps do all the talking.