The Nationality of Food

“Berna, what nationality are you?” a lady asked me on Saturday, after I told some folks about our Thanksgiving meal.  I described various dishes we enjoyed at a Chinese restaurant with a couple who are fellow Hawaii transplants.  Pretty good dim sum for the middle of Texas.  It was, as we say in Hawaii, real ONO!

I knew why she asked me that question.  I look different.  No one ever asks my Norwegian-Italian-German husband about his nationality.  

My husband immediately answered her, “She’s American.”  Eventually I told her I was born in Hawaii and am of Filipino ethnicity.  I knew how he felt when he gave his terse response.  It was the same feeling I used to have when I worked at Woolworths in Waikiki and customers used to talk about “back in the states.”  I often reminded them that Hawaii became a state in August 1959.

But before I judge her, I have to remind myself  that I didn’t know until high school that “nationality” referred to a person’s citizenship.  I realized then that the nationality of everyone I knew was American, except for my father who was a citizen of the Philippines until he died.

“Nationality” was so important when I was growing up in Hawaii.  With so much ethnic diversity, knowing a person’s “nationality” was essential for social survival.  A person’s “nationality” told me how she was raised,  how big her family probably was and, sometimes, even revealed her spiritual beliefs.  My parents often used “nationality” as a way to explain why a person committed a crime, why a boss never mingled with employees, why someone was a straight-A student and why an athlete was good in sports. 

Of course these were stereotypes, but these distinctions were not necessarily created to establish barriers.  Once you got to know a person, “nationality” was not as important as relationships and connections.  People in Hawaii learned to blend, assimilate and live with different eye shapes, different skin colors, and different cultures. 

What I appreciate most about different “nationalities” is the wonderful diversity of food.  Get-togethers brought out the featured food of all cultures, and the best restaurant buffets were the ones that had laulau and poi next to pork adobo, sushi and char siu duck.  Dessert included mochi, pumpkin pie, and Chinese custard cups.

In 1985, just over 50 percent of the babies born were of mixed races.  The other day, my high school classmate posted the menu on Facebook of her grandaughter’s first birthday party.  In honor of her grandaughter’s ethnicity, they had Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese and Puerto Rican dishes.  They even had hamburgers and hot dogs for her Caucasian ancestry.

This afternoon, as I am cooking chicken soup with barley, carrots and celery, I think of my dad’s chicken papaya, the chicken long rice served in luau, saimin with  shredded chicken, Vietnamese pho with chicken, and Chinese chuk.

So nationality is very important . . . just as long as it means that our tables are set with foods of many people who make up this nation!

2 thoughts on “The Nationality of Food

  1. Interesting how one’s background acts as a filter for the way they perceive life and its many interactions.

    I have occasionally been asked what my ancestry is, too. Irish-German, if you only look at my parents. But you start going back further, soon English and French elements appear, not to mention Cherokee. My father’s ancestor was Brian Boru, high king of Ireland a millenia back, and my maternal grandmother always told me she could trace her father’s Eaton lineage back to the Eaton on the Mayflower. (There are also many skeletons in my ancestral closets that I will not let loose here.)

    My wife has also been asked about her bloodline, which is a mixture of Ashkenazic and Sefardic Jews from Russian, Turk, and Bulgarian cultures, just to name a few.

    So imagine the richness of heritage that our daughter has access to when asked!

    Ancestry brings with it such variety and such richness, even beyond food! Every ethnicity brings with it talents and gifts, as well as strengths and weaknesses. God has uniquely gifted each “tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). On the flip side, Satan was also given a certain amount of “authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation” (Rev. 13:7) to corrupt them and inflict weaknesses on them.

    Stereotypes might be too broad a brush to paint people with, but there’s a nugget of truth to each. Unfortunately, such “brushes” have been used too often as weapons to make judgments against others. My distant German relatives made certain judgments against my wife’s not-so-distant Jewish relatives in the last world war.

    When I look at my own heritage, I see the richnesses, but I also see the weaknesses. These are what I am born into, what potential flaws I must beware of and what potential giftings I can hone. For the most part, I embrace my ethnicities, looking at the best of each.

    Here’s the best part: Above and beyond all my ethnicities, I am a new creature in Christ! My flaws–whether they are propensities of the Irish, the German, the French, or the English part of me–are MINE, and I alone will be held accountable. But God, in His graciousness to me, is delivering me from my flaws (at least a few of them) as I let Him reshape me into that new creation. And another aspect of being new is receiving new abilities–as His Spirit pours them out.

    So, although “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:8) in Christ, God still created Jew and Greek, and by bringing both (all?) ethnicities into the Body of Christ, diversity is MULTIPLIED and HONORED and DELIGHTED in by Him, not canceled out, not minimized, not made identical by a cookie-cutter Christianity. Going back to your food theme, the Body of Christ is a feast of tantalizing foods, each cooked with the most mouth-watering spices, some of which we would never have thought could even be combined, much less end up tasting as exquisite as they do.

    Vive la Chef Maître! (Long live the Master Chef!)

    • I must admit. Being asked about my national origin still gets under my skin. The query is based on a possibility that I might come from another country. That is not a polite question. I do not ask that question of anyone, unless a person gives me a lot of information that he or she may not be a US citizen. And, even then, I guard my words. Basically, the nationality question triggers old feelings of class and prejudgment. My weakness.

      I am intrigued, however, by one’s ethicity and ancestry.. It is, after all, how God chose to bring us into this world. That is part of the tapestry he weaves for his pleasure.

      Your and Anita’s ancestry form part of your legacy for your daughter and future generations. It is similar to the legacy Richard and I leave for Marco. It is an honor, really. An honor that we are allowed to leave our imprint on future generations. WOW!

      Stereotypes are our human attempts to explain differences. I believe that Father is glad when we use stereotypes to probe and connect with each other. And when we succumb to the enemy’s deceptions that use stereotypes to prompt us to build barriers and hurt each other, Father is sad, so sad.

      I truly believe that appreciation of each other’s cultures, including our ethnic foods, is one of God’s ways to help us avoid or destroy those barriers. We all eat. We can all appreciate different tastes on our pallettes. That is how he made us.

      So, yes, vive le Chef Maitre! Il est un tres bon pere!

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