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!

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