How My Father Spoon-fed Me Multiculturalism

6 years ago

My dad enjoys food of all kinds, and as a result, many of our family gatherings involve eating out. People often comment, “Your father must know a lot of good Chinese restaurants.”

Yes, he knows a lot of good restaurants – and not just Chinese.

Image Credit: Mr. T in DC, via Flickr

In my early memory (I must have been about five years old), I can picture a Greek pub across the street from my father’s office in downtown Chicago. It was not often that my mother, brother and I would ride the train from our far-flung suburb to have lunch with him, but when we did, my dad took us out for gyros. Years later, when the show Cheers came on TV, I would think about the Greek pub. Not only because of the brick walls and dim lighting, but because a burly man slicing meat off a rotating spit greeted us by name.

After a few years, our family moved away from Chicago and its Greek diners. Eventually we found a new gyro shop in California, as well as Indian buffets, Salvadoran pupusa stands, German hofbraus and even a Southern eatery made to look like a ramshackle moonshine shack.

Not that we didn’t patronize our share of Chinese restaurants, as well. Of course, there were the standard chow mein-egg roll lunch plates, as well as our family’s native Taiwanese-style food. But not one to stay in his comfort zone, my father insisted that we also eat at Chinese restaurants that accommodated Buddhist vegetarian and Muslim halal diets. There were Vietnamese pho shops, not to be confused with Chiu-Chow style noodle shops.

While other families may have visited Chili’s and the Olive Garden – or at least the “standard” Chinese restaurants, our palates were more diverse. By my teenage years, all this adventuresome eating began to grow old. Our adventures took us out of the safe suburbs and into rougher parts of town. It was slightly embarrassing the way waitresses heartily greeted us, and if my dad hadn’t been around for a while, asked where he had been. To add to the mix, my parents separated, and I went through the angst typical of American teenagers. But when we sat down for a meal, we could put aside our differences.

The night before my wedding, my father offered to host the traditional rehearsal dinner. The choices of cuisine included Afghani, Cambodian, and Japanese. My in-laws are meat and potatoes folks. My bridesmaids were new corporate-types used to expense accounts at white tablecloth restaurants. Couldn’t we just have a regular Chinese banquet?

"It’s a chance to show all these people different kinds of foods that they’ve probably never tried,” my father explained.

Well, the night before my wedding seemed like an inopportune time for a teachable moment. I eventually picked Japanese food, because I knew the restaurant would be clean and pleasant, and the menu would be familiar.

I now see that what my father was trying to do: introduce me to different cultures. We may not have traveled around the world, but we could venture to parts of town that felt like a whole different part of the world. By taking me to various ethnic enclaves, he taught me to make small talk with people whose native languages are not English. By taking me to eat unfamiliar foods, he gave me a taste of other cultures. Years later, when he told me about his lively pantomime conversations about tropical fruit with the office janitor (who spoke only Spanish, which my dad doesn’t speak), I began to really understand how much sharing food is a way of bridging cultures when there doesn’t seem to be any other common ground.

As I raise my own children, I don’t want them to become the kind of kids who only eat chicken nuggets and pizza. We buy samosas from a vendor at the farmer’s market and pack musubi on picnics. When my eight-year old expressed interested in trying salsa with his tortilla chips, I took him to the local Mexican market, where we pantomimed with broken Spanish to the man behind the salsa bar.

I didn't want the night before my wedding to be a teachable moment. But it wasn’t necessary. My father has been teaching me my entire life.

Happy Father’s Day.

Race/Ethnicity Section Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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