“His mother invited you into her kitchen? Oh my goodness. You guys are practically married in her eyes.” My Moroccan friend was exaggerating the last bit, but not by as much as you’d think.
When I stood side-by-side with my French boyfriend’s Corsican mum, learning how to make paper-thin crêpes and trying not to burn the coq au vin, I immediately understood that allowing me to handle the food with her—this act of making it and then consuming it together—was her way of announcing her approval of my presence in her son’s life. My handmade scones, macaroons, and the traditional Taiwanese mu-er dessert sitting on the dinner table testified to my appreciation of her approval, something our language barrier doesn’t allow me to communicate as eloquently.
Fortunately for me, she fit the mold of the French foodie, placing an emphasis on the enjoyment and creation of eatables—she comes from a culture that, after all, is the purveyor of haute cuisine. The Taiwanese and Chinese cultures in which I grew up look at food in the same way.
Coming to America, one of the biggest turn-offs that I encountered was the food culture. There’s the hypocritical health critic who analyzes food to the point of paranoia when his calorie counter app breaks down, the vegan who binges on pizza while claiming that she’s eating healthily, the girls trying to lose weight on Kashi GoLean bars, and the self-proclaimed food lover who just has money to blow. This is on top of long-standing problems such as oversized portions and fast food. However, worst of all, I see people assembling bits of processed supermarket fare saying that they know how to cook. Food doesn’t seem to be for the nourishment of the body or of the soul.
What I find most disturbing is that fast food is acceptable. I’ve seen fast food—in the form of KIND or Kashi energy bars or Ferris’ thawed chipotle wraps—be consumed without second thought, justified by the fact that people are “too busy” to eat properly and cook for themselves. Their fast-paced lives are rendering them incapable of taking care of their bodies because taking half an hour to wash fruit and roast vegetables is a waste of their time. I cooked Sunday night dinner today, and every dish was a flavor bomb—but none of them had meat as the dish’s protagonist, or canned soup or packaged dressings. Hence, I have to say that some American eating habits confuse me, and I hope that it’s not a reflection of the culture. A habit of cooking and eating whatever I want, but from scratch and from local sources, was more healthful than I had realized, a fortunate byproduct of my Taiwanese and Chinese culture of which I became aware only once I came here.
Every Saturday for almost a decade, the six o’clock alarm would ring to wake me and my grandmother up for the village market. For all these years, I watched her gossip with vendors while measuring the transparency of one squid tentacle against another or squeezing bean curds to check for elasticity; market visits meant socialization, friendly competition for the freshest bok choys, and anticipation of meals that bring together family and friends. I have yet to see such familiar banter and interaction over ingredients, even in farmer’s markets, at Columbia. “Have you eaten?” is an appropriate greeting in my culture, because food is a medium of communication and an expression of love. This is why I find it incredible when some American students say that an acceptable dinner consists of a bottle of Barilla marinara sauce, a pot of boiling water, a packet of fettuccine, and (if they’re being really fancy) microwaved chicken breast.
Because of my upbringing, I see cooking, baking, and consuming food as integral parts of my life. Bearing the responsibility of feeding my family forced me to learn new cooking techniques to create nutrient-dense yet tasty meals in 2009, when my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Continuing to cook in college, I now see food as an outlet for creativity and a means to bond with flatmates and meet new friends. It’s not surprising, then, that for somebody who wrote her college essay on her daily morning ritual of baking bread, there’s a bit of disappointment at the appropriateness of frozen meals and pre-cut “baby” carrots.
Of course, not all of my compatriots base their identities off of food as much as I do. We do, though, have a good time bonding over our shared lack of good Asian food, much in the same way that we ironically watch “Mulan” or “Kung Fu Panda” just to point out what’s not Chinese about the animation. Authentic cuisine is something that breaks our hearts and mends them all at once, an experience I often share with any other international student. It’s generally agreed upon that the taste of home, or any imitation of it in various degrees of paleness, is something that cannot be manufactured precisely unless you really are home, whether you’re a Texan craving barbecue sauce made with dark molasses, an Indian longing for air-bubble-permeated naan, or a Taiwanese girl who just had a delicious beetroot sandwich, but still somehow has the lingering ghost of oyster omelets on her lips.
Yvonne Hsiao is a Columbia College first-year. Happily Homeless runs alternate Mondays.
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