A few weeks ago, I treated two white friends to a couple of firsts: Their first time in Los Angeles, and their first experience with Filipino food. As a Filipina immigrant, my country’s food has always been sentimental to me and core to my culture. Many of my favorite memories growing up involved eating the deliciousness of adobo, dinuguan, and lumpia with my family. The food was part of our ritual, and a way to connect.
I was excited to share this with my friends. But I wasn’t expecting their reaction. I took them to a modern Filipino restaurant and ordered a few savory dishes we could all share. The familiar aromatic scents of lechon kawali and sisig, and ginataang langka whisked me away to my childhood.
Here’s how my friends reacted: One sampled a spoonful of the sisig, then made a sour face, like she was a contestant on Fear Factor. “Too spicy,” she said, and didn’t eat another bite. My other friend, thinking they were softening the blow, added that the dishes weren’t “horrible or anything.”
Given that this was the first time I was introducing white people to my culture’s food, I was stunned, and incredibly offended by their reactions, because I didn’t think that there was anything wrong with the food.
If you want to try to understand how shocking this was to me, imagine that someone wrinkled their nose and turned away in disgust from lasagna or tacos. What I considered to be delicious, cultural foods, did not resonate the same way with some white Americans.
Food isn’t one-dimensional as so many different kinds of foods exist throughout different cultures. But through my experience with my white friends, it made me realize that there was so much ignorance around foods that are unfamiliar to a person. I could totally understand not liking the foods after trying them, but the outright rejection of the food, without consideration for my culture, was not only rude, but borderline racist.
The lunchbox moment
When I was younger, I remember being teased tremendously about the lunches I brought to school. While the other kids had PB&J sandwiches, I had adobo and rice. I would brush off the comments from my classmates about how my food looked or smelled.
Although I knew that my immigrant parents packed the lunches with love, I was embarrassed. Oftentimes, I’d skip lunch and eat it on the school bus going home instead. This experience of being teased about my Filipino lunch and having the food I loved so much be “othered” through my classmates’ eyes—well, it still stings. This is a shared experience I have with other Asian Americans and immigrants who bring the foods of their culture to public spaces dominated by white Americans, and are shamed for it.
This recent experience with my two white friends also reminded me of the lunchbox moment. Even if they didn’t have malicious intentions with how they acted towards my culture’s food, the impact they made is what matters—and I was hurt, offended, and embarrassed. Again.
“It’s just food”
The least we can do is to be culturally considerate whenever trying foods from different cultures, especially since these foods are often deeply-rooted in tradition, heritage, and identity. On the other end of the spectrum, the most we can do is to study and learn about these foods, and to attribute credit where it’s due. We can do that by crediting the millions of grandmothers who did the recipe development and cultural preservation of food traditions over generations. Foods from other cultures have unique, sentimental histories, with ingredients that are often passed down to each generation. For example, many of my lola’s (a Tagalog word meaning, “grandmother”) traditional recipes were taught to her by her mother. So whenever my lola cooks a traditional Filipino dish, we hold respect for it.
The country we live in was built by Black, Indigenous, people of color, and immigrants, and we continue to share our cultures with the rest of the world today. When white people who are not a part of these cultures only favor foods that are more acceptable to Western palates and rudely avoid unfamiliar foods because they are “weird” or “gross,” they are causing harm to people of color.
In the case of my culture’s food, following those deep roots has brought pride and joy. The origins of the first traditional Filipino foods date back to 1500 BC, and have expanded and evolved as history progressed. For example, adobo was one of the most important dishes I’ve eaten with my family both in the U.S. and in the Philippines growing up, and it holds such a rich historical origin. The tangy dish was first introduced to the Philippines in 1613 when the country was colonized by Spain, and the dish later evolved when Chinese traders introduced soy sauce to Filipinos.
For many cultures around the world, food, history, and stories are interchangeable and go hand-in-hand. Rejecting someone’s cultural heritage and food choices without opening a dialogue or giving thanks for being introduced to it can cause harm in the form of shame. Many people who decide to adopt a plant-based lifestyle are often pushed to answer questions like, “Why would you do that? Don’t you miss cheese? Do you get enough protein?” And as annoying, exhausting, and offensive as those questions and having to answer them are, imagine having to regularly defend, apologize for, and be made to feel shame about your cultural roots and heritage, because it is unfamiliar to others. Imagine regularly feeling “othered” by mainstream cultural reactions to the smells, tastes, and textures of your culture, your home country, and your very lifeblood—things you want to be proud of.
My biggest disappointment of this experience is that my friends not only missed out on the incredible taste of Filipino food, but also the opportunity to learn about the deep history of my food, and in a way, the opportunity to form a deeper connection to me.
The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the author(s) and do not represent the policy or position of LIVEKINDLY.