“Kain tayo!” Since her children were second-generation descendants of Filipino Immigrants, my mother always endeavored to immerse my sisters and my home lives in Filipino culture. She very ‘Asianly’ expressed her genuine love and care through the food she cooked, the fruit she cut, alternating between the various Filipino traditional meals served every-other-day for early dinners, traditional noodles eaten on birthdays to commence long lives, the sour, tangy aroma of Filipino soups being broiled from the kitchen, typically falling within the duration of my afterschool evening. I’ve built connections with my classmates, through the same techniques my mother shared our traditions with us, here at Phillips Academy, based on the food we eat together; moments like coming together to eat or share our own cultural meals heal my inner child, and are a refreshing encounter to what I’d faced for several years before.
As a younger kid, maybe more so even now, I found myself in awe of Filipino food and the overall process behind the steaming hot bowl that lied infront of me—think of all the factors that contributed to a dish comprised from frozen vegetables, produced into a stew made up of so many epicurean factors that only visually appears simple. Helping with the family meal by setting our crockpot to the lowest offered setting, watching my mother stir simmering water and boil the fresh tamarind, tasting the lukewarm tamarind paste squeezed onto a pre-seasoned wooden paddle. Combining onions, minced garlic, half a glass full of the infamous Viet Huong fish sauce, different seasonings aging on our shelves—my mother would aggressively eyeball into the gently-boiling pot without reading any of the labels and more so played the spice-guessing-game.
Yet as I grew up, my love for the cultural foods I’d grown so used to was stolen by my yearning to simply fit in. Rather than taking my mom’s pre-packed thermos with sinigang to school, or a takeout container full to the brim of what she called “smelly fish”, I distanced myself from these everyday recipes. I loved them, but instead grabbed chocolate-chip granola bars in order to gain that sense of belonging with the rest of my class.
Being raised in a predominantly White demographic, my peers didn’t receive the opportunities as I did to be surrounded by different cultural culinary aspects. Outward ignorance expressed in these dense elements heavily took a toll on my own identity: Unzipping my pretty-pink lunchbag, almost as if it was a ritual to my routine, to a strong fragrance of the dinner my mother had made the night previously, my bag lingered with these various Filipino cuisines—eradicating its vigorous perfume wasn’t as simple as washing your clothes on “heavy load”, or airing out the vicinity by opening a window so it slowly escapes the room– you’d have to wait off the smell until it eventually disappeared. The inviting whiff, for which you can tell by its perfume that it was composed of the warmth and passion my mother put into, ushered a range of emotions that could only be expressed through thoroughly enjoying the food– It was my form of comfort, her meals being a singular thing that evoked the idea of “home” and connected me to the Phillipines, my relatives, my history, my past.
For the most part, various rich aromas of these foods I so accustomely consumed never bothered me, until classmates or adults began to often comment on the food I ate—which is my essence—with a usage of minor aggressions such as “What’s that smell?”, or “What are you eating?” On a couple occasions, I was interrogated if I were eating broiled dog, later in the day played off as a joke, without recognizing the impact that held on how I portrayed my own culture. People whom I considered friends would typically distance themselves from me during meal periods, isolating me at a picnic table of my own, or soon sitting in the furthest bathroom stall only to partially finish lunch. In most cases, I would go hungry until the school day was over, when I returned to a countertop full of these foods my mom had once again put together and I can enjoy in peace (and private), with my mother hovering over my shoulder, puzzled on why I scrapped my plate clean as if I’d been starved, and if the American education system was failing our generation once again when it came to meals. Adolescent me was unable to communicate the message of “casual racism” occurring at my elementary school to my mom: I chose to continue depriving myself from any foods throughout the day instead of fully addressing the issue with my parents.
There is an aspect to food which heavily flows into all of life, and the term “food” circulates into selfhood. An alienating experience that involves our everyday diet can influence our perception of culture, in this instance myself at the ripe age of six—that is the power of food.
Because of how consistent these subtle microaggressions reoccurred, this seal-off from Filipino cookery became normalized in my lens: brushing away yesterday’s spam-and-rice breakfast for a hot-lunch served at our cafeteria that I barely touched became so regular to me, rather than acknowledging these bad habits as an at-hand problem that hadn’t been resolved. The underlying fear of microwaving ice-cube adobo my mother brought in my dormitory is now engraved in my character and transpires out of instinct, even at a school like Andover, where it’s okay to embrace these values. After all, the steam might give off the same roaring scent I was once humiliated for.
The fact that an abundance of people across campus have hidden away their socially-stereotyped “foreign” ways is saddening. Even more so because many of us were only feeding our bodies.
A couple weeks ago, when room visitations were in effect, I’d brought a friend of mine over into my dorm. The two of us decided to reheat beef-steak sitting in a tupperware that my mother had leftover for me. For only one minute it warmed in our communal microwave, and it immediately gave off that smell that had brought me so much shame: An angst of a loitering smell left in the common room, the word going around, rumors being passed from ear to ear. I feared that she would comment on the greyish impression, the stench, ask me to throw out whatever muck I was about to eat. She then dug her fork into the meal and served herself before I could, and proceeded to ask “Can your mom send me some that I can store in our dorm fridge?”
Newer happenings that hadn’t arose before are teaching me to grow beyond my nurtured discomfiture: finally reaching the bare minimum by just being able to eat my lifestyle ethnic foods publicly is a major relief. I feel like I am not alone. The foods that I was reminded of as too-stinky, too-pungent, or too-Asian are now being appreciated.
Concocting a meal isn’t as straightforward as it may seem: Cooking is an art of its own. Accumulating uniform ingredients that seem so out of order when gathered into a certain something to eat always results in a dish with surprise, as it managed to find its way onto the cooking blueprint.
Every component plays a role and are basic essentials that contribute these various foods, whether it be the different savors per bite, getting out of your chair to do “the food dance”, going back to the stove to snag a second serving. These meals convey special messages, for our cultures, for the histories on the side of its creating, the generations of mothers before the mother of my own reciting the same recipe, again and again. Accepting cultural foods the same way we acknowledge standard Americancentral meals, just as the Filipino foods I have begun to outwardly love, will teach us all to support an art made up of a whole.