The Food of Love

Most of my defining moments happened around the family dinner table, mainly because my parents raised my siblings and me on a steady diet of hearty home-cooked meals eaten as a single family unit every night of the week.  The family dinner table was where I learned life skills like the art of conversation, proper mealtime etiquette, and how to appreciate every morsel of food put in front of me — especially when I did not like it.  It was also where I learned how to value the time and effort of others, and how to give back to them in kind.

The dinner table of my childhood still stands in my mother’s home today and is a stately piece carved from narra wood, the national tree of the Philippines, that my parents shipped over from the Philippines to Canada when we emigrated in 1992.  I find it rather poignant and highly suitable that a Filipino family gathered daily around a table made from our homeland’s national tree, especially considering that everyone who’s taken a seat around it has helped build and strengthen the bridge between the old world and the new.

No matter where they started, family discussions always ended around the dinner table.  Get-togethers with friends and extended family also inevitably ended there, particularly during the summer months when the conversations of day-long barbecues outlasted the last encore of crickets.  Holidays never really saw us leaving it, except of course to clear away empty serving dishes and dirty plates only to return with more food and clean flatware. We ate around it as a family in both immediate and extended forms, adding not one but two leaves on countless occasions to accommodate more guests.  As a baby my nephew crawled on it in between mealtimes, we older folks standing on all sides to keep him from zooming off its polished top; as a toddler, he crawled and then ran under it before whacking his head one day on the edge.  Our dogs sat beneath it as we ate, often indulging in morsels that fell (or were surreptitiously held) under it.  We presented new friends and partners to one another around it, the “others” sizing “us” up against the yardsticks which we ourselves had measured our own progress as sociable human beings.  ((And, when not in use for its original function, my mother used it to sew clothes and curtains and sheets while we put together school projects.))

Nowadays, eating out is a slightly more frequent occurrence than it used to be during my youth and I don’t get many chances to join my mother and BigSis (and now, her boyfriend) around any table, but the family dinner is still integral to our relationship.  More recently than my BigSis, I too have started bringing my own new boyfriend along to dinner, and seeing his face around our table along with the faces of those who know me and love me best warms my heart immensely.

Last week we all went out to Junior, a Filipino restaurant on Rue Notre-Dame .  It was a grand occasion, mostly because MiddleSis and Nephew are in town as well.  As a kid I grew up desperately wanting to eat the North American fare that my classmates and neighbour-kids always tucked into instead of the dishes of islands I couldn’t even remember, but these days my more matured palate can’t get enough of the flavours and textures packed into Filipino food. I love the crisp saltiness of lechon kawali mixing with the tangy sweetness of Mang Tomas sauce; the heat and crunch of a sizzling sisig tempered only slightly by mayo and white rice; the limey zing of a fried bangus served whole, minus the needle-sharp bones of course.  Even the alarmingly sweetness and chewiness of sticky suman dipped into matamis na bao or the cold crunch of shaved ice mixed with ice cream, evaporated milk, sweet beans, young coconut flesh, fruit jellies, and jackfruit – in other words, halo-halo – seem to hit the spot on my cravings so much more accurately than North American desserts these days.

What  I loved most about this latest outing to Junior was that my new boyfriend – an Xth generation Quebecois from Sherbrooke whose Irish, French, and German roots stretch back a few centuries – is a good eater who thoroughly enjoyed the best of my homeland’s cuisine.  Of course it helps immensely that Junior is hands-down the best Filipino food you can get in the city, but even the greatest  and tastiest dishes can be lost on an unappreciative palate. I’ve witnessed it before with past boyfriends:  the polite smile with a barely-discernible trace of apprehension or even dismay at what’s on the Filipino table; the thinly-veiled suspicion of any meat that isn’t instantly recognizable as beef, pork, chicken, or fish; the staunch refusal to even try one mouthful of something new.  That is definitely not the case with this one, which in my book makes him a true keeper.

My family is somewhat leery of picky eaters, and not without good reason. Clearly, since I’ve just spent a few hundred words on the subject, our family dinner is a sacred and precious ritual, and those we invite to partake in food, drink, and company are not only invited to witness them but are indeed being welcomed into our family’s most intimate and telling moments.

But for me, having grown up with one foot in Canada and one occasionally still on the boat back to the Philippines, it means the world to have a non-Filipino partner with whom I can share my cultural roots on every level – especially when it comes to the weird food I have grown to love and re-adopt as “my own.”

The story of my family was written around that narra table; the story of the Philippines, by Spain’s use of the islands as a gateway to the New World.  In both cases food played a huge role in the shaping of such narratives, the exploration and development of which appeal to me as both an amateur writer and as an enthusiastic food-lover.  I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky and rather blessed to have grown up at a table that always had homemade meals upon it, especially from a cuisine that like the table itself was brought over from the home islands to the True North, Strong and Free more than twenty years ago.  And I certainly can’t help but feel extremely proud to share that table now, in all its laden groaning glory, with a person who will add his own words – his own chapter of the story – to that warm and loving narrative.

Shakespeare called music the food of love, but in this family the food of love is the food itself as well as the company we keep when we partake of it around our narra table.

Failing to fit in

I’m really into all things TED right now. I listen to TED Talks on my daily commutes and while I’m at my desk I listen to episodes of TED Radio Hour instead of music. One of the TED Radio Hour episodes I keep going back to is called “Playing with Perceptions,” and I think it’s because I can identify so deeply with the issues raised therein.

Canada is known for its diversity. We’ve all heard Canadian culture being called a mosaic in comparison to the so-called melting pot of the United States. The faces of Canada’s citizens, permanent residents, immigrants, and refugees represent numerous nations, as well as all the cultural and ethnic diversity they bring along with them. And because Canada is a nation whose inhabitants seem to celebrate, you’d think we’d all be used to it by now – used to the fact that there is no typical “Canadian” face, or that the Millennials are riding off into the sunset in intercultural/interracial/interwhateverPCtermyouwanttousetodescribteit pairs, or that non-white people in this country are doing the same activities and pursuing the same careers as the white ones.

Ultimately, you’d think that this whole multiculturalism thing would have made us all very aware of the different ways people come into Canada and become Canadian. And as a result of all this variety and the political correctness and politeness for which we’re apparently internationally famous, you’d think we’d be well-informed and educated enough to talk about the subject without offending anyone, inadvertently or otherwise.

And then conversations like the following happen:

“Wow, your mom is gorgeous! But why don’t you look Chinese? Is your dad, like, white or something?”
“Well, see, we’re actually not really Chinese. I mean, we have a Chinese ancestor somewhere I think but we’re actually mostly Spanish and Filipino.”
“Oh, cool! So do you speak Filipino with your mom at home?”
“No, we speak English at home.”
“Really?”
“Yeah.”
“Does your mom have, like, a really thick Filipino accent? I always find Filipino accents so fun to listen to!”
“No, she doesn’t really have an accent…”
“How long has she been living here?”
“We came over in –”

“Wait, you were born there?”
“Yes.”
“But you are so Canadian!”
“…what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Like, nothing racist or whatever – just, like, you’re so not ethnic. I would have never guessed that you’re not Canadian.”
“I am, though. I’m a naturalized citizen and I have a Canadian passport.”
“I thought it was like, super hard for refugees to get into Canada right now though. How did you become a citizen so fast?”
“We emigrated in 1992, and we weren’t refugees.”
“…so, wait, like – you can get a visa to come to Canada and be a permanent resident even if you’re just, like, a maid or caregiver or handyman or whatever?”

I’ll stop there and continue on in my own words – because yes, as you’ve probably guessed, this was a conversation that happened a few days ago between myself and an acquaintance. I do take offense at being seen as the daughter of a domestic worker and a menial laborer – not because I have anything against domestic workers and menial laborers (in fact, I have a deep respect for them) but rather because it simply isn’t true – and because sometimes people don’t want to hear that. 

And yes, I also take offense partially because I believe that applying that kind of narrow perception to an entire demographic is just another form of marginalization.

There have been other instances in my life in which I’ve found myself under social scrutiny on the basis of my biological, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Workplace discussions about things like food or holiday traditions or politics have often, for me, devolved into being put under the white-Canadian microscope through which I am studied with ogle-eyed fascination. Getting set up on blind dates with white guys by well-meaning friends always involves a casual remark that I look so different from other girls they’ve dated, and maybe that’s because “well, you’re exotic, right?” One blind date, upon being told I come from a Filipino family, delightedly told me that he loved dating Filipino women because “you Asian women are all so smart and hardworking and dedicated to your men, and now Asian culture is more open to white people so now you get to share that with us white dudes.” (I’m dead serious.) I have been presented to parents of more than one former love interest with surprising expediency, and the ensuing dinnertime conversations often became a civil and courteous, but nonetheless cutting, cultural cross-examination.

Basically, every time I feel totally Canadian somebody comes along and reminds me that I was not born under the Red Maple Leaf, and they were prodded to that point by their assumptions about non-white Canadians and immigrants.

These conversations reminded me that, while I do hold Canadian citizenship, travel across borders under a Canadian passport, pay taxes, vote, and even paid for part of my university education with a Canadian Forces scholarship, I’m still a visible minority. And being a visible minority means my face only tells part of my story. My non-Caucasian face keeps the chronicle of my life permanently open to the public on just one chapter – and yes, I’ve met many people who won’t bother reading the rest of the book or, at best, skim over the other parts but still pin their concept of my identity on what’s written on my face. My face means on some level, I will always fail to fit in because somebody will be making an assumption about me based on how I look…and that the assumption will often bear little semblance to the truth.

But failing to fit in means I become more like myself each time, which is what I realized when I head Heitan Patel’s TED Talk.  And then I realized that instead of reacting with indignation, silent or not, to what people say about me based on my face, maybe I could share my story instead.  Maybe instead of wishing that certain kinds of people would open their eyes and see the world without privileged first-world blinders, I could use what I know and what talents I have to contribute to the conversation that would eventually lead to clearer understanding across all these divisions.

As far as Filipino immigrants go, my family was extremely lucky. We were lucky in the Philippines because we had social, financial, and educational advantages that the majority of the Islands’ population does not have. We were lucky when we left because we were able to come over as an entire family unit – two parents and five children – which is the exception to the norm of third-world migration; furthermore, we were landed immigrants which meant that the entire process becoming permanent residents and then citizens took less than ten years. And we were lucky in Canada because we spoke fluent English when we landed and my father was able to find work in finance which, with help from my sisters, put food on the table, clothes on our backs, roofs over our heads, and a little extra every once in a while to have fun.

This is not the story of every Filipino immigrant – nor is it the story of every other kind of immigrant that comes to Canada. Like I said, we are the exception to the norm of third-world migration. Back then we were the “One Percenters” of our demographic, yet much of my young life was spent in denial of being Filipino because I so desperately wanted to fit in with my Caucasian, Xth generation Canadian classmates. (For example, my mother is fond of repeatedly telling the story of how I, as a three-year-old, turned my nose up at a plate of white rice and adobo, proclaiming, “I want hotdogs for dinner. I don’t know about you, but I am Canadian.”)

But now that I know better my family’s immigration story does not shame me. It humbles me.

It humbles me because when I read a similar chapter in other faces I see in this city, I know that there’s more to the story than just the lines on their faces and that each story is unique. It humbles me because I am reminded that immigrants bring more than just outward indications of diversity when they land: they bring experiences and stories that often go untold or ignored, even in a country constantly praised for its openness and multiculturalism. It humbles me because their smiles and their eyes gently remind me not to forget where I came from, and that even though I’ve moved from the “immigrant” demographic to join the ranks of citizens, I am a contributor to the same chapter of Canadian history as they are.

It humbles me because as a naturalized citizen who grew up Canadian from Filipino roots, my branch of the family tree will span across many divides – social perspectives, ethnic backgrounds, cultural traditions, and even the Pacific Ocean itself – as it grows.  And part of that growth is accepting that my face will always be non-Caucasian and using the ensuing moments of marginalization, regardless of how or why they transpire, to make the voice of my cultural and ethnic background heard in Canada’s narrative.