You are what you eat: Third Culture Kid diets

You are what you eat, and this must mean I'm pretty sweet!

When I was young, one of my dreams was to travel the world. It’s still a dream, but it’s also something that is a constant part of my life and being, since I’ve done some traveling already. For this youthful wish, I wanted to eat all the best food the world had to offer, whether it was Chinese fried rice, Moroccan lamb shank, Japanese sushi, Indian curry, Mexican burritos with tripas, French escargot, or Cajun gumbo stew, my list of foods was as epic as my appetite, and has only grown since then.

Since I immigrated to the United States, a holiday I enjoyed was Thanksgiving, because around this time, it was an excuse to have plate after plate of delicious home cooking, and if I was lucky, markets would begin selling holiday seasonal eggnog early and I could enjoy that with pumpkin pie. I used to wish every time of the year was this festive and food this plentiful, and when Ramadan ended last week on September 9th, one of my thoughts about experiencing it was that that entire month of fasting and then breaking it at night was like Thanksgiving every day.

To celebrate a national holiday and observe a religious period from two vastly different cultures may not seem too daunting to people who are used to growing up in a diverse environment like the U.S. which is constantly emphasizing its diversity today (especially with Obama as president), but in my own experience, it’s literally a taste (no pun intended, but fittingly appropriate) of  where the world goes as a result of globalization.

One of my college professors even joked once that thanks to globalization, he can actually eat something decent in London, ranging from Indian curry to Spanish tapas (he isn’t particularly fond of most of the local concoctions in England).

Whenever I make crepes or cook something at home, I can’t say any food I make represents my nationality or ethnicity, but I certainly don’t have the bachelor cooking skills of microwaving pop tarts, or the college diet of instant ramen. My friends and ex-girlfriends have sampled my cooking, which includes but is not limited to French crepes, Japanese okonomiyaki and tamago kake gohan, Indonesian chicken rendang, Hawaiian spam musubi, and Italian gorgonzola and walnut salad with balsamic vinegar. If you are what you eat, then I’m an avenue of little restaurants with different specialty dishes people love to walk down and sample every time they’re there.

It’s one of the reasons I love travel and my experience overseas, because eating the same food every day can be kind of boring–although I do admit, I tend to eat Asian food more often than not.

As of late, however, when it comes to what I eat, I’m somewhere between the poverty diet and student diet, since I’m in the process of rebuilding my life after a tough year. Dollar menus at McDonald’s and Wendy’s, food that’s free from working in a pizza parlor as a manager part-time, and the occasional meal on weekends if I’ve saved up enough to treat myself. It is pretty tough, but it also makes me health-conscious and spendthrift, since I can’t waste five bucks on a bag of chips when I could get bananas for 19 cents each at Trader Joe’s, which are more than enough to fill me up for a meal or throughout the day.

This experience teaches me it’s more than what you eat, but how you eat. When I was with some Buddhist monks in Thailand, they didn’t talk at all, they focused completely on the act of eating, out of both respect for the food and totality in all things they did. When I was with Muslim friends fasting throughout Ramadan, they didn’t wolf down their food at sunset when they broke the fast, they ate it gracefully and gratefully, taking as long as two hours on average for one meal since it’s a time to socialize, to reflect, and appreciate and savor the taste of their food. When I’m working throughout the week, I see myself walking while eating a burger or sandwich, and I’m joined by other commuters who are sipping their coffees and occasionally chomping on their lunches while texting from their mobile phones and using their laptop computers.

It’s these little things you notice when you travel that make you question how you eat and what you eat. My friends used to think I was weird for eating with a spoon and fork as opposed to eating “normally” with a knife and fork, but I pointed out to them that much of Southeast Asia, from the Philippines to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia eat with a spoon and fork instead as a cultural norm. Or look at how a lot of people would think Chinese and Japanese people are rude for slurping their ramen loudly, but in actuality, slurping some noodles soups is the only way to get the specific flavor that comes from the temperature changing as you slurp it hot. It’s true!

So the next time you go out and eat, think about more than just how it tastes or what you’re in the mood for, but why you are drawn to that food more often than not, considering the costs and the process it’s made–just like how people are weaned to love McDonald’s because they remember not just the taste of the food and how it’s almost always the same internationally, but the Happy Meals and the play places (the little playgrounds in some restaurant branches); they’re tasting the memories of that fun besides the beef and cheese in every bite. Think about that with every meal you eat and be amazed.

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