I remember watching people poke around the “ethnic” food platters at my graduation party with extreme caution. It was like watching untrained scientists study a new species. Except it was my friends, peers and classmates with food that I grew up enjoying and that my parents spent hard hours prepping and cooking for the big event.
One girl picked up a round sesame-seed dessert with a disgusted sort of curiosity and groaned with nervous energy as all of her friends eyed her pick it up with a plastic fork. It can be held and eaten with your hands. She scanned her audience before carefully wrapping the edges of her teeth around a microscopic corner of the circular treat. She bit into it and shrieked, spitting out the entire thing onto her plastic plate. Her friends gathered even closer, observing the warm, sweet contents of the rice ball spill out softly. They all gasped. She shook her head profusely and let out a large sigh of relief, pushing her plate away with twinkling eyes, a burst of laughter and a clear distaste for something she didn’t even bother to chew, fully taste or much less — swallow.
The issue here was that she already came into the situation with the idea that she was going to be unpleasantly surprised by the novel food. She was not open to trying new foods, she was not expecting to enjoy it and she was not biting into it with the purpose of eating it — she bit into it with the purpose of entertainment. For her and her friends, one of my favorite desserts was a tense, climatic, nerve-wracking live-action show.
I think one of the most offensive things you can do when you’re immersing yourself in another culture is to come in to an event with a closed mind and disrespect of the food. There is so much to consider. For starters, if something edible is being served, it’s most likely because the host thinks it is tasty and that their guest may also enjoy it. No one would serve something poisonously unpalatable with the intent of giving guests food that would be off-putting. Second of all, even if the food is not American, it’s probably something that the host has been making, eating and enjoying for a large part of their life, if not all of it. A host is spending time, effort, energy and resources to keep happy guests. When they offer something from their heart, be it a childhood story or a favorite family recipe, it is with good volition. So lastly, the fear. I get nervous trying new foods as well because the unknown is scary. I understand. But if you go into something with a preconception, the experience isn’t quite what it could be. The best way to try and appreciate something is to be receptive to novelty. New ideas, new things and new foods.
So the next time you find yourself in a position where you are a guest in someone else’s home, please be mindful. Just take a moment to consider how social the concepts of food and eating truly are when engaging in and promoting open interactions with those of varying backgrounds and different upbringings.