Thursday, 20 January 2011

In Praise Of Diversity

Some years ago, on a visit to my hometown after years abroad, I accompanied an elderly family friend on an errand. We stopped at a place I hadn't seen in years, a shabby little cluster of shops that sold things like vacuum cleaner bags, typewriter ribbons, and pet supply goods. As soon as we got there, I saw it had changed completely. The stationery store had become a Thai and Vietnamese delicatessen; the appliance store was now a Korean greengrocer where you could buy tofu and kimchee. I stood in the parking lot and almost swooned at the smells of lemon grass, coconut milk, and ginger. I could have cried from frustration too: the people I was staying with had conservative food tastes. I wanted to buy pad thai and egg rolls, to gorge on spicy, smelly, delicious kimchee, but we were going home to a lunch of bologna sandwiches on white bread. What a waste of an opportunity!

When my companion returned from her errand, I gestured at the new, exotic stores. "I can't get over this!" I said. "It's totally different!"

She frowned and shook her head in agreement. "You can say that again. Awful, isn't it?"

I stared at her in amazement: this was a woman whose grandparents had eaten lutefisk, Limburger cheese, and sauerkraut. She was proud of her German, Norwegian, and Scots heritage, and yet she objected to a couple of Asian food stores?

"It's got so you can't even tell this is America anymore," she sighed, looking around us and shaking her head.

As if America had always been a place where only bland foodstuffs were acceptable.

"Not too long ago, this area would have been mainly Hispanic," I said as gently as I could.

"Oh, I know honey," she said. "But they're all American now."

By which she probably meant that they had learned to fit in, presumably by exchanging their diet for bologna sandwiches, Wonder bread, and Campbell's soup.

"Have you ever tried Vietnamese food?" I asked. "Or Thai, or Korean?"

She shook her head. "They don't even speak English!"

"Then why not just point to something that looks interesting? You don't know what you're missing!"

She shivered. "Some of those things they eat, though. I've heard they eat chicken feet!"

"What if they do? What's the difference between eating chicken and chicken feet? It's still chicken."

She gave me a long, worried look.

I had known this woman a long time and she meant a lot to me, but I could not get her to change her narrow-minded views. Most of her ancestors, like most of mine, had arrived in America as foreigners, and with or without English, they had certainly had their own distinctive customs and their own smelly, foreign foods. Many decades later, all of those interesting distinctions had vanished. Their descendants thought of themselves as Americans and feasted on things like hamburgers, deep fried potatoes, and packaged macaroni and cheese.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I gave a fervent prayer that the people who ran those Asian food stores would be there the next time I passed through, and still immune to the delights of Jello and tuna casserole.


Robert the Skeptic said...

I was heading out to a meeting with a buddy of mine and suggested we stop for some lunch on the way. I knew a little Thai restaurant in the nearby mall that I really liked and suggested it. "Chinese food for lunch??!!" my friends made a face and responded in a complaining tone. We got burgers instead.

Sausage Fingers said...

Bloody hell as if America was founded by white christians. Imagine yourself on the docks of Ellis Island way back in the 1900's with the in-pouring or immigrants that lead to the economical development of this nation. The only reason America thrived was that it was and still is the melting pot of the world. Who the hell needs another Olive Garden anyway? give me the world not your corporate version of it.

Vijaya said...

Ah, yes, as neighborhood demographics change, I have noticed some of the same attitudes. Give it time, Mary.

I've not lived in all the world, but in enough places to see that Americans (both native born and foreign) are one of the most welcoming of all amongst everywhere I've ever lived. The diversity is truly its strength ... from the Natives to the Irish to the Hispanics to the Asians ... We truly are a huge melting pot.

Robin said...

Some people I work with have never tasted hummus, or even lamb. It kills me. Your poor friend. She's missing out on so much. Cool new culinary experiences are right in front of her, and she's blocking them with bologna.

On a happy food note - we live in a pretty conservative Pennsylvania Dutch area. There is a terrific Vietnamese restaurant downtown in the city next to us. We could barely get a reservation for Saturday night because they're always full! I think that's great! (As long as I can get a seat.)

Dale said...

Yes yes yes. I get unhappy about so many people flooding into Oregon, stressing the environment and the economy (10% unemployment, friends, you'd do better in Detroit!) -- but never because they come from different places. I love riding the bus with people from four continents dotted around me, ancient Czech ladies and solemn young Somalian men and elegantly dressed Vietnamese matrons and Brazilian girls giggling in the back. There's a certain civility that goes along with *everyone* being a minority. They're bringing in so much. And it's not so many generations since my people were a bunch of dumb Norskers, without a word of English in their mouths, trying to scrounge a job. This, precisely this, *is* America, as far as I'm concerned.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- "Chinese food for lunch?" You don't know where to start, do you? For starters, the assumption that Thai and Chinese are one and the same is worthy of a good eye rolling. But what's wrong with Thai or Chinese food for lunch? I'd have it for breakfast if I could!

Even in our little town, there are half a dozen places where you can get hamburgers, but -- alas! -- no little Thai restaurants. Wish your friend and I could swap places.

Sausage Fingers -- I agree. Other countries are catching up, but we were definitely multi-cultural trendsetters. I love reading the credits to American movies -- all those great names! If immigration officials back then hadn't been so overworked, the names would have been even more diverse.

We owe a lot to our minorities and we are enriched by them in many ways. So how is it we ended up with McDonalds and KFC the perceived staples of the American diet?

Vijaya -- Some places (and people) are quicker to adapt than others. I was unlucky on that occasion, but back in San Francisco I could find any kind of Asian food I wanted, and ethnic restaurants were usually well patronized, even by people not of that group.

Here in the U.K., the cheapest and tastiest food tends to be either Chinese or Indian. I wish we had more diversity, but I shiver to think where we'd be without those choices. But we'd have to drive as far as Glasgow to get Korean or Indochinese food.

Robin -- It drives me crazy to find people like that too! In Cyprus and Turkey, I practically lived on hummus. You can get it in all the shops here too, but when we had our daughter's friend for dinner recently, she asked what it was; she'd never had it. Until she met us, she had never eaten pears, broccoli, avocados, or collard greens.

I feel wistful about that Vietnamese restaurant. We'd have to drive 80 miles to find a Vietnamese restaurant here. There was one in Nicosia, but it was almost always closed.

Dale -- Be careful: you are absolutely selling Oregon with that description!

In my neighborhood in San Francisco, we had a wide variety of ethnic groups and over a dozen restaurants catering to a range of tastes. If the food was halfway reasonable, they never had any shortage of customers. Church potluck dinners in San Francisco were more fun -- and interesting -- than in any other city I've ever lived in, including New York.

And while I have a high regard for Norwegians and like a good smorgasbord as much as anybody, thank GOD somebody came along and offered some alternatives to lutefisk!

Anne M Leone said...

It's so peculiar to me that one immigrant (though several generations removed) could be so dismissive of another. Of course it's evident all the time in the ongoing immigration debate, and I guess we all have our blind spots, but really... how maddening!

And to top it off, bologna and wonder bread! *sigh*

I've been thinking about doing a blog post not on diversity, but just on bad food... except I'm afraid I'd offend many of my wonder bread friends!

Bish Denham said...

It's like tourists who travel to the Caribbean (or other places) and never try local cuisine. That's just what I want to do when I go some place new.

On time hubby and I went to a Greek restaurant, owned by Koreans. We were served by Hispanics and dined with African-Americans.

America. We are not a melting pot...we are a tossed salad!

Kim Ayres said...

Eating anything other than burgers and white bread comes under the heading of "unamerican activities", surely? ;)

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- After a few decades, people seem to forget they too came to the U.S. as immigrants -- I don't understand it either.

I envy my friends who live in good-sized American cities: they can choose from so many different restaurants, and they're reasonably priced. Where we live in Scotland, the choices are quite limited and going out to eat is expensive. When we lived in Wales, it was the same thing. I really miss America!

A bad food post would be a lot of fun. I nominate any casserole topped with potato chips, and any sandwich made with bologna. The wonder with Wonder bread is that anybody still eats it.

Bish -- What an interesting experience! Where was this, and what was the food like?

I used to eat at a 'Mexican' restaurant in Oita, Japan. They did the best they could, but soy sauce and cabbage in the tacos were hard to get used to. In the Netherlands, we ate 'Chinese' food in a restaurant where all the Chinese-looking waiters spoke Dutch and couldn't use chopsticks; in Istanbul, we had the best Korean food we've ever had outside of Korea. I like this kind of mixed up restaurant experience.

Kim -- It had better not or they'll never let me back in!

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the Sunday in Milwaukee when Jim and I went to see a film about Vclav Havel that was screened in a Norwegian cultural center, and then went out to supper at Antigua, a Caribbean-Mexican restaurant.

{But we enjoy Olive Garden, too -- especially their eggplant parmesan. mmmmmm)

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Chocolatesa said...

It drives me crazy when people turn up their noses at ethnic food! I remember I had to practically drag my ex by the hair kicking and screaming to a REAL Chinese restaurant and then when he fell in love with one of the "ching-tok" dishes you can bet I didn't let him forget it! Lol :P

And I think you'll really like this story

And here are a few more of his funny stories, really worth reading! Warning: you really don't want to be drinking or eating anything while reading these!:

I'd happily eat ethnic food all day every day!

I used to have arguments as well about how Thai, or Korean, or Japanese, is NOT Chinese!

I'd like to take those bologna and wonder bread people and drop them smack in the middle of rural China, or Thailand, or India to live there for a year or two, just to teach them a good lesson!

KleinsteMotte said...

Luckily it's quite different in Toronto where all the foods are openly celebrated and multiculturalism is all around us. Very few pockets of one ethnic group alone are still prevalent. My kids are lucky. They go for suchi or thai any time and prefer it over burgers. Curry is a favourite.

Anne Spollen said...

People here, in New Jersey, separate us as New Yorkers -- I think it may be just the way humans are, but something they have to work harder to overcome.

Luckily, schools have International Food Days around here and where we used to live. Every family brings a dish native to where they live for sampling. It's usually a smash and a great way to connect.

Helen said...

For such a long time the only thing I would eat from a Chinese restaurant was Lemon Chicken. My parents tried...and gave up. Now I'll eat anything but.
I took my children to a Chinese retaurant a few years ago and Ellie nearly cried when she realised there were no chicken nuggets on the menu. She ended up trying a satay chicken and loved it.
I guess we all take time to get our heads around different ideas.
Having said that, Australia Day is this Wednesday - we are such a diverse country that we have probably forgotten what our national cuisine looks like.
We are having vegemite and honey marinated lambchops on the BBQ, followed closely by pavlova with cherries and a healthy dose of beer.
Yum, roll on Wednesday!

Anonymous said...

I can't wrap my head around this. The international restaurants around me are very popular, but I imagine there are some people who don't want to eat in them.

These places will thrive, though. Not everyone wants to eat bologna and mac and cheese.