I was sitting at a small Ibaloi restaurant a few years ago. My Filipino friends ordered something called “Mix-Mix” (not “halo halo”… that’s different). They were all chuckling with each other. My language skills, poor now, was even worse back then, but I kept hearing the word “aso” over and over again, which is the Tagalog word for “dog”. Dog is an occasional delicacy among many of the Highland peoples. Soon the food was served. It was clear that “Mix-mix” is a meat dish with broth consisting of the parts of some animal– parts that most Americans would assume a butcher would throw out. The moment of truth arrived.
I took some “Mix-mix” and rice. I ate with gusto and had seconds or thirds. The cooks showed surprise and appreciation in seeing an American enjoying Ibaloi food. I was told later that the dish contained no dog… but I wonder. Supposedly it was pig. It could have been a version of “pinapaitan”– essentially “goat innards soup.” (I have told my friends that if they want to serve me dog for a meal… don’t tell me until afterwards. As far as I know I have never eaten dog… but again… I wonder.)
Food as a Bridge
I spend a lot of time here on food, but it applies to many other cross-cultural experiences. If one can get used to the value of food as a bridge, one would find that other cross-cultural experiences can also be an effective bridge. Food is a common part of every culture. Everyone must eat.
Food can draw strangers together, or drive them further apart. The dietary law of the ancient Jews help maintain their “separateness”. But as a missionary, we try to build bridges, not walls. But how do we build bridges when we have spent years developing personal preferences?
Eating is a Social Event
The first key is to recognize that eating is a social event. Social events are for the sake of the group, not the individual. A wedding is a social event set up to bring a bride and groom together before God and witnesses. A wedding is not to make any one member of the audience happy. The individual subordinates his own personal tastes to help the social event be a success.
If one realizes that eating is “not about me” than one can recognize that showing appreciation for food builds bridges that will not be easily broken. And refusing food builds walls that will not be easily overcome.
Food is to Stay Alive
Americans are a group of people who tend to forget that food is used to stay alive. Living amidst plenty, food has become an aesthetic issue. Food that satisfies the palate is accepted, while food that only satisfies hunger is refused. But when dealing with those from a different cultural background, such as one where food is scarce, refusal of food can be viewed negatively. Refusing food because it does not meet one’s own personal preference is often not a valid excuse.
How to Have Culinary Proactivity.
A. Try different types of foods. The best way to react positively to a food is to have tried it before and to have gained an appreciation for it. Try different cuisines, different recipes. Visit ethnic restaurants. Learn to appreciate variety. Eat a little of everything. Eat even more of things you don’t care for. Expand your palate.
B. Avoid first reactions. The typical response to something new is one of distaste… especially if you are nervous about trying new things. Take the first bite or drink and force yourself to have no opinion of it. Simply analyze the taste and consistency. Only after the second or third bite, take time to consider whether it is something you like. It is surprising how many things taste better once you settled your mind to avoid first reactions.
C. Don’t be too quick to label foods “off-limits”. The world is full of people with foods they avoid. Some eat only vegetables, some won’t eat fish. Some won’t eat food that is cooked. Others fear food that is raw. Now if you truly have a moral problem with something, than follow the dictates of your conscience. However, if a habit has become a law in your life, try to develop a broader perspective. While we all will have some food taboos, the fewer we have, the fewer problems we will have when the food we are given has a surprise in it.
D. Don’t develop required foods. Some people must have bread at a meal some must have
potatoes, or rice, or meat. Just as having foods that are off-limits can cause problems, so can having foods that we feel we must have every day, or every meal. Break the rules you have set up for yourself. Just as being a vegetarian may build walls in some societies not bridges, so can being one who must have meat daily in a society that is vegetarian. Avoid culinary ruts.
E. Determine beforehand what you will do if someone offers you something that you consider taboo. Some people do not drink alcohol, but sometimes having a sip of an alcoholic beverage eases relations at a social event. If you honestly feel that you must drink no alcohol at all times, than determine beforehand your response. If you believe you cannot eat insects, likewise determine how you will respond to a dish of grubs. Decide beforehand what are moral issues for you, and what are personal standards of conduct. Think things through. One may find it strange to drink milk from a water buffalo, only to realize that it is no more inherently strange than drinking milk from dairy cattle. Maybe with thought, one might realize that there is nothing more strange about eating grasshoppers than eating shrimp. Bamboo grubs can be quite tasty if fried up right (doesn’t frying make everything better?) If you cannot bear the thought of eating something, admit it, and admit the reasons for your feelings. If you cannot eat pre-masticated food, admit it, and predetermine your response to it. But by recognizing that the issue is a matter of personal taste, not morals, you can become more accepting of others.
In some social situations there are acceptable methods of avoiding things. In other words, if you believe you cannot join others in a food or a drink, there may be socially acceptable ways you can still build bridges. This requires really understanding the culture you are in. For example, when I was in the US Navy, we had a custom called a “Dining Out”. It was a formal dinner with many customs. One of the customs was for each member to have wine in his glass, and take a sip after each toast. Anyone who did not join in a toast, would be thought of as one who disagrees with the toast. So, for example, if someone toasts the president of the United States, whoever does not drink the wine would be considered to be unpatriotic. At that time, I had chosen not to drink alcoholic beverages under any circumstance. However, a room full of military officers was the last place I wanted to appear unpatriotic.
Fortunately, there was a socially acceptable alternative within the Navy culture. For someone who does not drink, at each toast one could take the glass up to one’s lips, not drink, and place the glass back on the table. That way, one is saying, “I don’t drink alcohol, but I am in agreement with the toast that is spoken.” Other ways may exist to avoid problems as well. If you are invited to a fiesta, there may be several dishes to choose from. Instead of emphasizing what you are not eating, emphasize the foods you choose to eat, and mention how much you enjoy them. After all, often a good excuse for not eating buru (fermented rice and fish) is that you have already stuffed yourself on so much of the other good foods on the table. Once again, you are trying to build bridges, not walls.
I don’t drink alcohol… but in some communities in the Northern Philippines it is considered offensive to refuse a glass of “tapuey,” a locally made rice wine. So I normally accept it and have a sip. One time, I had my 11 year old son with me on a medical mission trip, and the group was sharing around tapuey. I told them that I would normally gladly receive their tapuey. However, I don’t normally drink. Since my son was with me and I don’t want him to see me drink alcohol and pick up the wrong message from me, I must ask their forgiveness in declining a drink. Truthfully, they seemed to understand. There are usually ways balance dietary rules with social obligations. It takes a bit of honesty, respect, and flexibility.