We immigrated to California when I was 8 years old. I’m not sure when it started, but I eventually felt like I wasn’t “white” enough.
I didn’t have light skin, light eyes, and blonde hair. My classmates thought I was a mute, because I was afraid that if I spoke, they would make fun of my inability to speak English.
What I do remember is that my classmates made gross remarks about my food. I didn’t have the same, over-processed food that my classmates had – and they made fun of ME. The irony!
List of misunderstood dishes I brought to school included, but were not limited to:
Spam (I mean, c’mon!)
Anything with a shrimp or fish head
I learned to use my hands to cover my food to prevent anyone’s comments from ruining my lunch experience. Looking back, I’m sad I wasn’t able to stand up for the food my grandma lovingly made for me every day.
Eventually my hands got tired of covering my food, so I used them to throw shrimp heads at the offenders instead. I stopped doing that too, because shrimp brains are too delicious to waste.
The older I got, the more exposure I got to other cultures’ cuisines through my friends. I had no problem eating Asian food, but realized I felt a slight aversion to trying any food outside of that bubble.
I was in an Ethiopian restaurant one day, and these are what my eyes saw on the menu: doro wot, lamb atakilt, romi. What was running through my mind included:
“what did I get myself into?”
“what the heck are these dishes supposed to taste like?”
“what’s a ‘wot’ and why are there so many?”
I was overwhelmed, and felt an aversion against ordering anything from the menu. You’d think I’d be more open when it came to trying food from a non-Asian culture, based on the judgement I felt from all those years I hid my own food.
Then, something clicked.
I realized that people saw Filipino food the way I was seeing Ethiopian food at that moment. It simply boiled down to: UNFAMILIARITY.
I’ve never had Ethiopian food before, nor any friends that could introduce me to what the cuisine had to offer. I had to learn on my own, using my senses to guide me.
Tip: I always smell my food prior to tasting it, so I can get an idea of what I’m about to taste. People generally think it’s weird, but don’t knock it til you try it.
I surveyed my friends (yes, I really did), and I was shocked to learn that the majority of them had NO idea what Filipino food was outside of chicken adobo and lumpia. As the token Filipina of the group, I had a big job to do.
I started sharing Filipino food with my friends and coworkers, beginning with what I like to call “gateway dishes”. I warmed them up with dishes like adobo, pancit, ube ice cream, etc., since those were familiar enough for them.
Once I gathered trust and authority, I introduced more dishes. We had the pleasure of enjoying food like kare-kare (oxtail in peanut stew), bicol express (pork in spicy coconut stew), and sisig (pig face and liver on a sizzling plate).
I even hosted a small balut tasting event in our office; balut is the duck egg with a half-developed embryo inside. The results were positive in my eyes: ¼ of my friends liked it, ¼ didn’t like it, and ½ were indifferent.
If they enjoyed Filipino food, imagine the countless people out there who’d love it too! This led to me sharing Filipino food recipes on my YouTube channel (Jeanelleats).
One weekend, I had the grand plan to showcase a variety of Filipino food in the form of a “kamayan feast”, also known as a “boodle fight”.
This is when a variety of foods are laid out on banana leaves, and everyone eats with their hands.We had crispy pata (deep-fried pork trotters), salted duck eggs with tomatoes, longganisa hamonado (sweet pork sausage), bibingka (Filipino coconut rice cake), and SO MUCH MORE. We had plenty of food to feed twenty people…and there were only seven of us.
My boyfriend and sister helped me film this whole process in order to achieve three things:
show the world how simple it is to prepare a kamayan feast at home
bump up my YouTube subscribers (it worked!)
continue increasing the exposure of Filipino food, to help others become more familiar with our food and culture
Plenty of friends, family friends, and friends of friends from a variety of ethnic backgrounds were asking about the feast after the video was released. They were fascinated in learning more about the banana leaves, the dishes, and if they could be invited to the next one.
That video was the “gateway” for my viewers to find other Filipino food recipes on my YouTube channel. I’ve received comments from viewers who learned how to make dishes like mechado (beef in tomato stew), arroz caldo (chicken rice porridge), and maja blanca (coconut pudding with corn) at home.
When I feel too tired or lazy to film a recipe, I remind myself WHY I do this. I remember how many viewers are learning about Filipino food with my weekly videos. I can feel the unity it creates between our cultures.
For years, I would sit back and complain about people’s ignorance towards my culture’s food. I learned that sharing and educating were a lot more effective in helping people embrace Filipino food, rather than flinging angry words…or shrimp heads.
There are so many creative ways to share your culture in a way that resonates with you. If it resonates with YOU, I bet you it will resonate with thousands of other people too.
Like water pouring over a rock, you may not see results immediately. But, with time and commitment, who knows how much of an impact you’ll make in five, ten, or even TWENTY years?
Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.
Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.
We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.
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We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.