The Culinary Elixir of Multilingualism

by multilingualmania on December 12, 2010

in Bilingualism, Culture

The Chinese Food Club in Berlin

Being born in Hawaii, it was an easy cultural fit due to the sheer number of native Asians inhabiting the islands. Though once my family relocated to Florida (Dad was military), it seemed my world was fantastically upended. Attending school felt numbingly surreal due in part to my new classmates appearing so pale. They seemed amused at the novelty of being Asian and permanently tanned.

What helped enlighten my predicament was sharing my lunch at school, which bridged the cultural gap through aromatic ethnic foods. I’m sure my classmate’s parents were stupefied their kids returned home with uneaten ham sandwiches and apples – minus the drink.

My mom never asked why I began requesting larger portions of fried rice, or doubling the number of eggrolls. During my days in Florida, I’ve even noticed teachers peering behind me and over my shoulder, after getting a whiff of my opened lunch pail.

Once my classmates tasted chicken adobo (stir fried poultry), Pancit (noodles) or Lechon (roasted pork), there would be a common ground which led to more interaction. Since they craved the lunches I was raised on, they wanted to know what else was there beyond Noon meals. While describing and answering their queries as best I could, they slowly learned about my native languages. They learned what my family did during the holidays, and I gained deeper insight into Caucasian households.

I “used” my multilingual upbringing to befriend other kids when they grew curious about my background. I learned quickly to start with food. Everybody loves food, no matter what corner of the world they hailed from. It became natural for me to “lead” a conversation, knowing the first thing Asians asked is whether or not a person has eaten yet, or if they were hungry, no matter the time of day.

Most interesting to my young eyes was these same culinary realizations applied to adults as well, further helping to erase the limitations of monolingualism. During familial parties and gatherings, Caucasian families would feel a bit out of place amidst the throngs of Asians blissfully chowing down around tables crammed with festive edibles.

But once these “outsiders” held empty Styrofoam plates thrust before them, it seemed everyone within earshot had to get a word in on what dishes to help themselves to first. Aunties would feel obligated to personally guide them, by way of broken English, through the maze of meats, fried fish, and saucy shrimps. During this raucous initiation, there’d be a random outcry by well-intentioned uncles to save space for the desserts.

It seemed to me, at such a tender age, once you fill someone’s belly, their best traits were magically released. Friendships among different ethnic groups grew stronger, new cultural relationships were forged, and common geographic bonds grew from the natural and necessary act of eating.

Non-multilingual environs quickly evolved into sessions of humorously mispronounced Asian words repeated ad nauseam. It became a sure thing for monolingual friends to suddenly gravitate towards Oriental vocabularies, especially when empty stomachs dictated and demanded them to do so.

Fried “thingies” became “eggrolls,” which, with pronunciation practice, finally grew into the classic “lumpia” term I was born into. Yes, it was growing obvious the foods I considered common encouraged people to speak other languages differing from their own.

About the Author: Vincent Dersanga endures the reality of composing sentences which require him to be linguistically vigilant. It is his hope there exists the slightest semblance of mercy to grant his writings a sliver of reading time and alms of thoughtful intent.

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