As American as Take-out Chinese?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Jennifer 8 Lee's provocative presentation brought back memories of my growing up in England after the Second World War. There was a Pakistani restaurant on one corner of our street -- The Rawalpindi. On the other, was a Chinese take-out. In our street, at least, we could say, "As English as Indian take-out." (You will note that the English made no culinary distinction between Pakistani and Indian.) Maybe because of habits of "empire" we tended to go for the Indian rather than the Chinese. The way foods are shared and recipes adapted and altered provide clues not only to changing demographics but also to the history of prejudice and class conflict. We may have liked their food but they weren't like us and the smell could be overpowering. What we didn't know then was that the days of Empire were numbered.

One of the great things about being an American (and an immigrant) is that there is, for the most part, no such thing as an ethnically pure American, just as there is no such thing as absolutely authentic regional cooking, no matter what chefs claim. Someone is always messing with the ingredients. Like language, culinary traditions are subject to infiltration and alteration. Some would claim that pizza fares better in the U.S. than in Italy. Something is gained in translation. How the various culinary traditions blend into one another gives us a clue as to what is happening to us as a people. We are finding that we have a triple citizenship, not only in the new country and in the old but also in becoming, to a greater or lesser extent, global citizens.

Being thought of as of Japanese descent first made me smile and then deeply pleased that a wider and, to me, more generous humanity was available to me. I was more mixed-up than I thought. -- Alan Jones

You need to know that I am English through and through (although with more Celt than Anglo-Saxon, at least, so I thought). A couple of years ago I went in for a routine blood draw in preparation for annual physical. The young technician was from Myanmar and we got talking about being immigrants. And then she said, "Yes, what's it like for you being Japanese?" The question came as a shock until my mind went back to early photographs in which signs of Asian ancestry are present. In fact, I can see it in several members of my family. Being thought of as of Japanese descent first made me smile and then deeply pleased that a wider and, to me, more generous humanity was available to me. I was more mixed-up than I thought.

As a Mexican-American friend of mine insists, "Somos todos mestizos." We are all mestizos. We are of mixed blood. We are a motley crew. It shows up in our food. This may be a hard pill to swallow for those who hang onto a purist and phoney view of their ancestry. We are all of one blood out of which a new humanity is emerging, and this is manifest in the most basic of human needs. There's a story about the early rabbis arguing about which was the most important text in the Bible. Rabbi Akiba said the greatest principle of Torah is found in Leviticus: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Only one of the rabbis challenged this. He argued that the simple words 'This is the role of Adam's descendents" were more important because they revealed the unity of the entire human race. The human race is one. And it's showing in the most basic of needs -- in our hunger for food and in the way we prepare and share it. It raises lot of questions. How are the hungry to be fed? How far does the way we think about food reflect our prejudices and fears? And, do we know how much joy and delight we can give each other in the banquet of life?

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