Trips I’ve taken from my dinner table

Cal in Color

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I have always loved my family’s dinner table.

We’ve had it in our house for as long as I can remember: a scratched-up, wooden thing graffitied by markers from my old scribbling days and deliberate marks of my pen when I sat there at night doing homework. My seat has always been the one in the farthest left corner, next to my sister and across from my dad.

As a high schooler, because my parents would often go to work early and my sister and I had very different schedules, the first time I would see my entire family every day was usually about 7 p.m. By that time, my parents would arrive home as my sister and I studied or returned from extracurriculars. Often, my mom would put on her apron immediately and begin cooking, filling the house with the soft bubbling of soups, the cheery song of the rice cooker and the warm, rising smell of spices.

When my mom would yell out, “Chī fàn le!” — “Time to eat!” — it was our family’s cue to shuffle over to the dinner table. There, we were greeted with a variety of steaming dishes and bowls of rice.

On certain days, after my family had settled into our seats, my mom liked to talk about her food. Often, she cooked a variety of dishes: eggs scrambled with tomatoes; pork belly in a savory brown sauce; velvety soup filled with tofu and pork; and Taiwanese cabbage tossed in garlic, to name a few — tastes that were only introduced to me by her.

As my mom recalled memories of growing up and eating certain dishes and flavors, my spot in the corner would melt away into Taiwanese streets and markets as I experienced the food through her eyes. I began to see food — Asian food particularly — in the same comforting way I saw my family’s moments at the dinner table, but also as a connection to the life in Taiwan that I had never experienced.

Still, sometimes I was disappointed that I would never get to experience these sorts of moments for myself. Running out after class to get shaved ice with my classmates, exploring night markets with my friends, picking out unique Asian fruit from stalls that lined the streets — though I’ve heard about them, and though I was able to go to some of these places when I visited Taiwan, they have never truly been a part of me. I didn’t identify with these different kinds of Taiwanese food in the way I felt that I was supposed to. All I had were my mom’s dishes and stories; none of them my own. 

Beyond that, even though I grew up in America, I didn’t personally identify with American food. Yes, I did have fond memories of eating American meals, and it’s true that many of my memories with food are from this country. Even so, this sort of food is always available to me, so much so that it has lost its excitement — completely unlike how my parents describe the food they grew up around.

I’ve realized that I don’t really have childhood memories around food like my parents do, filled with joy and a connection to their homeland. This has felt like another reason why I have never fully fit into Taiwan or into America; I am only Taiwanese through stories and through memories that aren’t my own, yet my heritage and background are different enough that I don’t feel like I can relate to American food enough for it to ground me into my life here.

This conflict has made me feel even guilty when I introduce people to Taiwanese food as if I don’t deserve to do so because I have never lived there. It also makes me worry that I have adapted the Taiwanese culture to my American tastes without appreciating it as my parents once did. 

I’ve lived for a long time in this in-between. I feel that I have even grown up in it. I’ve eaten my mom’s nostalgic beef noodles at dinner after going to get lunch at pizza places with my friends; I’ve tried boba from both shops in Seattle and stalls in Taiwan; I shop regularly at both Asian and American grocery stores. It has always felt like I am halfway between two worlds.

Somehow though, these experiences have made up distinct Taiwanese American memories — a fabric of culture that is a mix of both backgrounds I have been raised in, even though they don’t completely belong to one. 

Perhaps it’s okay to live out a culture that doesn’t belong to just one country and to identify with food from both sides of my background. I didn’t realize that I had been doing it all along.

Yet, as I listen to my mom’s stories and eat different tastes of her childhood, I still try to imagine how the different textures and flavors tasted to her then, and how different and amazing it must have been to try them for the first time. It’s her story that she is sharing with me, in bite-sized pieces at our family’s dinner table in Washington.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to tell my family my own memories and stories at the dinner table. Maybe one day I’ll share some of my own favorite Taiwanese American dishes with them.

Bella Chang writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.