I remember that fall day in 1992 like it was yesterday. My classmate and neighborhood friend, Kara, was coming over for a playdate. Kara could be described as bossy and yet, my five-year-old self wanted to be her friend from the first time I met her. Something about her assertiveness was striking. I remember very purposefully sitting next to her on the bean bags in kindergarten during “reading time,” chatting about nonsense while pretending to read as we flipped through the picture books with dogs and horses on the covers.
Shortly after school, Kara was dropped off by her mother, who quickly walked her to the door and left with her other two sisters in their minivan. We immediately ran to my room to grab some Barbies and then headed to the basement. In what I’m sure was a slew of outfit changes and alternating hair dos, our Barbies were stylish babes in no time. After Barbies was dress up, and after dress up, hunger struck.
We ran upstairs to the kitchen to see what goodies my mother may have set out for us. She was always one to have a snack tray ready if I had a friend over. She would usually lay out a choice of prepackaged brownies, a bowl of saltines or pretzels, which were quickly devoured so as to not waste any time away from playing. But today, something was different. My mother did not have any snacks set out. Lucky for us, I was an expert at climbing onto the counter and opening the cabinets. So, I used my expertise to hoist myself up onto the laminate countertop and find a quick treat.
After finding nothing of interest in the first cabinet where I suspected snacks were, I ventured to another cabinet. I stood on the stovetop, careful not to step directly onto a protruding gas burner, and opened the top shelf. I felt no cracker box, so I put the first jar I grabbed down on the counter below me so that I could further inspect the snack situation. And that’s where my mistake took flight. I had set down onto the counter a medium-sized clear glass jar of dried anchovies, an ingredient my mother often used in various Korean dishes, particularly for broth.
Kara immediately saw this and shrieked, “Ew! What is that?” I reflexively tensed up at her pronunciation of the word “ew” and looked at the jar. A wave of apprehensive regret rushed over me as I hesitantly said “Uh, minnows.” (I didn’t know they were actually called anchovies, because as a family, we had never discussed what in fact these dead fish actually were).
After having accumulated about a year’s worth of actual memories as a human being, having little to no experience of how the world works outside my immediate family, it didn’t occur to me that having something like a jar of dead minnows was a thing to be embarrassed about. But apparently it was weird, and I quickly became aware — and very embarrassed. What set this moment apart from other cultural related feelings of embarrassment in my life was that it was the first time I felt any shame toward my mother’s culture’s food.
Kara stared at the jar for a bit longer and made a wrinkled expression on her face. But it didn’t take long for the moment to pass. We had moved on and found a snack and went back to playing. Her mother picked her up and we said goodbye. But I knew as soon as the door closed, the feeling of being found out wasn’t going to magically vanish. My mom had dead fish in the cabinet and now someone else knew. My stomach sank.
The next day at school I entered the classroom, hopeful there would be no mention of the odd discovery from the day before. I unpacked my backpack into my cubby and sat down. Half the day had gone without issue. Then, during reading time, when Kara and I were back on the bean bags, my secret became exposed. Kara had been talking to another girl in class when I heard her yell out “Jenny’s mom eats dead minnows!”
I looked at her and I wanted to flipping die. In my recollection of this moment, my facial expression toward her was: what the hell?! I thought we were friends?! I thought we had let that strange moment pass and had moved on from it? I felt my face get hot and my hands shake; I was so embarrassed, I wanted to just evaporate. Who would be my friend now? How could she do this to me? The general reaction of anyone within earshot at that moment was to let out an expected, collective “ew!”
I hated her in that moment for many reasons. I hated her for violating what trust my five-year-old self thought we had between us. I hated her for exposing my mother as a foreigner who kept peculiar things in our cupboards. I hated her for her easily assumed white, American identity that allowed her to blend in anywhere, with no one questioning her food choices. I knew that she could just sit back and continue eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunch without worrying about her own mother doing anything out of the norm for an American mother. I hated her because she was what I could never be.
That day after school I went home and I cried. I knew I wasn’t being raised in a traditional American household. I was well aware I did not look classically American. The slight slant in my eyes and olive skin tone ensured that. My sister and I had played at our local midwestern McDonald’s ball pit enough times to know what potential racial jabs could be floated our way. Usually a defiant boy would shout “Ching-chong!” if there was something either of us disagreed about. Occasionally there would be a “you’re Chinese!” shouted in a taunting fashion, (as if that was an insult and being Chinese was a negative thing), to which I would matter of factly reply, “I am NOT Chinese! I’m Korean!”
Upon deeper reflection of that moment, I don’t really blame Kara for her reaction. I understand it. Anchovies are weird looking. I don’t harbor any ill feelings toward her parents for not having a conversation about foreign foods. We were five, and it was the early ’90s. People were definitely not “woke” about a lot of things. But, regardless of any intentions, her reaction had a profound effect on how I viewed my mother’s food from that moment on. I wish it didn’t.
Luckily, it’s not the ’90s anymore. And yet from time to time, I still see those types of reactions with no follow up from a parent or adult nearby and I wonder, why not? I believe we are evolving as a society and getting better at accepting cultural differences. That being said, shouldn’t we as a society be having conversations with our children about the feelings that people associate with their food, particularly when the food item is considered “ethnic?” Based on my own personal experiences, I think so.
The situation involving Kara obviously stayed with me for a very long time. So much so that not only am I writing about it, I’ve also spoken to my own daughter about it, as a prime example of why we do not criticize other people’s choice of food in our household — because although I know she didn’t mean any deep harm toward me, the feelings from that moment somehow had their own power in forming my thoughts about my mother’s family and myself. I calmly explain to my daughter, just as I will to my son when he’s old enough, that we can say no to trying anything with a simple “no, thank you,” but we do not call food “disgusting” or “gross” and we don’t say “ew.”
Everyone has a nose and everyone has taste buds with their own unique preferences. What may appeal to some as a delicious piece of food, like fermented spicy cabbage (kimchi), may be less than appealing for someone else. And that’s completely fine. But what doesn’t need to accompany a denial of trying a piece of food is a reaction that would make someone who partakes in the regular consumption of that food feel embarrassed about it. This is especially true if you’re in a situation where a child is present in sharing an ethnic piece of food, because there’s a chance he or she may already feel on the edge about sharing their food customs anyway, fully knowing they are different.
What may be a casual dining experience for you might be something else entirely for another person. Based on my own childhood experience, all I’m advocating for here is a lesson in mindfulness by having a brief conversation about cultural connections related to food. And while it may seem trivial to some people, I would bet those people aren’t the ones whose food has been gawked at before. I hope others realize that with mindfulness, similar to anchovies, a little bit really does go a long way.