Lessons learned at the table (hint: it’s not about the food)

Lessons learned at the table

Delicious, but not for everyone. Photo © thebittenword.com

Living abroad has changed me in many ways: I’m more open-minded, less judgmental, more conscious of differing perspectives. But here’s the thing: I’m kind of flighty. (“Surely not,” I hear you object. Alas, it’s true.) Being easily distracted by random daydreams and shiny objects means I often miss important cues. And that gets me into trouble.

The first time I had lunch with my Korean friends (and okay, the second time too – I never claimed to be a fast learner), I didn’t pay much attention to their lively discussion as they pored over the menu. They were speaking in Korean, which may have had something to do with it, but even when they switched to English and asked me what I felt like eating, I wasn’t listening for the subtext.

When the waiter came, I ordered first. When my food arrived, I ate it. Engrossed in the conversation, I was almost finished eating when it hit me: none of my friends had ordered a meal for herself. That Korean confab I’d witnessed earlier had produced a variety of appetizers and entrées which they shared among themselves.

I burned with envy as I watched them happily eating off each other’s plates and debating the merits of each dish. Since I’d practically built a brick wall around myself and my food, their chopsticks never strayed in my direction; I remained an outsider. (Later, when we knew each other a little better, I asked why they hadn’t included me in their communal meal. They replied that they assumed I was more comfortable eating “Canadian style.”)

The meal, which was meant to bring us closer together, had divided us neatly into two camps. It was a perfect illustration of the gulf between individualism and collectivism, brought to life at the table. And a pretty fine example of my inattentiveness derailing my good intentions.

Sometimes I do notice things, but fail to analyze them properly. In Singapore, Elder Daughter had a friend named Anna: a lovely girl, beautiful and soft-spoken. I liked her very much. One day, she came to our house after school to work on a project, and we asked her to stay for dinner.

Chef Boyardee really outdid himself in the kitchen that evening; he prepared a mouth-watering glazed pork dish that was so juicy, it fairly danced in the mouth. We were debating what fancy name we should give it (“Glazed Pork” was far too pedestrian for such a heavenly creation), when there was a sudden startled sound from Anna’s direction. “Pork?” she squeaked, staring at her half-eaten dinner. “I’m not allowed to eat pork!”

Chef and I looked at each other in horror. Anna lived with her Indonesian mother; I’d heard her speak Bahasa on the phone many times, and yet I never managed to put two and two together. My daughters had friends from around the globe, and while I couldn’t be expected to know the dietary restrictions of all the cultural groups at their school, I certainly knew I had no business serving pork to a Muslim.

Chef Boyardee whisked the offending meat off her plate and hurriedly threw some chicken nuggets in the microwave, while I, utterly mortified, bombarded the poor girl with apologies. She recovered quickly and – bless her – tried to put me at ease, handling the situation with grace and maturity far beyond her years. She assured me that as she hadn’t known she was eating haram she was absolved from blame, and dug into those chicken nuggets as though they were Michelin-starred.

Still, I brooded. What kind of mother is completely oblivious to the basic life details of her daughter’s friends? What kind of human being blithely assumes everyone lives by her own standards? What kind of hostess doesn’t even bother to ask if there’s anything her guests don’t eat?

If it’s true that every mistake is a lesson learned, I should be a very wise woman by now. Instead, I’m an imperfect one who tries hard to do what’s right. I finally succeeded at Elder Daughter’s party a few weeks ago, remembering to get soy burgers for her vegetarian friends in addition to halal burgers for her Muslim ones. And if Anna ever decides to visit us in Canada, I guarantee that not one morsel of Chef Boyardee’s Pork à la Glaze will ever cross her lips.

Ramadan Mubarak!

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
This entry was posted in Food, Identity, Singapore and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Lessons learned at the table (hint: it’s not about the food)

  1. bookjunkie says:

    When I read your stories it feels like I am right there. They are so interesting and beautifully written. Even I felt your and Anna’s horrer when the realisation about the pork surfaced.

  2. Joe Anthony says:

    Funny and well written!!

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