“Jia bung!” This magic Taiwanese phrase had me running with dogged devotion to the kitchen table. Translating literally to ‘eat food’, ‘Jia Bung’ was a signal for family and guests to gather for a meal or social occasion. At five years old, I would gleefully respond to this open invitation with the only other Taiwanese phrase I knew, “Ho le!” (translation: “Okay!”)
Over time, my responses to food have traveled the continuum of ‘Ho Les’. As a child, I screeched enthusiasm for all types of food, everything from duck tongue to Kraft Mac-and-Cheese. At school, I envied my classmates for their classic Arctic Zone and metal American Girl lunch boxes; my flimsy handy sack was devoid of name brand. Better yet, it had my Chinese name scribbled on the front. When it came time to reveal the contents of our lunches, I would marvel at the other children’s DIY pizza kits (Lunchables), ingeniously packaged Go-Gurt, and the ultimate 5th-grade treat: Dunkaroos. I desperately yearned for a kangaroo-shaped cookie but 5th-grade social protocol required that I provide something in exchange. I bartered with my fried rice and shrimp chips, even offering my dried fish snack. Meeting no success, I was effectively shut out of the elite Dunkaroos club. Food was no longer a welcoming entity.
Enter puberty. I was hungry (all the time) and craved nothing more than my mother’s tofu and deliciously greasy noodles. Yet at the age when I thought looking good mattered more than eating good, my ‘Ho Le’ gave way to teenage angst. “Ho le, ho le- enough!” I’d exclaim, as my Mom would scoop mounds of rice, fresh veggies, barbecue pork, dumplings, and egg tart onto my plate. Western standards of beauty trampled on my once-passionate desire for food. ‘Jia Bung’- the statement that once had me running to the table- no longer held sway. With an increasingly lackluster ‘Ho le’, my ties to family and culture, rooted in food, began to fade as well.
In college, I studied abroad in the country where eating is practically a national sport, Singapore. My friends would invite me on nightlong food escapades. At first, I respectfully declined, thinking that the sight of so many tantalizing food options would lead to gluttonous behavior. But after seeing pictures of friends looking abnormally happy with Malaysian curry and Chili Crab, curiosity got the best of me. I decided to heed the call of ‘Jia Bung’. I went with a friend to a nearby food market, boasting more than 50 flavors of moon cake. Against my better body’s warning, I said “Ho Le” to every single sample. In the midst of digesting moon cake number I-don’t-want-to-know, I began to worry about the weight I would gain, then realized…I didn’t care. I swallowed my weight inhibitions because I realized that life just wasn’t as tasty if I was constantly worried about my intake at the free buffet of life. Though I returned to the United States 8 pounds heavier, I would never trade those extra pounds for the vital life skills I acquired through food that year: exploration, openness to flavor, and acceptance of self.
Since then, food has become less about eating and more an outlet for learning the constructs behind it. After returning from Singapore, I reviewed restaurants in my college town, Gainesville, Florida, to taste the food and interview the minds behind it. I wanted to understand business owners and their motivation for starting restaurants. This obsession with food and its alluring power persisted. Since graduating from college, I have traveled for pleasure to several other countries – Italy, Greece, Austria, Poland, China – and sampled even more food. The dishes have been vastly different, but the lesson across continents has remained the same: food is good.
What I’ve learned about food is truthfully not much different from what I instinctively knew as a child. Simply, food brings people together. You don’t need a translator to detect when someone is pleased (or disgusted) with a dish. But more importantly, food can be a gateway to conversation, which means the direct value of food only goes as far as the first few bites. ‘Jia Bung’ will get people to a common table, but it is just a starting point. The real value is in how you accept the food thereafter, whether with nonchalance, gratitude, or a hearty ‘Ho Le’.
Now in New York, I am surrounded by a myriad of food options. Last month I tried a cookie ice cream sandwich, aptly called “The American Dream”, at Brooklyn’s food festival Smorgasburg. It was an indulgent creation: vanilla ice cream and cocoa nibs, squashed between 2 cookies made of brownie, house-made sea salt and honey-sweetened peanut butter. Cocoa and peanut butter crumbs burst from the crevices of my mouth as the sweet and salty combination melted perfectly on my tongue. Sitting beside me was a friend from Belgium. As we earnestly bit into the American Dream, we talked about the city, our lives, and what lay ahead. We each held one half of the American Dream in our hands, relishing the taste yet knowing that our conversation and company were far more valuable than anything our stomachs could hold.
To me, this is the way food should be. Food sustains our bodily needs, but it also fulfills a rich emotional connection with others. By dining together, we facilitate conversation, thus bridging the gap between cultures, languages, and people. While America is known as the land of opportunity for its many paths to upward mobility, let us also recognize the far deeper gateways to connection. For all the advancements our society has made, there is still no better opportunity than the chance to connect with a fellow human being over a good meal. I’ll say “Ho le!” to that any day.