Better Together?

Growing up, my family was never one to eat together. We would all grab our meal and eat separately in front of the TV. Once we were done, we would all go our separate ways–me to do my homework, my mom to finish the dishes, my dad to his book, my sister to her computer. As I’m writing this, a sense of shame almost comes over me because I know that our method of eating meals was quick and efficient, but incredibly individualistic. If we all knew that eating together was better for our family, then why did we keep eating separately?

Eating as Relationship 

It was not until I lived in Bangkok, Thailand that I experienced the power of eating meals with others. Every meal would be prepared together, carefully slicing all of the vegetables, pounding spices together, frying meat to a crispy texture. In preparation, we would lay out two huge bamboo mats on the porch, setting bowls, spoons, and forks out for everyone to use. All the aunties and uncles of the church would come to share a meal with us. Eating together was relationship, not merely a tool for nutrition. Eventually the cooks would bring out the platters of food, all heads turning as if Cinderella had just entered the ball. A prayer would be said over the food and then the meal would start. Not just food was shared  on those mats, but laughter and tears were also common. For the first time, I was experiencing how eating together built relationship and broke down barriers of prejudice and inequality.

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Around the table in Thailand.

A Psychological Perspective

Many people see eating better as a matter of nutritional improvement, but what if eating better was also a matter psychological improvement? A study  by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia shows that children who eat dinner with their parents five or more times a week are more likely to have stronger and more trusting relationships with their parents in addition to being less likely to use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. And it can be assumed that the parents’ relationships with their children also improved.

Eating together fights alienation. In a culture that highly values individualism and hard work, we are slowly, but surely breaking ourselves away. What if eating a meal with others is the necessary break we need in American society? What if the table can be the place of destressing with those closest to you?

Eating as Unity

As defined by Gordon W. Allport, Contact Theory states that interpersonal contact between majority and minority group members is the best way to reduce prejudice. What if eating with others different than you could be one of the most intimate forms of contact theory? In her book Eating Together ,  Alice Julier argues exactly this point–that sharing a table “can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios” (Delistraty). As the dinner table serves as one of the most intimate places of social interaction, this form of contact theory can be one of the most powerful.

Perhaps Jesus was on to something when he would eat with the tax collectors and the sinners. He was making a statement that even those these people were rejected by society, they were worth dignifying by sharing a table together. He chose to honor those who were ignored by eating together. Similarly, by eating together with people different than us, we are choosing to break societal norms and honor unity rather than prejudice. How will you choose to honor those different than you?

Happily Ever After?

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Sharing a meal with friends in Taipei

I wish that I had an amazing story to tell about how my three months in Thailand changed the way that my family ate meals together, but I simply don’t have one. This post is not just a challenge to those reading it, but also an important challenge for myself. How will I value relationship through eating meals with others? I love to share meals with friends while away at college, or simply to catch up, but I wonder what it would look like to shift this perspective to my family. I hope that someday I will be able to say that my family has grown closer because of sharing meals around a table.

A Tale of Two Noodles

Anyone that has traveled to Taiwan easily knows that while there is no official religion, the unofficial religion of the Taiwanese is Beef Noodle Soup (牛肉麵). It can be found on nearly every city block (with every single shop claiming some kind of “top” award. I guess every soup is delicious in its own way!) The city of Taipei even hosts an annual festival honoring the national dish. So what is beef noodle soup and why is it the national dish of Taiwan?

The Basics 

A classic bowl of Beef Noodle Soup will always consist of a flour based noodle, beef (usually brisket, tendon, or both), and broth. A typical bowl of Beef Noodle Soup would look something like this:

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Beef Noodle Soup in a popular shop in Taipei

Take note of the abundant slices of slow-cooked tender beef resting on top of a nest of slightly chewy hand-pulled noodles embraced by a deep and complex beef broth. The beef must always be tender and flavorful or else a Taiwanese will scoff at the poorly made soup. In addition to the beef, the noodles must have exactly the right amount of chew–not too hard, not too soft, what a Taiwanese would describe as “QQ.” “QQ” is the term used to describe foods that are pleasurably chewy (for example, the tapioca pearls in pearl milk tea.) These noodles need to be perfectly QQ in order to make the most delicious Beef Noodle Soup. Last, but not least, the broth must be deep and complex in flavor which is often gained through hours upon hours of boiling bones to pull out the most flavor. These are the nonnegotiable elements to a Beef Noodle soup, but apart from these three elements, different things can be added such as bok choy, pickled cabbage (酸菜), tomato, and certain flavored oils to enhance the flavor.

Braised Beef Broth vs. Clear Broth

Beef Noodle Soup in Taiwan is usually served in two types of broths: braised beef broth (紅燒湯) or clear broth (清燉湯). The more common of the two broths is the braised beef broth, a base from beef bones, doubanjiang (豆瓣醬/a spicy, salty paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and various spices), five-spice (star anise, cloves, Chinese Cinnamon, Sichuan Pepper, and Fennel), and soy sauce. Sometimes tomatoes are added to the braised beef broth in order for the soup to have a sweet element to counter the salty and spicy flavors. This broth is often very bright, salty, and complex in flavor.

Both photos are soup from 72 Hours Beef Noodle Soup (七十二牛肉麵) in Taipei

Clear broth (清燉湯) has no soy sauce in the broth and, thus, showcases the deep flavor of the beef in the broth. The base for the broth is beef bones, salt, red chili, star anise, white pepper, and green onions. The result is a much more rich broth than its counterpart. The broth is reminiscent of Tonkatsu broth in Japanese ramen, but the main difference being that the clear broth is beef based. The broth is creamy, rich, and deep in beef flavor.

Above are two photos of the two types of broth. On the left is a braised beef broth which you can see has a cloudy brownish-red color. On the right is a clear broth. I know you may be thinking, “But that broth is white?” The restaurant that serves these two soups is called 72 Hours Beef Noodle Soup (七十二牛肉麵) and is famous for its clear broth because it boils the broth for a whopping 72 hours (yes, three whole days!) The result is a clear broth that is not exactly clear, but full of deep and creamy flavor. A traditional clear broth can range from this color to a nice, translucent broth.

 The Winner?

I think that the Taiwanese are onto something when they point at every single shop and say that it is very famous for its beef noodle soup. I think that every shop in Taiwan has their own unique spin on beef noodle soup that makes the dish exciting to taste and try every single time. While I am partial to a good clear broth like the one pictured above, any soup that has the three nonnegotiable elements down perfectly is a worthy bowl to my stomach.

If you want to try making a bowl of Braised Beef Noodle Soup at home, try Lady and Pups’ recipe for a good authentic bowl.

Why you should stop using the term “Third World”

So probably by now you are more than familiar with the term “first world problems”–a trivial frustration often sourced in privilege with an implied contrast to the problems faced by those in extreme poverty. The term was popularized by a meme that depicts a woman dramatically crying. If you are unfamiliar with the meme, here are a few examples:

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The “first world problems” meme was so popular that it even spurred this poignant campaign for drinking water:

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that the whole “first world problems” does point to a huge disparity of those living with immense economic privilege compared to those with much less. I do think that it causes people who live in wealth to reconsider how we can help those in poverty.

The glaring problem of using the term “first world,” however, is that the term points to a set of outdated terms from the Cold  War period–the “first,” “second,” and “third World” countries. This outdated set of terms points to a set hierarchy that only continues to suppress countries where poverty continues to be a problem. It discounts countries that aren’t considered to be “developed,” that they do not have anything to offer the world. So how did these terms come about and why have they become so widely used?

The Origins of the “Third World”

The terms “first, second, and third world” countries became popularized in the period of the Cold War. Used as a geopolitical term, “first world” was used to refer to the United States and its allies and “second world” was used to refer to the Soviet Union and its allies. But there was a third group of countries that did not quite fit into either group. Many in this last group of countries were former colonies, not in either camp of Western democracies or Socialists.

The term “third world” was actually coined by the French Demographer Alfred Sauvy in an article published in a L’Observateur in 1952. In the article, referring to the Western, Soviet, and colonized spheres, he said, “three worlds, one planet.” The term was based on the idea of the “third estate” from the French Revolution. Sauvy satated that “this ignored, exploited, scorned Third World, like the Third Estate, wants to become something, too.”

But the “third world” was never a comprehensive nor a clearly defined group. It was based simply on what the countries were not–neither allies of the United States nor the Soviet Union. As a result of many of the recently decolonized countries starting to gain footing politically and economically, the term soon became synonymous with countries that were impoverished.

Considering the “second world” ceased to exist over 25 years ago and the term simply lumped a huge number of countries together,why is it still so widely used?

An Insulting Hierarchy?

Labels are a simple way for humans to categorize and sort information. But the 1, 2, 3 hierarchy puts one part of the world before another. Why is the United States considered to be better than say the U.A.E.,where there is immense economic growth? These labels create a discourse that elevates the standard of the Western world above all other parts of the world. This discourse is especially dangerous in that it is forcing certain expectations upon countries that do not fit the “Western correct” label. Why is a capitalist form of industrialization the “correct” form of development? What if there was another way?

The “first world” is also misleading in that these “first world” countries often also have immense problems such as the racial inequality, public health crises, and large hidden impoverished communities as found in the United States.

Correct Labels? 

As noted above, labels are useful tools for humans to help categorize information, but can often be problematic in that they perpetuate stereotypes and hierarchies. Faced with this issue, is there a term that can be used to refer to impoverished countries?

The Associated Press style guide suggests using “developing countries,” but once again there is a problem of hierarchy. In an interview by Marc Silver, Sociologist Shose Kessi, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, states, “In my view, the developed-developing relationship in many ways replaces the colonizer-colonized relationship. The idea of development is a way for rich countries to control and exploit the poor. You can see this through the development industry where billions of dollars are spent but very little gets achieved. Come to think of it, actually, I hate the term!”

Using the term “developing country” implies that there is a certain way to develop and that the “developed world”has already done the correct method. In addition, it emphasizes the need for the “developed world” to come and save the “developing world.” All in all, this term is the “third world” discourse in a different costume.

Some prefer to use the term “Global South” as most of the impoverished countries lie in the global south. But what about the countries like Haiti and Cambodia that lie above the equator? What about high-income countries like Australia and New Zealand that lie to the South? Geography is not accurate enough to encompass this group.

Perhaps GDP would be a more objective form of categorization. The World Bank uses the terms Lower-Income Countries and Middle-Income Countries (LICs and MICs) to refer to countries with lower GDPs. Neil Fantom, who leads the World Bank’s Open Data Iniative, states that not every country does a good job of collecting data about GDP, so the statistics can be inaccurate. So perhaps numbers can fall short.

In his article against the term “third world,” Marc Silver suggests using the term “Majority World.” According to the World Bank, over 80% of the world lives on $10 or less a day, making them the majority. This term is new, fresh, and not loaded with baggage (yet.)

Even moreso, using the term “majority world” is not dishonoring, but merely stating the fact that there are many people living in poverty. It points to a problem: that a minority of the world holds most of the power and resources and that there needs to be a solution to this inequality.

I use the term “majority world” because I hope for a time where those in disparate poverty will not be the majority. It reminds and pushes me to continue fighting for the oppressed. Will you join me in starting the fight with your language?

Telling Stories through Food

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a Buzzfeed post that was more than merely your simple “10 Best Things that You Don’t Really Need” or “27 Charts that Don’t Really Tell You Anything” posts. It was a post of substance. The piece, “3 Refugees Living in the UK Cook Their Favourite Meals From Home” by IsabelleOC, follows three refugees who have now resettled in the UK as they cook the dishes that make them remember their home.

As the world is pondering what to do with the over 4, 815, 360 Syrian refugees, this article seeks to fight the common idea that these refugees are outsiders, different, and simply want to take advantage of other countries. The reality is that almost 5 million people are fleeing intense conflict in search of peace and a better life. This is a matter of life or death for these people who are escaping a conflict that does not have an apparent end in sight. The question should not be IF we should allow refugees to resettle in places of peace, but rather WHERE, WHEN, and HOW we should allow these people to find the refugee that they are so desperately seeking.

Refugees, especially refugees from the Middle East, face significant stigma in societies of receiving countries. Simply take a look at some of the response on Twitter against Syrian refugees:

Even more alarming (or perhaps expected?), the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump just last month said this comment regarding unaccompanied Syrian minors, “I can look at their faces and say, ‘Look, you can’t come here.”  This deeply embedded discrimination against refugees is dehumanizing and only further causing oppression on an already highly oppressed people group.

So how can we fight for the dignity of the refugees? This is where the Buzzfeed article comes in. By showing that the refugees are not outsiders looking to “destroy our country,” but rather showing their humanity through the intimacy of their home life in their new country. To me, this article is even better because it is focusing in on food, one of the most normal, but intimate moments of our daily habits. As IsabelleOC follows each character, we learn their stories of how they came to the UK, but also why the specific dish that they are making is significant to their story. Val, a refugee from Cambodia tells of dreaming of Loc-Lac, a dish of good meat marinated overnight served with a lime-chili sauce, while hiding from the Khmer Rouge in the jungles. Nisad tells how while in detention in Bosnia, he would dream of Maslenica, a pie where flaky layers of filo dough embrace ghee, every time one of the guards nicknamed Maslenica would walk by. Sophie stirs a pot of semolina that brings her back to her childhood in Rwanda before the civil war. For each refugee, food represents a story of happiness at one point in their motherland, but it also contrasts the conflict that deprived them of such happiness. When they are able to cook these dishes, it is a small glimpse of their memories of their homeland. A memory of their homeland was not riddled in conflict and forcing them to look for refuge. Ever so intimately, these people share their stories through food and it sheds light on the humanity of the refugee experience.

All Photos Christopher Bethell for Buzzfeed 

At the same time, this article only tells the refugees’ stories of fleeing conflict, but does not tell of the struggles they faced when entering the UK, their new home. By no means is resettlement an easy process, as many refugees will face intense discrimination once they make it to their new home. Without going deeper into the resettlement experience, it seems that all of the problems of refugees subside when entering their country of refuge. If this article were to go deeper, light could be shed on the ways that receiving countries absolutely need more welcoming policies and even moreso need welcoming citizens. Imagine if receiving countries were to welcome refugees with the solace and dignity that they deserve, but how are we to make a change, if we do not know the ways that we fall short? And if we are not to make a change, how will this refugee crisis ever be resolved?

Will we make the change to welcome those in need?

Find out more about the food crisis with the Syrian Refugees and help them through donating to the UN World Food Program.