Eating with our hands helped us rediscover our roots.
By Dulce Zamora
We didn’t get to see our family last summer like we normally do. We miss my mom’s cooking. Whenever we visit her in California, she always makes sure we are well fed. The most common things she says to us are, “Have you eaten?” and Mangan tana (“Let’s eat”). Food is how my Filipina-American mother shows her love for us. So, when we also didn’t get to fly home for Christmas, we decided to make Filipinx food in our Singapore home. Not only that, we did kamayan, which is a traditional community feast eaten without cutlery. All of the food is laid out on banana leaves. Then, everyone around the table digs in, usually over some conversation and a few laughs.
My girls were excited to eat with their hands. For most of their lives, I had insisted on using utensils during meals. I said it was the proper way to eat. After all, they didn’t want to appear barbaric, especially when eating at someone else’s house. This year, however, I’ve had second thoughts.
Who said eating with hands was barbaric? When I was a little girl in the Philippines, it was normal to see people scooping up food with their fingertips, and then securing it with their thumb. Clean fingers were used just as commonly as spoons and forks when consuming rice with meat, fish, and vegetables. One of my best childhood memories was swimming at the local pool and then going to a picnic table, where my mom or aunties would hand me a meal wrapped in banana leaves. Inside the green package was a square mold of white rice and some type of entree. Eating with my hands, especially after swimming at a pool, lake, or beach was a delicious experience. People say the communal aspect of kamayan makes it special. Some say skin adds to the flavor of the food. Others say the banana leaves add to the smell and taste of it. I think all are true.
When my family and I moved to the United States, I didn’t see people eating meals with their hands, unless they were babies and toddlers, or eating designated hand foods such as pizza, sandwiches, drumsticks, tacos, or other fast food. Frankly, I didn’t really think about it until recently. It wasn’t like we ate with our hands all the time in the Philippines.
By the time my daughters were born, my husband and I were living in Singapore. We were largely using cutlery to eat, unless we were eating designated hand foods. When the girls were old enough, I trained them to use utensils. It dismayed me when they ate things like rice, pasta, and noodles with their hands. It seemed so savage.
Then, a string of events and articles broadened my perspective on things that are considered common knowledge. Here are some of them:
- For decades, students learned that Sir Stamford Raffles of Britain was the father of modern Singapore. The narrative was that in 1819, he discovered Singapore and turned a mangrove swamp into a modern metropolis. In 2014, students in secondary school received a new textbook that expanded the story. The tale now includes the Southeast Asian nation’s precolonial history. Between the years 1300 and 1600, the land once known as Singapura (the area’s name before it was anglicized) was a thriving multinational trading center. Eight tons of artifacts from archeological digs around the country have offered glimpses of an advanced society existing hundreds of years before the British arrived.
- In 2019, Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage. The island nation received international praise for its progressive action. However, several historians have noted that Asia has already had a rich cache of LGBTQ+ history, literature, and art. They say Western influence over the years suppressed all that. Researcher Ta-wei Chi, an associate professor of Taiwanese literature at National Chengchi University in Taipei, believes that 1950s McCarthyism in America helped popularize homophobia in Taiwan. He says the Asian nation readily accepted American news and ideologies after the two countries became anti-communist allies after the Korean War. Other experts say homophobia developed earlier, in the mid-1800s, when Asian countries began to have more contact with the West. Christian missionaries began spreading messages that homosexuality was sinful, according to a December 17, 2020 editorial in Time.com titled Homophobia Is Not An Asian Value by Brian Wong, a DPhil in Political Theory candidate at Balliol College, Oxford, and a Rhodes Scholar from Hong Kong. Wong says prior to Western influence, multiple types of genders and relationships existed in the region. He points to the Kama Sutra, written some 2,000 year ago, which has explicit instructions on gay sex. He says many Chinese rulers dating back to the Han Dynasty were gay or bisexual. Likewise, many lesbian and gay partnerships reportedly flourished in Japan‘s Ashikaga (1336 to 1573) and Edo (1603 – 1868) era.
- In 2020, The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement brought to the forefront of public consciousness the longstanding systemic racism directed toward African Americans in the United States. The #MeToo movement shone a spotlight on widespread sexual abuse and sexual harassment of women in many institutions. The two events compelled me to review how prejudices in society and institutions have affected me as a woman and as a person of color. Although racial injustices are not foreign concepts to me, I’ve recently come to realize just how insidious these biases have been. Over the years, they’ve played a significant role in shaping my behavior and have influenced what I think of myself. For example, during my first day as a TV station’s sole minority news producer, my executive producer (whose boss hired me) instructed me to “just copy and paste” to my newscast what was already written in an earlier show by an inexperienced male white colleague. As a young writer, I didn’t question the instructions. Instead, I questioned myself: Perhaps she wanted me to copy my coworker, because she had no faith in my writing. I must not be a good writer, I thought. Instances like this fed my imposter syndrome. They tapped into my insecurity, developed by years of societal programming that who I was was not good enough. I shake my head now, because at the point I was told to copy and paste, I had already won two awards featuring my writing. (Just to be clear: I take as much responsibility for my low self-confidence.)
The above incidents, among others, have expanded the scope by which I see the world. Perhaps what we see as “fact” or “proper” may be dictated by a one set of cultural norms, diminishing centuries of ancestral tradition from other cultures.
The act of eating with hands was generally frowned upon by the Spanish, who colonized the Philippines for three centuries, from the 1500s. However, it wasn’t until 1898, when the United States acquired the Philippines as a result of the Spanish-American War, that Americans strongly encouraged the use of cutlery.
“The move toward fork and spoon was a central goal for teaching American etiquette and domestic science in the early 1900s,” says Alex Orquiza, a history professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, in a January 20, 2018 NPR article titled With A Show Of Hands, Filipino-American Chefs Rekindle Kamayan Feasts. “Kamayan may have been fine under the Spanish period, but the American drive to reform and civilize Philippine culture was all-encompassing.”
Americans took up the mission to civilize the Filipinxs, because they saw the locals as unprepared for self rule. Their “primitive” ways supposedly proved it. Plus, this American generosity to help improve the Philippines saved the U.S. from looking like an imperialist, which is against the country’s core value of democracy.
When my Filipino-American family at down to eat our kamayan meal in our Singapore home, I thought about my place on earth. I was born in the Philippines, immigrated into the U.S. when I was a child, traveled around the globe as an adult, and, now, am an Asian-American expat in Singapore. My husband and I chose to raise our family here. How was I showing up? Was I a savage-turned-civilized person, or was I one of the Western-educated ambassadors trying to improve the world? Thinking about it really does my head in.
Right now, my best answer lies in the way we positioned ourselves for our Christmas kamayan meal. At the dinner table, my girls usually like to sit in a squat or a semi-squat position. When they were younger, I’d spend a lot of time telling them to put their legs down while eating or sitting on a chair. I still do, but I have given them a little more leeway, particularly after I’ve read articles about how many people have lost the healthy and natural art of squatting, and how sitting for extended periods of time is unhealthy. Plus, my mom says the girls’ habit of propping up their leg on the chair reminds her of some older relatives who used to do the same thing during meals.
I am keenly aware and agree that good manners, as per today’s social standards, are still important. So, during our kamayan meal, I reminded my daughters that when they eat outside of our home, squatting at the table is not always appropriate. My teen and tween girls rolled their eyes.
“We know, Mommy,” they said, exasperated. “It’s not like we do it during lunch at school. We know better than that.”
This made me realize that my daughters have learned to code-switch, which basically means modifying how they looked, dressed, acted, or expressed themselves to adapt to a particular situation. A November 15, 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review examined the effects of code-switching among African Americans looking to advance in the workplace. When the African Americans changed their name, hair, and/or speech to look and sound more Eurocentric, their chances of getting hired or promoted was greater. However, the changes came with heavy social and pyschological costs.
In my quest to adapt to American culture, I shunned parts of my Filipino culture, like eating with hands and squatting. I began to see those things as primitive and undesirable. After all, success in the modern world requires some adaptation to cultural norms – something I’ve learned as a woman, as an immigrant, and as an expat.
My family’s kamayan meal reminded me that it’s okay to value my roots, even if the rest of the world doesn’t. To me, it’s akin to loving yourself even if others don’t. Hopefully, my children will start from this place of appreciation and love.
© 2021 Windswept Wildflower