School holiday in Thailand: I am whacking hardened lumps of brown sugar with an ice cream scoop reclaimed from the play kitchen, making cake for American friends with a baby and improvising lunch. The sugar solidified while stuffed in the refrigerator to avoid ever-present ants. As I re-granulate it, our preschooler mopes over being splashed with water in a Thai festival ritual en route to the expat supermarket. Local bananas liquefy bowl-side. My husband asks in Japanese about a futa, by which I think he means the lid for the milk, but he means the baking pan cover, which needs washing. Oh. Our daughter peers into the oven and says it looks like evening. Her eyelids waver with fatigue, so we abbreviate “God is Great” and itadakimasu before lunch, go-chiso-sama deshita after. This is before we begin to add “cha cha cha” at the end. Our daughter naps. The banana cake turns out, flinty sugar and all. At some point, I wedge my laptop onto the counter and start this column.
Food and eating readily prompt my jotting about who we are here at Four Worlds junction. I can write a history of our family in food, starting with the melted ice cream and thin-crust pizza my husband and I ate one summer in Wichita, when we had both finished at St. Olaf College. He was studying conducting at Wichita State, and I was home cramming Japanese for a Fulbright year. We realized we had Minnesota and Japan and Kansas and music in common. I can still recall the perfect, department store cheesecake we combined with fresh cherries the next summer in Nagoya, and almost taste the crispy gyoza his mother made when I first visited his family. I think of the coffeecake my mother served his mother and sister when they first met, the sweet crystalline konpeito we served at our wedding in the U.S., and the sandhill plum jelly we gave at the reception in Japan.
Our newlywed years in Oman acquainted us with dates, flatbreads, shawarma wraps, and gelatin-like halwa. In Thailand we have discovered tom yam soup, som tam salad, sautés, and curries. In both countries, we have tucked into dishes served by other expatriates, ranging from the familiar — tempura at Japanese parties, American-style cheesecake at book group — to the new and tantalizing: a South Indian onasadya feast served on a banana leaf for the holiday Onam; rich Romanian pasca bread at Easter; and mooncakes for the Chinese mid-autumn festival.
In this environment, our daughters also eat. The baby breastfeeds, consuming true fusion cuisine. The preschooler samples adult fare, having long since graduated from the mashed papaya and mango and pot-lets of rice porridge that sustained her young toddlerhood. After fighting prolonged battles with the ants around her chair, where wayward goo settles, we marvel to watch her sip miso soup, spoon corn flakes, and hand-snarf khow niao (sticky rice) received weekly, for over two years, from an adopted Thai “grandma” at the international school.
Parenthood has spurred my husband and me to develop as cooks with distinct personalities. My husband: stir-fryer of vegetables and meat by taste, owner of eighty-odd Japanese food manga. Me: devotee of recipes, especially fix-and-forget types for oven and microwave. Our older daughter has become our measuring assistant, taste-tester, and humorous commentator-in-chief. She once saved suppertime, and my sanity, by observing that her dried tamarind looked like Jesus (the baby one in our nativity set, carved from wood of a similar umber) — on a night when winged ants were entering the apartment in droves through top-floor light fixtures.
Our table has become an arena for negotiating differences, often stemming from Japanese and American food cultures: slow food versus speedy, stovetop versus baked. Or etiquette norms: My husband urges me not to spear my food with chopsticks as with a fork; I remind him not to hold a dinner plate aloft near his face like a rice bowl. We hold tacit debates over whether to use single, large plates or constellations of small dishes (lovely in a ryokan but not to wash, I maintain). As a newlywed, I felt we should discuss who got which color in our his-and-hers set of lacquer soup bowls, but learned my husband felt odd about anything but black for a man and red for the woman. We continue to work out Japan-U.S. cultural differences at the table, even when the food expresses our host culture (pad thai) or the surrounding expatriate culture (a Canadian neighbor’s perfect pumpkin muffins with chocolate chips).
The table is also a place to explore common ground, as in the common meanings of our table blessings. Mine is spoken in a set prayer before the meal (“God is great / God is good / And we thank him for our food . . .”), with all of us either holding hands or folding them with fingers laced. My husband then has us press our palms and fingers together in front of our mouths and say itadakimasu (we receive) before the meal, and go-chiso-sama-deshita (what a feast) after. Both blessings can lead to play, with someone adding “cha cha cha” to go-chiso-sama-deshita or following “Amen” with “I love you. Poo-poo, pi doo,” a tag that dates from my childhood. The rituals, formal and otherwise, knead us together even on busy or grouchy days.
But the meal itself may provide the best example of our worlds converging. I noticed this not long ago as I prepared miso soup on the stove; reheated veggies in the microwave; doled jasmine rice from the cooker; and warmed a Thai fish dish in the oven. After the fish, I slipped in pumpkin seeds to roast after a practice of my mother’s. Dessert was chocolates acquired for expat Halloween in the tropics (think mosquitoes and green pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns). I had made no conscious effort to integrate foods from Japan, America, Thailand, and the expat world; the spearable and non-; the simmered and the nuked. Yet the resulting meal filled and nourished us (and the odd ant), and this struck me as good reason to join hands and offer thanks before digging in.
Certain nomenclature issues arise with bicultural and internationally mobile children. Should we call them half-this or -that, or both? Double? Third Culture Kids? Global Nomads? Some terms make them sound less than complete, or divided, or superhuman. Our food shows us that an array of ingredients can combine to form a balanced whole. I will prize our meals as daily reminders that, despite differences among our family’s cultures, our worlds — and our daughters’ — add up to exactly one.