about me · body image · dysfunctional · family · food · habits · personal beliefs · Thoughts and feelings

Cultural Views of Food

This might seem like a topic that has come out of nowhere, but truly, it’s been a subject matter that’s been on my mind for a long time. Because of the complexity of the issue and how food interrelates to other things like body image and culture, I wasn’t sure how to talk about it. But I will do my best in the way I understand it. This post will be a partial unburdening of some inner frustrations I have and also an attempt to bridge some kind of compassion and peace.

I was skinny like a reed when I was a child. I didn’t have the perception I was that skinny and in fact, I saw myself as the opposite. I thought I was fat. It was a frequent occurrence that my father would sometimes pick me up in his arms and jokingly say, “Woah, you are too light. You need to eat more!” I got a lot of mixed signals. It was fun for me to be lifted up but I grew insecure the more I heard that I was “too skinny”. I remember feeling a rush of satisfaction when there was a time he picked me up and said approvingly, “Looks like you got a bit heavier!” I strongly believe it was wrong to receive that kind of conditioning about food and my own body image when I was barely 7 years old. The twist is I don’t even think my father knew his remarks had a negative influence on me, because, culturally, it was probably a regular occurrence that a parent from his cultural sphere would feel there was not anything wrong with encouraging their child to eat more.

I come from a Chinese immigrant family. I was born and raised in the U.S. but my parents were not. I want to be careful with how I word the next sentence because I don’t want to set a stereotype for any Asian families. It’s just what I feel is true based on my perception. In my childhood experiences, the frequency with which my parents tried to get me to eat a lot of food gave me the impression they were quite food conscious in a bad way. This is something that, in hindsight, is easy to joke about.

In the comedy sketch by Filipino-American Domics called “Growing up Asian” (which you can find on YouTube), one of the people speaking in the video talks about his Korean family and how people will just keep feeding you and that it’s not a question of if you’re even still hungry but there is the assumption/expectation you can and will continue eating. This is something I can deeply relate to.

Food is a big part of many people’s cultures and for some cultures, making and giving food to a person is a huge way of showing you care for the person. Unfortunately, I had a rough time with that because I started to feel intense pressure and resentment towards my father for pushing me to eat.

When I was younger, I especially hated how he would put food in front of me and basically expect me to eat it. The times I would muster up a timid, “I am full” or “I can’t eat anymore”, and the immediate response from him was always, “Finish all of it” or “It’s only a little, you can eat it.” If not that, it was like he wasn’t actually listening to me when I was literally saying I CAN’T EAT ANOTHER BITE and instead would suggest I could eat something else.

I will admit that as a child, I wasn’t a very good eater. I loathed meat, especially the kind my parents would stick in soup and hope that I would eat it. I didn’t do so well with vegetables and fruits, either. One problem that happened consistently was the expectation I would be able to eat large portions. Coming from an Asian family where rice is a regular food staple, there was a point my parents taught me to eat a bowl of rice with my meals, however, it was like neither of them had a concept of appropriate food portions for a child. So during meals, I would get a lot of rice and be expected to finish all of it. That paired with a whole table of regular-sized dishes would make me feel full just from looking at the overabundance of food. Another part of the video is about the experience of having leftovers and how there’s no question that it must be eaten so it won’t go to waste. So I get it. People don’t want to waste food. And it’s no wonder because a lot of food does go to waste every day in the world. People take food for granted.

Looking at my parents’ familial histories, it adds more weight to their food scarcity complex. My mother actually came from a fairly middle-class family due to her father working in finance, but all that was lost during the Cambodian Civil War and she started over in the U.S. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her as a prisoner in one of the labor camps only getting one meal a day and sometimes having to use unconventional means to find edible food. She has less of a “food pushing agenda” than my father, I think, because she too has expressed disagreement with my father’s unrealistic standards with food consumption. But I’ve certainly seen instances where she exercises a bit of force for the sake of not wanting to waste food. The times her younger brother has visited and we go out to eat, she repeatedly pressed him to finish food that no one else wanted. The last time this happened, my brother told him, “Don’t finish it if you don’t actually want it”, but I have a sneaking suspicion he (my uncle) did because he felt pressure to listen to his sister (my mother) and to continue with the cultural expectation of not wasting food.

That’s another thing. In a culture where food is made into such a big deal, it gives people permission and encouragement to overeat when it’s not healthy. I don’t really get the importance of finishing everything at a restaurant, but if I had to guess, the odds are it is again about not wanting to waste food. Which is why as a kid I hated attending those dinner parties where most of my mother’s family would be present, and every few minutes there would always be some older relative telling me to eat more or to finish something.

My father’s family background was a world apart from my mother’s. His father was a dentist whose sole income provided for his family (wife and 6 kids) and that stability died with him when he suddenly passed away. So my father had to grow up very fast. While my mother was growing up in luxury with birthday cakes and attending a French school in Phnom Penh, my father (in his native Taiwan) quit school in the 6th grade to begin working as a means for money. He had very little nutrition-wise. No meat, and for his birthdays, he was lucky to even get a boiled egg as a rare treat. So I understand that for him, the fear of hunger and where the next meal would come from has been a part of his life since he was very, very young. I believe this was a partial contributor to why he has such a fixation with food. Making food for others, giving people too much food, and constantly thinking about what to cook next. Sometimes I worry for him. He’s like a dog chasing after a car that never stops.

A related topic to food is the types of food. I am no stranger to processed junk food. I was too little to remember it, but my mother once said we used to go to the local McDonald’s every day. Having a diet of unhealthy foods doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that occurs in a span of many years. Like any kid, I loved sugar. War Head sour candies were my favorite. Breakfast before school usually consisted of cereal with cold milk. I ate a lot of clam chowder and ravioli as after school snacks. At school, I usually ate the school lunch but this was only in grade school. In junior high school (grades 6-9), I only ate in the cafeteria a handful of times. Most of the time I didn’t eat in school; not because I wasn’t hungry but I developed an aversion to eating in front of people. My father packed sandwiches for me which I would pretend to have eaten and then throw out. This is when I filled out a bit more and stopped being reed-skinny. You would think that eating less would cause a weight drop but it’s the opposite because by eating less frequently on a regular basis, I was slowing down my metabolism and inadvertently aiding my body in conserving more fat.

Getting fast food for a meal is a poor choice for nutrition. On a socio-economic level, there are reasons why people turn to it. I have my current college courses on sustainability and sociology of the environment to thank for furthering my understanding of that. It’s cheaper and quicker to buy fast food. And who wants to cook after working all day? It’s easier to get takeout. For some people, buying fresh produce is not within their means and can be quite expensive. Sometimes my father grabbed fries and hashbrowns for my brother and I because he didn’t have time to fix breakfast for us before he had to rush off to work.
Homecooked meals during dinner were the only consistent meals I had because it was the only time we were all home at the same time (though sometimes my father wasn’t there if he was working late). In present day, my family and I are fortunate to live in close proximity to local small markets where we can get fruit, vegetables, and meats but imagine living in a neighborhood where there’s none of that and only fast-food chains and restaurants nearby.

What kind of food is most accessible to people does factor in to what they choose to eat. It also influences a person’s eating habits in general. Once I got used to eating a certain way, it was very hard to stop. Snacks like chips and cookies were regular treats I had. My father didn’t help by providing those snacks at home, or when he would peer pressure me into eating those snacks with him. He probably didn’t see it as peer pressure because he would take the food item out and eat it while offering some to me. I have asked him why he does this and apparently it’s considered polite to offer food to other people even when you’re the only one eating it. Is that a Chinese thing? An Asian culture thing? Or something he believes in?

Anyway, I always had the opportunity to say no to the food but I was deeply insecure about “challenging” my father’s authority. It goes back to my childhood when he would preach at me about being too skinny. I wanted to impress him then just as I did now, as twisted as the whole thing was. Also, there were times I said no but he would continue trying to cajole me to eat and a few instances went too far where he ignored my response entirely and would try to put food on my plate anyway. He was wrong to do what he did, and I was wrong to not be more assertive with my choices. This is something I discussed in my post from 2018 shortly before I made the decision to work on better eating habits for a healthier body.

I didn’t really think of it as dieting at the time I started. I just wanted to feel better when clearly whatever the hell I was currently doing to my body was making me feel like utter sh*t. Two big changes was no longer skipping meals and no more snacking after dinner. Eating three meals each day was amazing, in the sense I felt more satisfied and full. It taught me to eat slower and actually enjoy my food. I noticed that from cutting back from sugary snacks, my taste buds became more sensitive. I used to dump Italian dressing all over my salads but the taste began to bother me and I replaced it with natural sugars like fresh blueberries or baby tomatoes. Eating an apple was like biting into a piece of candy. I learned to appreciate meat more too by adding shredded chicken or ham or little cocktail hotdogs to my salads.

The best was learning self-awareness about food portions. It wasn’t that I measured my portions for every time I ate but it was good to have a realistic idea of how much I could reasonably eat. It was a practiced endeavor to start listening to my body when it would tell me it was full, too, instead of continually shoveling food in my mouth. I was never a fan of soda so it wasn’t hard for me to up my intake of water, especially since I started going out almost every day for long walks. I realized how dehydrated I was; I used to get headaches all the time from poor sleeping habits, lack of water, and hunger.

I am still a salad girl, though on my road to better health I went overboard with it a bit. I became fixated on cutting back on portions for foods that weren’t junk food, all because I was concerned that I would regain the pounds I worked so hard to lose. In my mind it was like a secret I kept to myself and because I didn’t write it down or talk to anyone about it, it felt like I could continue being in denial about how extreme I was getting. At one point, I even aspired to drop below the intended weight goal I already reached by restricting my calories even more. There is a term for this: disordered eating. Not exactly an eating disorder but a distortion of eating habits. I didn’t stop until my father told me I was going too far and that I was going to make myself sick. Partially, I almost didn’t listen to him because all throughout the time I was taking control of my own health by not turning to junk food anymore, he would still try to giving me terrible food suggestions and the like. So I felt defensive because my perception was he was baiting me and daring me to fail.

This is another thing about the food culture and body image I’ve been exposed to in an Asian family: it is toxic. I have no regret in being that blunt about it because it’s a type of attitude that only hurts people. I had a female cousin who was a year younger than me and as kids, we played together a lot. We got on well and I know she was unhappy about being fat. I didn’t see her as the fat kid because she was my friend. However, there were moments when my father asked me in private if he thought my cousin was fat. I felt pressure to say yes because technically he wasn’t incorrect. It was awful and insensitive of me. Many years later, my cousin lost the extra weight and became slimmer. My father told me she got too skinny and looked ill with no meat in her cheeks (which she was not, she was at a healthy weight with a good appetite).

I recall dozens of other incidents where either of my parents would comment to each other on someone’s physical appearance, whether they were too ugly or too fat or not pretty enough, as if it were a normal thing to criticize. I wonder how and why people find it necessary to be so mean-spirited. And why so wishy-washy? A person can’t be too fat in their eyes but if the person is too skinny by their standards, tongues start wagging. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It makes me question what they were saying behind my back when I was fat. And really, the whole thing is superficial. Some people do have fast metabolism that allows me to eat whatever they want and stay thin but that doesn’t mean their bodies are actually healthy. There was a news article many years ago about a girl who ate a diet of nothing but instant noodles for 13 years. She was 18 but her body was the age of an 80 year old from so much undernourishment.

Obviously I feel happier than I was in 2018 because I am at the average weight I believe I should be and I am eating better than I was then. I have more confidence in trying on and picking out new clothes. There is no denying that weight loss can change someone’s life and improve their self-esteem, but what’s not good is I see myself in the mirror and still think I look huge.

6 thoughts on “Cultural Views of Food

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Nat. Our relationship with food can be such a complicated thing, and I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with negative messages from your family and society. My family is Italian-American, and for us FOOD=LOVE. It is an insult not to eat what someone has prepared for you, and my decision to become a vegetarian at 17 did not go over well. My grandmother regularly told me I was “too skinny”, and in college I used starvation to deal with emotional pain. It took a long time to develop a healthy relationship with food, and it sounds like you are getting there. In the end, it’s about loving ourselves and giving our bodies the fuel they need, and shutting out the voices around us that try to tell us otherwise. You are brave and beautiful. You deserve to be healthy. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, food and the connection to love is prelevant in lots of cultures. That was a bold decision to become a vegetarian. Was the adjustment difficult? Shutting out the voices can be tricky if other family members still eat in ways I don’t agree with and they try to loop me into it too. Having gone through the change of making better food choices, I kind of have to refrain from nagging at them. I am not completely abstinent from junk food but I don’t grab chips or chocolate on an empty stomach and when I see my family members do that, I find that awful. Being healthy isn’t being skinny, it’s making better and more permanent food choices.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the adjustment to being a vegetarian was difficult because no one else in my life was making the same choice. It is still a challenge to this day – my husband and children, and most of our friends/family eat meat. It can be hard to be the “limiting factor” as I’m often called when we’re choosing where/what to eat, and I’ve learned to eat before hand or bring my own food when going to events. But in the end, we have to live with ourselves and our choices, and this is something that will always be very important to me.

        Like

  2. This was such a well-written and honest post, Nat. Coming from a Chinese family as well, I experienced many similar food situations growing up and also still to this day. As a kid whenever my family and I went out to a restaurant for dinner, the parents would ask if I wanted any food (say chicken, veggies) and without me answering they’d spoon some food onto my plate. I found that embarrassing and also insulting. I think you described it right as ‘food pushing agenda’. If there were any leftovers, my family will ask for takeaway.

    Going from eating non-nutritional food to healthier options can take a while, and good on you for making more intuitive choices with food. I think for so many of us we like convenience with food, so we tend to go for fast food or quick options that are high in sodium or sugar. Over time I learnt having a balanced portion of carbs, proteins, veggies and fruit in my diet made me feel much better.

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    1. Oh yes, I too experienced being asked if I wanted xyz and then being given the food even when I either hadn’t answered yet or I declined the food. It’s just ridiculous how pushy and sometimes disrespectful it is. Of course people embedded in the culture don’t see it that way. When I started making it habit to be more assertive and firm with my father if he asked me multiple times if I wanted more food, he seemed to take it negatively because I was no longer listening to him as much anymore. I felt bad about disappointing him but also I felt I had to move on because it wasn’t going to help my own personal growth to be held back by him.

      Definitely, the convenience of food in this world now has its perks but it’s also bad because we tend to rely on other people to cook and make meals for us or we end up eating premade foods that aren’t too nutritious. And I get scared in restaurants seeing how big their portions are for a plate of food that they mean for one person to eat. The world has a dysfunction with how they present food and it’s up to us as individuals to make healthier choices.

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      1. In Chinese and in general Asian cultures, as you probably know, if you go against what you’re told it’s seen as disrespectful. I think you’re right in saying if saying no will help you move on in terms of growth, that’s the way to go. Someone’s suggestion may not be right for us, and some people really need to learn they don’t have all the answers in the world. I hope now you have more freedom to eat however you want at home and outside.

        Yeah, restaurant portions can be big, and big enough for two or maybe even three small meals.

        Liked by 1 person

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