Food can say I love you in any language. La Thao shares how she’s learned the love language of food in her own Asian-American culture.
Food, Identity and Faith
By La Thao
Food is my identity. It is a part of my story. Food is life. Food is sacred.
During the global pandemic, when we had to cook all of our meals at home, it occurred to me that my life is centered around food. Each day, I was always thinking about what I want to eat and meticulously planning my next grocery trip so that no essential ingredient was forgotten. I had a deep longing to cook and eat with others, but understandably for our safety, it wasn't happening. While I also felt a great privilege to be eating so well, especially when many were struggling financially, I was relearning what it means for food to be part of our flourishing.
I grew up in a family of eight. My parents, two sisters, and three brothers. My parents are Hmong refugees from Laos. They came to the U.S. with only a few items they brought along with them when they escaped the violence in their homeland. As a family of eight, our household income was less than $1500 a month. We relied heavily on government and housing programs to get by. We did not get to enjoy some of the luxuries of life such as vacations, owning a car, a computer, having nice clothes, or eating out at restaurants. It is a miracle that we survived.
Reflecting on my childhood, it surprises me that I have no memory of being hungry or worried that we would have no food to eat. As a matter of fact, I have vivid memories of waking up to hot, humid air and the sweet aroma of jasmine rice. It is an image of walking down the stairs at 6 AM to see the steam flow out of the kitchen and my mother's back as she stands in front of the stove making breakfast. Perhaps seeing my mother cook all these years is one of the reasons I value food so much. I do not know what my parents sacrificed so that we could eat well-balanced, hot meals every day. They couldn't give us nice things, but they managed to provide food.
I didn't learn to appreciate my mother's cooking until my twenties when I learned that food is a love language. For many Asian Americans, saying "I love you" to your parents or hearing your parents say those words to you feels unnatural. But many of us recognize some version of our parents asking us, "Have you eaten?" They would randomly cut fruit for us or check that we didn't skip meals. When I visited home, my mom made sure to cook my favorite comfort meal, lemongrass chicken and rice. This is my mother's way of expressing her love. I am more grateful for her every time I steam my own rice or prepare meals for others. Just like my mom, food is a love language I speak with my heart.
In John's gospel, there is a story of Jesus meeting the disciples in the early morning after a long night of unsuccessful fishing. Jesus points them in the right direction resulting in a large catch. Once they return to shore, they notice a fire of burning coal with some fish on it and some bread. Jesus has provided breakfast. When I read this story, I imagine Jesus crouching on the ground to start a fire and preparing the fish to cook. I see Jesus in the same way I see my mother cooking tirelessly in the kitchen every morning. For my mother, cooking was her way of showing love. Without those memories of my mother, I could have overlooked the small detail of Jesus making breakfast for his disciples. Most importantly, I could have missed a beautiful story of Jesus modeling love through the provision of food.
I once told someone that if I eat well then I must be doing okay. Though I experience loss, disruption, and uncertainties in my life daily, I still manage to make sure I eat multiple home-cooked meals a day. This is how I fight to survive. Preparing and eating a meal reminds me of my parents' will to survive and the ever-present love of Jesus in my life. In these moments, I know that I will be okay.
La Thao (Hmong American) is an InterVarsity campus staff in Wisconsin and previously served as the director of InterVarsity's Hmong Christian Collegiate Conference. She is co-author of the book Learning Our Names: Asian American Christians on Identity, Relationships, and Vocation.