View From Your Table
Today I’m going to get caught up on a bunch of VFYTs I haven’t yet published. Here’s one from Thanksgiving. The reader writes:
Attached is a photo of what is for my family as traditional a thanksgiving meal as it gets: taken from Nepal 21, the restaurant my father’s a partner of. Featured in the photo are the crispy and steamed momocha dumplings: filled with healthy ostrich meat, though otherwise traditionally prepared. That set the tone for the restaurant’s key dishes we then went on to enjoy: Nepalese fried chicken wings picked up by the tips, marinated in Nepalese herbs, so juicy, but fried (in healthy oil), so crunchy on the outside; Nepalese pizza – all dishes that can be found in Nepal but with a twist to suit the contemporary taste for little, healthier snacks. At the table were not only blood relations but very close family friends from other cultures (Chinese and Nepalese). That is how we have celebrated thanksgiving most years as expats: my brother and I spent our childhoods in Hong Kong but now live elsewhere, so this was a really meaningful reunion.
I could write far more about it, even things to do with what it means to be an American expat and how my now liberal father continues to host and gather people from all walks of life of all views at his table – which makes for such interesting conversation and in many ways might also be a component of the Benedict Option, but this text already looks too long!
Too long? Not at all! I asked the writer to continue. She kindly obliged with a wonderful story, starting with this preface:
Like antiques are handed down, so is the furniture of the mind. I wasn’t born in a pocket of culture where this was handed down through bloodline stories of generations of experience, so am building furniture from what I did inherit. Yes, I did grow up an expatriate, but my senior thesis, for example, questioned Western consumption of ‘foreign’ symbols. My alma mater advised that this was not a good line to pursue at the postgraduate level, so I moved to where I could do this research and also fill in the gaps I had missed. I would never recommend that anyone follow my path which continues to be ostensibly riddled with uncertainty, but what I can say from the experience I have gained from following it thus far is that there is no easy answer to any of the problems afflicting Western culture at this time. And yes, I dare to write “Western culture” – but then, I also write of the “stuffy?!” inheritance of “furniture of the mind”. To those who are busy casting out babies and bathwater, I ask: describe what you are throwing away. I think it is a dearth of knowledge that has resulted in the current state of affairs. And if I ever get tired intellectually, I ask myself if I am even near to the illustration of the scholar as one who can read Homer with feet on the fender (i.e., so knowledgeable as to not require the assistance of multiple references), and I am not, and feel my lack, and am inspired to continue. The vision had by the Victorians who championed education for all was not a dumbing down. We need to reread Ruskin and Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. It is amazing to me that Victorians have such a bad name today – as if, because of the bathwater of imperialism, there were no babies. Why are blindly partisan political views drowning out other knowledge in this age? Classical philosophy teaches about moderation (wariness of going to extremes). But that is being disregarded as well. I find classical philosophy important even to an understanding of faith: which can be increased when the connection between this philosophy and the thought of the early church fathers is perceived. Faith also requires knowledge and is also exposed to the temptation of extremes and facile thought. The piece I wrote below responds to this.
Fifteen years ago, I moved to the country the great geographer Jovan Cvijić described as having been built in the middle of the road (“na sred drumu”). Inspired by his words, I would call it more of a crossroads between East and West, or possibly above East and West, to borrow the title of a famous Serbian book. I felt I related to such topography.
I grew up as an “egg”, which is a term of endearment for Westerners who fully assimilated to life in the East (for me this was Hong Kong; the term refers to my outward skin color, but also my inward identity as an Asian). Just recently, I returned to Hong Kong for the first time in decades. The trip was incredibly short and was marked mainly by the exceptional meals, including Thanksgiving lunch, hosted by my father.
My father is a self-employed expatriate, which means that we did not live in the American enclaves or even join that club. Instead, we were members of the Ladies’ Recreation Club (LRC), to list an example by way of contrast. We ate rice with dinner every night alongside Chinese, Thai, or Filipino dishes. There were amahs and the time I looked in the mirror as a child and was surprised to see I was not Asian. My mother’s Thai (which she learned from a friend) brought us to places in Thailand where my brother and I were left to discover that there is such a thing as the language of good will when we played with Thai children, some of whom in those days had never seen white people before.
In my opinion – and despite the fact that the times have changed dramatically since back then – many cosmopolitan-minded people think they understand the world’s crossroads, but carry an intellectual mirage of such in their minds. I have always doubted they could handle the harsh winds that, in practice, blow on such houses they claim to understand but would never live in. I consider myself different because I have never had the privilege of understanding myself first: growth and experience keeps changing the picture I have of myself and I remain curious about other people and cultures.
Growing up, my brother and I would watch prominent figures be hosted in Hong Kong, often taken out on the private boats known as junks – the spectacular view of the unfathomably large buildings disappearing as the ocean expanded, bringing us to freighters and fishing boats with trawling arms extended, then to the islands. All the while, these personalities would remain in the covered section of the junks, talking about how hard it is to catch a cab in some distant city. I would watch the best dishes being offered to guests who would take one look at, say, the fish eyes, and gag and refuse to take a bite, scoffing at coveted local delicacies. I doubt this would happen much anymore, what with shows like Bizarre Foods or the trend against food waste. But I still talk to people who know only one or two languages who have formed opinions of places they have never been based on a political or economic picture: no interest in literature, no knowledge of local adages, jokes, pastimes.
How can we profess to know a culture if we have not interacted with it and asked questions – and perhaps even asked which questions to ask to begin with? Hans Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method writes about the importance of understanding the nature of dialectics, i.e. questioning.
Importantly, Gadamer writes that dialectics is the quest not to bring out weakness in what is said, but to bring out its strength. It is a form of hermeneutics, a giving and a taking – an experience which reveals the illusion of ideas whereby something can be completely known. In successful conversation, all those engaged in it come under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community. In other words, successful conversation is where those taking part in it are transformed. “A genuine conversation is never the one we wanted to conduct,” Gadamer writes. He further explains the significance of intention and purpose to judgment.
All of this to say: I am wary of a one-time-fits-all explanation of culture. This is where I find the self-proclaimed cosmopolitan to be transparent when they meet me and tell me “all about” “the Croatians”, “the Greeks”, “liberals”, “conservatives”, etc.
When our family used to go to the LRC, my father would chat with the waiters. He became friendly with a dear Nepalese man named Shiva, who later invited us to his little restaurant when it opened in Chung King Mansions. Those “mansions” were actually a walled city in the middle of a major tourist hub. To enter, we had to pass a plethora of tiny shops selling illicit goods, cheap electronics, fabric for saris and questionable jewelry then go up a tiny lift possibly squeezed in next to prostitutes, climb over detritus in the fire escapes joining the buildings, take another lift, etc. There, in that restaurant, we tried Nepalese dumplings for the first time.
A few years later, my father christened what is today known as Hong Kong’s Soho (South of Hollywood Road) and designed for Shiva Hong Kong’s first upscale Nepalese restaurant, with a few choice antiques mounted on the walls and the kitchen visible through a beautifully clean window. My father shines brightest as a host and he went on to design and conceptualize a series of other restaurants and bars. One of those was a “1920’s Chinese fantasy” with stained glass windows, tall leather stools at the bar, beautiful turn of the century Chinese music… My father uses the word “fantasy” a lot when describing his creations. The fantasies keep changing. No longer connected to the first Nepalese restaurant, this year he is working as a partner and together with his wife on Nepal 21: featuring bite-sized, healthy versions of traditional Nepalese food. For example, the dumplings might be filled with ostrich meat instead of lamb; the Nepalese chicken wings (which do exist) are fried in healthy oils. There is even a little “Nepalese pizza”. When I went back for Thanksgiving this year, at the table for our Nepalese Thanksgiving meal were not just a few members of our family but also family friends of various ages, backgrounds, and cultures. That is how I was raised to see family, and how tradition continued in local ways.
I once attended a boarding school, the head of which was still a Protestant Reverend who met with us “girls” in groups of three at least once per semester, his foot raised on a gout stool. Before the meals, where we “girls” were all assigned to different tables each week for different company, the headmaster would have us stand as he prayed: Good food, good friends, we give thanks to the Lord.
It was a simple prayer, but one that comes back to me time and again. It is true that while food is for sustenance, it is easy when given the means to indulge in unnecessary hedonism, but it is also true that to break delicious bread with good company is fulfilling on more than just a physical plane.
So, to have been raised by a father who invites all sorts of people to meals – regardless of whether these people share the same convictions, gave me a lesson in the potential of good will, a picture of an ideal society, though I have to say that I do not know that it can exist outside of Hong Kong (reminiscences of Edward Said suggest it may have existed in Cairo a century ago).
As the great Victorian classicist Benjamin Jowett wrote of Plato’s Phaedrus: “it is a picture, not a system, and a picture which is for the greater part an allegory, and an allegory which allows the meaning to come through”. The account of the shared meal can be a figure of speech. The person who wants to understand must question the horizon of the question, Gadamer writes, and go behind what is said.
Just sitting at a dinner table is not enough. There must be a willingness to enter into an experience and be changed, a willingness to go behind the scenes to recover the good that is shared. Maybe the key to this is in the “friendship” of the prayer.
It would be possible to wax poetic at this juncture about the nobility to be friendly with everyone: cultivating simple-hearted openness towards people of all walks of life, a genuine interest to listen to them and bring out their strengths. It would be possible to indulge in pathos and describe the complex emotions that arise when we see the strengths and beauty in a person we are not inclined towards or experiences surges of love that surpass shortcomings, and to cite along these lines Chesterton’s “On Mending and Ending Things”.
But there is a saying here on the land mapped by Cvijić (even if it is not observed) that advises meals are only to be shared among friends. The history of this road upon which houses have been built has instilled this lesson. Good will is harder to see where it is not mutual. I mention this to draw attention to the limitations of the allegory and hopefully point behind or above it if the illustration did indeed serve its purpose. What I learned from my father was this intention of good will towards gatherings, but also the notion that the concrete settings or even vision may continue to change over the years – and to not fear this change; rather, to be committed to continuously adapt to the purpose at hand (here I indirectly cite the Tao Te Ching).
In one last illustration – if I may end on an abstract note, a very dear friend of mine who has staffed the sadly closing Honeychurch Antiques in Hong Kong said to me on this trip back: “Worry clouds our vision and complicates things. If we can release ourselves, we will see the way.”
*The book mentioned in the first paragraph is Iznad istoka i zapada.
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