Are you Laotian or Canadian? - How Food Plays a Vital Role in Defining Cultural Identity

Are you Laotian or Canadian?

How food plays a vital role in defining cultural identity

 

By Aphisith Phongsavanh | July 17, 2019

 

Cultural identities of Laotian Canadian millenials and generation Z’ers are strongly defined by food. Something so simple yet transformative acts as a bridge between feeling comfortable with one’s heritage and having uneasy feelings spiked with embarrassment. I for one, enjoyed having cold laab gai with khao chao for lunch in grade 9. Some days, I was lucky enough to have leftover lobster with black bean sauce. My melting pot of peers would gawk and stare as I smiled cheek to cheek with spoonfuls of sai oua moving like a monorail in between my mouth and tupperware. Okay, this was in high school and I readily accepted Laotian food and various other Asian foods as part of my afternoon mealtime; however, growing up in a predominantly Caucasian middle school was a different story. It wasn’t because I was ashamed of my mother’s cooking. In fact, I was extremely proud of my family’s culinary skills. My aunts and uncles owned a portfolio of established Laotian-Thai restaurants throughout the greater Toronto area, and my mother was a professional Chef working in hotels at the time. I lived the good life. Correction, I ate the good life.

 

At 12 years old, swapping Tommy’s bologna sandwiches for my pad see ew would’ve made present-day me shake my head in disgust. I would’ve sat my younger self down and given him a lecture on the finer intricacies of soy sauce. Flavour bomb. At that age, I was more concerned with fitting in amongst my skateboard wielding compadres than gobbling down my mom’s noodles. As the years passed by during my grade school career, my mom would throw in a ham sandwich here and a tuna sandwich there as if she was looking out for my social status. I secretly longed for heaps of tum mak hoong or seen savanh gup khao neow. With an adamant heart, one day I decided that enough was enough. No more lacklustre sandwiches with soggy iceberg lettuce and Hellman’s mayo. I could care less what my friends thought of my delicious culinary choices. It wasn’t my fault that their parents put them on a sterile path of bread, meat, and bread. Soon after, I was slinging out all sorts of dishes onto the table with the confidence of Super Mario, but there was one divisive ingredient that was so polarizing amongst the cafeteria crowd that I still remember every face and sound my friends made as soon as I popped off plastic lids. Perhaps being the class clown pushed me to instigate their reactions, but I loved the taste of nam pla and plugged my nose at the same time. Umami overload with an aroma that would clear out a middle school gymnasium. 

 

What helped my transition to openly enjoying Laotian food at school was the fact that my friends weren’t judgemental at all. In fact, some of them even loved the food as much as I did and would try to barter their bland cardboard bites for my aromatic boxes. I found myself selling homemade soda crush pop concoctions (another story – another time) and introducing my melting pot friends to a funkier pot that melted with an abundance of herbs and spices. A melting pot of oar lam and gang nor mai, that is. 

 

My cultural identity takes pieces from my Canadian birth and societal upbringing, but it plants its roots within the foundation of Laotian cuisine. To the many young Laotian parents out there with children growing up in western societies, give them the nam pla, slice in those chillies, and teach them our culture. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by family members that proudly promoted and loved our food, cooked it extremely well, and shared it with me. Wherever I went it was always ‘Ma der, ma der, mah gin khao der’. Inherently, many Laotian families have a challenging time conveying themselves and expressing their feelings through verbal dialogue, but at every table I sat at, I knew very well what they were all trying to say through every smell and taste. My cultural identity wasn’t lost – it wasn’t hidden away and kept as a secret. My cultural identity was right there on the table in every chilli, fermented dish, and pounded into me like the rhythmic sound of the kok gup sak. Are you Canadian or Laotian? I’m just hungry.

Aphisith Phongsavanh