Whenever you walk into a Filipinx household, the first question you are are asked is, “Did you eat?” Food is incredibly important to us. Whenever I am on the phone with my dad, he wants to know: What am I eating? What did I eat yesterday? What am I going to eat later? Sometimes when he misses me, he just sends me photos of his cooking. Food is the language in which we communicate and show affection. Food is one of my most important forms of medicine – a way to care for my mind, body, and soul. The effect of colonization on me as a child was so strong that for a time, I forgot all of that.
One of my earliest memories from elementary school was being bullied for my food. The nourishment my family provided for me became stinky and weird. Some days I would walk over to the trash can and dump my entire lunchbox into it. I wanted sandwiches and Lunchables, Carpi Suns, and Hi-C juice boxes like the white kids. Internalized racism taught me to reject something that gave me strength.
On a public health level, Filipinx suffer disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, that are diet-related. Much of this is due to industrialized and Westernized food systems. Traditional foods with fresh vegetables and fish are replaced with highly processed products containing white flour, white sugar, and preservatives. This is true for many BIPOC groups.
Filipinx have a tradition of ancestor veneration. Our venerated ancestors, sometimes referred to as anito or ninuno, watch our for us and protect us. One of the ways to honor them is to give food offerings, atang. White culture not only distances us from feeding ourselves with life-promoting traditional food, it distances us from caring for our ancestors as well. Consuming food is a way for us to feed our ancestors. They no longer have corporeal form except through the body of their descendants. I am an accumulation of their lives and genetic material and food is a way for me to honor the survival and sacrifices of those who cam before me. Consuming traditional food is a way of taking up space and reclaiming history, nourishment, and pride. It is a transformation of shame and pain.
I find it offensive when white culture exploits stinky or “bizarre” food as entertainment. It is a novelty and a cheap thrill, a game of “I dare you...” This consumption is rooted in appropriation and Orientalism instead of a deep cultural appreciation. (I considered adding links to Youtube videos to cite sources, but it makes me too angry. You're on your own for that.) A chef friend once told me that cooking for someone is one of the most intimate activities – the food literally becomes a part of the other person on a cellular level. What an insidious way for racism to teach BIPOC to reject themselves on at that same level.
We have all heard the term “food is medicine”. If we are to decolonize medicine, we need to look at how we eat, what we eat, and who gets to eat. So, what can we do about this? Here are some of my suggestions:
What are your ideas on decolonizing medicine through decolonizing food?
Image: several kamote (sweet potato) plants regrown from ONE kamote on my deck.