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Cultural Exchange Lessons Through "Kitchen Teamwork"


Marlena W., YES Abroad 2011-2012, Malaysia

November has been a month to be devoured. The ever-blending, ever-expanding cultural mix of my life was experienced for me, this month, primarily through my eager, tingling taste buds. Food has proven to be one of the most exciting, encouraging, and engaging manners of learning and sharing the culture which I come from and the culture which I, everyday, learn more about and continuously become more a part of.

It started a few weeks ago when my host mom decided it was finally time for me to learn how to make nasi lemak, a dish so infamous that I am sure if Malaysia had a national dish, this would be it. Translated as “fatty rice” (a name which perhaps does not leave not much to the imagination as to what over-consumption will do for your love handles), it is a perfectly balanced blend of coconut milk-soaked rice, sambal (sauce; the spicier the better!), egg, ground nuts, and anchovies. But it is not just the ingredients that make this dish; it is also the way you eat it (with your hands!)

After the success of this kitchen teamwork, I decided to introduce a little of American cooking into the rhythm as well. I decided to tackle breakfast first: pancakes one week, French toast the next (despite the name, I still like to think of the latter as a common American breakfast food.) I realized how great it felt to wake up early, taking notes from behind mak’s shoulder, and having her taking notes behind mine, regarding techniques, waking up the house with aromas of pandan and vanilla, and then sitting down and eating these things together. It all felt so…right.

Whether it is me learning the Malaysian culinary techniques from my host mom, or me going to the neighbor’s houses to work in the kitchen preparing bonbons for neighborhood gatherings, or if it is even, by chance, them getting a slice (most literally) of America from me, I have realized that this is one of the most beautiful things about food, and why it is a perfect medium to learn and experience a culture with; and that is because, with food, nothing gets lost in translation. It speaks its own language.

That being said, I am also learning food is not the only thing that can be devoured.  Language, love, friendship; these things are just as delectable.

And I have been getting schooled, ironically, about all three of these things through the bi-weekly English lessons I have picked up giving extremely eager children in my neighborhood. Although it is so much fun seeing the hunger in these kids eyes as they nibble on vocabulary and chomp on grammar, the meaning of these sessions somehow surpasses language itself. What they, and perhaps even more I, learn during these dark and lovely hours, are lessons on unity. What we learn is that through language learning and bonding of children with exchange students and the love that is also shared in the midst of all that is that the world really isn’t that big of a place after all.