Why is being multiculturally-minded vital for improving people’s wellbeing? The answer, surprisingly, can be found in our kitchens.
People from diverse backgrounds often laugh, nod, smile, and clap when they hear me stating, “for bicultural or multicultural individuals and families, the standard-sized kitchen is never big enough; these kitchens are not designed for multicultural people.”
Picture some of the stuff I have in my Asian-American kitchen: rice cooker, deep fryer, crock-pot, two sets of steamers (Chinese and American), hot water pots, coffee pot, two sets of tea pots, espresso maker, indoor grill, wok, skillet, saucepan, two sets of dinnerware, two sets of kitchen knives, and a really wide range of sauces and condiments (e.g., soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, Chinese black and white vinegars).
Now imagine opening my multicultural refrigerator. You will see tofu (of all kinds), cheese (of all kinds), wines (Chinese, Napa, and Oregon), pickles, Chinese pickles, and vegetables and fruits from different parts of the world.
I am neither a hoarder nor a foodie. Many friends consider me a person who lives a simple life. I also do not like my kitchen being so crowded, because, at times, too many choices and too much knowledge is confusing and frustrating. Moreover, I have been subjected to some unintentionally judgmental looks and comments about my kitchen. “You must choose,” “You have too much stuff,” “You are an American.”
However, this crowded and diverse kitchen is a reflection of who I am. I connect with, have lived in, understand, and enjoy both cultures. Both the black bean paste short-ribs my mom made and the BBQ short-ribs my advisor made are delicious, but they can not replace each other, and I have both sauces in my kitchen.
Once, an individual in an audience shared, “My family is Mexican-Italian-American, we have three sets of stuff, and the counter is not big enough for the microwave, coffee maker, tortilla warmer, and the pasta maker!”
But you already know that I am not only talking about kitchens. The kitchen is a metaphor. Think about being familiar with and identifying with different aspects of two or more cultures: value systems, manners, house layouts, dress codes, expression of emotions, behaviors, holidays, traditions, expectations, responsibilities, ways of coping, etc. Whenever a multicultural individual makes a decision (consciously or subconsciously) or takes in information, this person has at least three sets of value systems and criteria to think through. Having these lenses of identity to filter things through is extremely confusing and exhausting.
You think, wait, why at least three sets of values systems?”
For example, all bi-cultural individuals will have at least three sets of knowledge: Cultural A, Cultural B, and the intersection of both cultures. For example, an Asian-American person needs to learn that:
- (A) asking authority figures a question is likely to be considered an expression of disrespect,
- (B) asking questions is a way of showing interest and respect (e.g., in a college classroom), and
- (C) showing respect implies different behaviors in different contexts. For this bi-cultural individual, thinking three times before doing things is essential to function in two cultures. This process may be conscious or subconscious, and after years of practice, the process is rather fast.
Nothing is simple in my kitchen. At times, I do not know how to act, because I want to avoid being judged or misunderstood. For example, if you come to my house and ask for a spoon—I will have to stop and think, do you want a Chinese soup spoon, Korean spoon, or one of the American spoons (dessert, tea, dinner)? Now, imagine the questions a multicultural person may go through when asked, say, to be assertive—Where? What? To whom? By what cultural standard? How will people from two different cultures see me?
A kitchen designed for a single culture will not be big enough for a multicultural individual, unless this multicultural individual hides, leaves, or staggers things. By a single-culture kitchen’s standard, the multicultural individual’s kitchen may seem to be unorganized, too crowded, or that of a hoarder. But as culturally responsive clinicians, we have to ask—is it a kitchen design problem or the individual’s problem? How many of us would willingly cut or give up things that are part of us just because there is not enough space?
Yes, you are correct. I am talking about the theories that were developed many years ago that may not be applicable to people of different cultures or who are multicultural. Those theories are like single-cultural kitchens that do not fit multicultural individuals’ needs. I am talking about how many multicultural people’s experiences may be a result of their having at least three sets of knowledge. I am also encouraging all of us to inform, honor, and help ourselves and our multicultural individuals to understand why they feel their “kitchen” is not big enough.
Then, we and the people we work with, may be able to really start appreciating how much more work they have done and how rich their lives are, despite the unavoidable stress and constant managing and learning.
© Copyright 2011 by Wei-Chien Lee. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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