The Kitchen: A Metaphor for Multiculturalism

A colorful wooden spoon sits next to a stew with many ingredients; snap-peas and fresh herbs surround the bowl.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.”

Yes, kitchens.

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

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • genevieve

    September 14th, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    What a great comparison to draw and to live by!
    It all makes sense that if you are willing to open up your kitchen and try some new things in that part of your life then maybe you will be a little more openminded and willing to see things from a different point of view in other ways in your life too.
    I love this!

  • Isabel Wilson

    September 14th, 2011 at 3:23 PM

    Excellent article and metaphor! I’m surprised and dismayed that you’d be on the receiving end of a comment like “You are an American.” Ouch!

    What’s wrong with celebrating our culture and roots regardless of where any of us live? That comment shows an extremely closed mind to me.

  • Kendrik

    September 14th, 2011 at 3:44 PM

    a very good analogy.I have had many friends with mixed lineage and they all seem to be better at certain things than a person with a normal lineage is.I think its all on what you focus-to get better due to being different or fall behind.

  • Taylor Heringly

    September 14th, 2011 at 4:23 PM

    You raise an excellent point that have allowed me to think about multicultural households in a different manner. I’d imagine how difficult it must be to manage a household that is multicultural. Problems that I’ve never had to fret about might be a bigger deal for these people.

    When someone comes over for a meal with our family I have the luxury of not having to worry about whether I should make a cultural meal or a classic American one.

    I think you’re approach to handling this with clients is wonderful, by making them realize the incredible household dynamic that thy’ve built from the ground up they will surely feel better.

  • Sugarlove

    September 14th, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    How can anyone frown upon a multicultural kitchen? They are so vibrant and diverse compared to the average American one. My kitchen’s like yours with many appliances and not one of them would I part with because I use them all.

    I love experimenting with recipes from all over the world and wouldn’t have begun exploring them had it not been for my exchange student friends back in college. Vive la difference!

  • Trisha Rowe

    September 14th, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    What a wonderful article, Wei-Chien! Not for me the clear uncluttered counter tops. Mine are mostly jam-packed with similar kitchen stuff because my cupboards can’t hold any more. A kitchen should be the heart of the home, encompassing warmth, evoking good memories and a place to gather the family together.

    I couldn’t stand to have one of those cold steel sanitized kitchens that don’t have a small appliance or herb in sight. They are are about as warm and appealing as an autopsy table. Give me warm tones, wood, laughter and mismatched dishes any day.

  • Clara Brady

    September 14th, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    @Trisha- Amen to that, Trisha! I’ve had more great conversations in my kitchen with my kids from when they were knee high because they wanted to help me bake a cake by stirring it, or chopping vegetables as they got older, than anywhere else. Both inside and outside the home!

    And I’m talking right through to them wanting to learn to cook so they can eat well at college. Your kitchen is the lifeblood of the home and should reflect your family’s diversity.

  • shona s.

    September 14th, 2011 at 8:49 PM

    I’m Scottish and my husband is from the South. Initially learning even the different names of foods was a challenge–eggplant? that’s an aubergine!– never mind traditional Southern standbys like biscuits and gravy, which to my mind would be something like cookies covered in brown gravy. Thankfully it’s not and I can make it better than my husband now.

    Food was a fun adventure for us both and we share a greater appreciation of each other’s upbringing because of our mixed culinary journey.

  • Joseph Flannigan

    September 14th, 2011 at 8:55 PM

    Hmmm. It’s apparent some of your friends have forgotten we are primarily a nation of immigrants from foreign shores. Only those of Native American origin imho can state with authority they are full blooded Americans. Being patriotic is not the same thing.

    Go back far enough in their family tree. You’ll find they were either part of the European migration which began with the English aboard the Mayflower in 1620, brought here as slaves from Africa around the same time, or perhaps descended the Vikings that came hundreds of years before any of that.

    We’ve been multicultural all along and just didn’t know it.

  • mandy

    September 15th, 2011 at 7:39 PM

    happens to me at family get togethers…with mom and dad from different countries,it is really a mix of cultures when both their relatives get together. a pleasant experience nevertheless :)

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