By Dara Firoozi March 23, 2021
Repurposed Childhood Anxiety
into Useful Tool for Making
For a lot of people, when thinking of the word Culture, food tends to be the first thing that pops up. Food brings us together from gathering around the dinner table, to passing along family recipes from generation to generation in the kitchen, or creating special meals for holidays. As the world continues to bond and blend, so many of us come from mixed families or grow up in a culture outside of their own as Third Culture Kids.
I grew up in an Iranian American family while raised in Shanghai, China from ages 3 to 16, needless to say we were a delicious melting pot of culture and food. Celebrating every holiday from 4th of July, to the Dragon boat festival to Nowruz Iranian New Year. While my upbringing came with a lot of celebrations and excitement welcoming so many cultures, it also led to a lot of confusion. Every culture has their own set of rules and expectations around food, and the three conflicted greatly.
Aside from the obvious differences in the place settings; American food with a single plate, not to be shared with multiple utensils for different foods, Chinese food with chopsticks and often a base of a bowl of rice eating family style from a spinning lazy susan, and Persian food always dedicate with a blend of hand food and cutlery. There were many unspoken rules when it came to meals. In Iranian culture, there is a ritual of politeness called Taarof, where you can’t say yes to something unless the third time to not seem needy or greedy, and yet in Chinese culture it is respectful to end your meal with a slurped down clean bowl, and don’t even get me started on confusion around American food and media. Take a look at the concept of Sharing, where in America your individual plate is your territory, but good luck telling that to your Persian or Chinese auntie when they want a bite of your food.
While it was incredible to learn about all these cultures through food from a young age I had so much stress about eating, and what was the correct way to eat.
Can’t eat till everyone’s at the table and serves their own food, otherwise you seem greedy. But if you don’t show enthusiasm then you are disrespecting the chef. If you finish the plate you seem starving, if you don’t you seem rude. You must serve others, especially men and elders, before serving yourself. Can’t refill your tea if the other cups aren’t all the way full. Seconds and leftovers are a no no in one world and a must have in the other.
All these thoughts would run through my head, and still do, depending on who I am eating with.
I would get so worked up about what and how to eat that I just wouldn’t, I felt stumped and often could only do it if I had complete control of how I was eating including using those separated trays. The organization gave me peace, everything was portioned and in its place neatly for me to comprehend. While at the time this system seemed helpful but looking back it was a grasp at autonomy and control. Food and eating, as well as how I took care of my body was one thing that only I had the power over.
It wasn’t until I moved to the US in High School that I released how specific my eating habits had become. The overwhelming portion sizes of food, and encouragement to find comfort in eating was jarring. The exposure to body image expectations with media and conversations in health class about eating disorders was constant. For me, my relationship with food wasn’t stemmed from image, rather from how my actions would reflect my respect for culture and for the people eating with me, and if they all conflicted then I would be disrespecting someone somehow. Then ultimately having a pocket of control in a life that I felt anxious and overwhelmed.
As I grew older and found ways to feel confident and in control, whether it was sports or arts, I started to step away from my anxiety around food. It is still present in different ways as my identity develops and relationship to my cultures evolve, but I am proud to say I have more freedom in my eating habits and have even found a new purpose for the countless separated plates and trays I have. Working with my hands gives me that confidence and control that empowers me to think and act freely. I now use my old trays to help keep all the parts and pieces of our jewelry organized while I am making it.
They bring a fun pop of color and an incredible satisfaction when it comes to keeping things organized and productive. While this might seem like a small thing, it is a big win to overcome and understand the core of an anxiety, and also reclaim something that had a weight to it. I know in the work I have done with my therapist in a different part of my life with PTSD it has been huge to reclaim friendships, places, smells, songs or things that were once triggering. Set your own pace and celebrate the wins no matter how big or small.