One of my limited sources of pride is having guarded my culture to the best of my ability. I mean, true as it may be that forty years of life away from my homeland has taken its toll on my Iranian-ness, I make sure to speak perfect Persian, that my ethnic cuisine isn’t Americanized, and that I haven’t forgotten how to ta’arof, to mention a few. But as difficult as it may be to know our facial changes in the absence of a mirror, cultural alterations are only detected upon a reflection. I faced such a manifestation just the other day, when I entertained my niece and her little boy.
My niece has lived in this country for only a decade, but before that, she lived most of her life in England, and her little boy is a born and raised American. Still, I decided to serve them an authentic Persian dinner of chicken kebab, lentil rice and eggplant stew. At dinner, I was in for a huge surprise. As if it wasn’t bad enough not to know that my niece is allergic to eggplant, I also noticed her son was straining to balance the rice grains on his fork. As I watched his struggle, a voice hammered into my head, “Give the poor guy a spoon, for God’s sake!” The little guy seemed relieved to receive the spoon. I asked my niece how come she didn’t ask me to bring one for him, to which she replied, “You’re not a stranger to this practice, and I didn’t want to sound rude. But when we eat at restaurants, I always ask for a spoon and by now, even our American friends who come to dinner expect it at their place setting.”
In my pre-American life, everyone I knew ate rice with a spoon. There may be other nationalities that do the same, but Iranians are used to it and in fact, the authentic Iranian place setting lacks a knife because even kabob should be tender enough to be cut with a fork. However, I know of no Persian restaurants in the US that dispense a spoon for rice and most Iranian-American houses seem to have done away with it, too. This has nothing to do with convenience as in my grandnephew’s example, I could see how much easier it is for a child to use a spoon versus a fork. For the rest of the evening, I watched my own children use their forks with skill and I could not stop asking myself, at what point did we switch?
An eating utensil may be a small issue, but this incident provoked an entire new line of thoughts. What other cultural changes did we make as we adapted to our Iranian-American molds? And how much of such cultural loss is acceptable? Why is it that the Chinese, regardless of how many years ago they immigrated to the US, continue to provide their guests with a pair of chopsticks – not to mention a crash course on how to use them – but we Iranians got rid of our convenient spoons in just a few decades? It isn’t as though this was a tough tradition to keep. I can understand the difficulties in removing our shoes before entering the house – though it was a good practice. Could it be that we just wanted to blend? Did we fear others might stare at us? Whatever the reason, it sure wasn’t portion control because be it a spoon or a fork, we somehow manage to down more rice than our tummies are prepared to receive.
Indeed, there are many customs that changing them is not beneficial to us. We didn’t have to replace fresh fruits with sugary desserts, it was good to have tea ready, and we sure were fine without the morning coffee. There’s nothing wrong with making formal arrangements, but it was also nice to have close friends just drop by and how wonderful it was to keep them over for a meal by just “adding water to the Deezee.” How great it was that we played poetry games, told stories, or had backgammon contests instead of watching television after a family dinner. Moreover, I am most grateful to bottled water for bringing back to the table a drink that I grew up with – though we never had to buy ours.
As I rediscover the forgotten beauty in some old traditions, I promise myself to add a spoon to my silverware each time I set the table. If no one uses it, it’s no extra work, and if they do, it’s one less item to get up and fetch. But most importantly, it will make the same statement that my niece silently made. It will tell my guests how proud I am of my own culture.