Note: I don’t eat much white rice these days, which — as a Filipino — still feels a little weird during family gatherings. The essay below (written in 2000) explains why.
The Filipino American is Asian, and you don’t get any more Asian than rice. Go to any Asian store, and you’ll find large bags of rice, mountains of rice, of many kinds: calrose, jasmine, sweet glutinous, to name a few. Japanese, Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Filipino – any Asian store will have rice. Also, it’s none of the boil-in-the-bag minute, par-boiled, pre-boiled, heat-n-serve rice, but the real stuff, — stuff that makes sumo wrestlers fat.
Plus, any Asian store worth its name will sell rice cookers, many sizes, many colors, and, in the case of Japanese rice cookers, some with extra buttons, lights, and cross-branded with anime characters, like Pikachu and Hello Kitty. I was shopping in a Korean store just the other day, and I encountered a lavender and white rice cooker with Pikachu on the box, and I exclaimed, “Oh boy, now they’re doing Pokemon!”
(My rice cooker, by the way, is a small, four-cup machine, a relatively low-key Japanese model with light green and white flowers and one little indicator light.)
As with all Asians, rice for the Filipino is a staple. When I was still living in my parents’ house (a household of six people), the first thing one of us did when we woke up was to cook seven cups of rice. This was the breakfast-going-into-lunch rice. In the late afternoon, one of us would cook seven more cups. This was the dinner rice.
My family could easily go through twenty-five pounds of rice a month. It was no wonder that the Asian stores only sold rice in bags no less than ten pounds.
But the Filipino also does things with rice which I’m not sure other Asian groups do.
There’s this dish which my mom calls “watery corned beef.” Take a can of corned beef. Plop it on a saucepan and add water till the corned beef brick is disintegrated. Add pepper and chopped onions. (If we have them and feel like it, sometimes diced potatoes.) Simmer some more till everything’s turned to mush. Serve hot over steamed rice. This is my brother’s favorite breakfast dish.
Here’s another dish: Take a black banana (that’s right, a banana so overripe that the skin has turned black), scoop a spoonful of the banana and of steamed rice, and take a bite. My mom LOVES this.
I don’t particularly care for it; the only time bananas go into my rice is when under ripe banana slices go into my rice crispies cereal. But, hey, I’m American.
That’s where the rice metaphor goes American. Sure, I ate rice with my breakfast, but it was a breakfast of eggs over-easy, sausage patties, bacon, and pancakes. I ate rice with my lunch, but it was a lunch of sliced hot hogs or cut up bologna or chili and beans, served over rice.
When my family wasn’t eating Filipino food, or other Asian dishes, we were eating steak, pork ribs, barbecue chicken, pot roast, baked turkey, collard greens, broccoli in butter or cheese sauce, et cetera – all with rice.
We were using up leftover spaghetti sauce by eating it with rice.
We were making corned beef hash and eating that with rice.
We were making Christmas dinner with the turkey, the roast, the honey-baked spiral cut ham, the mashed potatoes, the stuffing, the giblet gravy, the green beans, the salad, the pumpkin pie, the apple pie –
— and there would still be a rice pot with seven cups of rice at the end of the table, sitting next to the pancit (Filipino stir-fry noodles) and the stack of lumpia (Filipino fried eggrolls).
On short: we were eating all of these “American” foods, and eating them with rice.
So rice becomes a two-fold metaphor for the Filipino American: Filipino as Asian and Filipino as American, all at the same time. Every time I make a ham and cheese omelet, always accompanied with rice, I am reminded of this metaphor, including the weird tension of two cultures coming together.
Both my white friends and non-Filipino Asian friends think it strange when I pour leftover spaghetti sauce over my rice, sprinkle chili powder and shredded cheddar cheese, and then eat it.
I suppose that strangeness, that weird, cross-cultural tension, is part of being Filipino American.