Hello, I'm just here for the food.
The event would always start with music.
I would hear the rustling sound of foil being unwrapped, Tupperware tops being opened, and ceramic lids being lifted from casserole dishes. This would be followed by the percussion of serving spoons, tongs, and ladles brandished against the dishes, altogether making a song heralding what’s to come.
We are about to eat.
No, not at restaurants, but a community meal that happens in parks, classrooms, and office meeting rooms. It is a gathering of collective efforts from all people involved; a pilgrimage of Tupperware, aluminium trays, and Styrofoam boxes carrying food from home kitchens all-over, assembled in a mundane location that now glows like a warm hearth.
As the food made way from large serving trays to personal plates, the eager eaters would find their place in an array of make-shift seats. It didn’t matter if I was sitting next to a friend or a stranger, for the fact that we were people breaking bread together was enough to forge a connection.
Starting from when I was shorter than the tables to being able to bring my own cooking, I’ve repeatedly witnessed the power of community meals. My earliest experience of this happened at a place of worship: people congregated over common values, followed by sharing food together. The sense of belonging these events created was the warm hearth that sheltered me throughout my childhood.
I thought I could bask in the toasty glow forever, but with increasing age so came my disagreement with some of the values expressed at these gatherings. By staying quiet and focusing on the food, I could turn away from the internal conflict and stay in the warmth I knew. It was also the reason why I kept attending these gatherings, even as they were filling my stomach but leaving my spirit wanting.
For a while I thought silencing my voice was the price to pay for relationships and belonging. I didn’t want to leave the familiar hearth, but eventually the internal conflict could no longer be ignored.
I began to look for community meals outside of my childhood format.
Looking for community meals that would feed my stomach and spirit was akin to improving an unsatisfactory old recipe while not knowing what to change. All I knew was that the old format left my spirit hungry. Messages from the old hearth would frequently arise, telling me that there was nothing better outside of it and I should just be happy I had a hearth at all. It was an exercise of trusting that my desire was worth following, and that no change could come if I remained where I grew up.
The first time I knew I was onto something was at a workplace potluck. It took much analyzing before realizing what made this a better community meal: I was with people who believed in equality and were working to make them a reality.
I also learned that there was a methodology to updating an inherited but unsatisfactory way of living: being willing to experiment and learn from even disappointing results.
One such disappointments taught me that not even the tastiest dishes could dissipate the stress of a toxic group culture (also a workplace potluck, unfortunately). I recognized that a food-less event with people who spoke and acted justly was preferable to eating with those who only paid lip service to equality.
One day, I found myself heading to another event. My spirit was weary from seeing the endless lives lost to police brutality. I was seeking spiritual nourishment and food was the last thing on my mind. With the venue being outside of police headquarters, it was hardly a welcoming location. Yet, I felt comforted standing in a crowd, chanting with others for the world we wanted to see: justice, peace, and people taking care of each other. My spirit was feasting while my stomach was plotting its next meal.
Then I heard a familiar sound: the rustling of foil and the clicking of tongs. I followed it to a sight of tables filling with trays of food, freshly uncovered and vapors rising in the afternoon sun.
“Is this for everyone?” I asked.
A plate was thrusted into my hand and it soon grew heavy with bounty. As I listened to this old song of serving spoons, ladles, and scoops, I also noticed other melodies that was missing from the version I knew from childhood. These were the sounds of event organizers checking on people, the silence of people relaxing in a designated quiet corner of pillows, the laughter of friends and acquaintances, and firm voices of participants speaking to police and journalists. In every corner I saw an expression of care for human dignity in the now.
I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing.
This was the last place I expected to feel this, but in the station courtyard, upon concrete walls and asphalt pavement, I saw a warm hearth that glowed with the promise of a better world.
This richness was the result of caring for each other: through speaking up, through challenging abusive power, through resting and making sure marginalized voices are heard, and most importantly, through filling stomachs. It was then that I realized the recipe to an awesome community meal was not specific food, location, or people, but the act of caring for one another with equitable values, words, and actions. And honestly, any food made with such ingredients can only taste amazing.
How this connects to therapy:
I know many queer immigrants who have felt dissatisfied with the way of life they were born into. It takes enormous energy to deviate from the inherited way of life and begin exploring what else is possible.
If you can relate to my story of searching for spaces that made me genuinely happy, know that what you want is possible, even if you can’t imagine what it looks like yet. Like you, my clients are capable and driven people, who also recognize how valuable it is to have guidance on their search for better relationships and life. It gives me great pleasure to help make their journey easier by helping them figure out what they want and how to get it. I would love to make that possible for you too!