Reimagining my Dinner Table | Daniel Du
I think that because of my Chinese heritage combined with the fact that I grew up in the American South, I’ve always truly loved eating. Whether it was enjoying a nice porterhouse steak or slurping down noodles, I’ve always come the most alive at the dinner table and felt the deepest connection to others when eating together. There are no awkward silences for me over dinner, just moments in between conversation to chew and savor my food. Hours could go by in laughter and sharing stories as time seemed to stop and the worries of the world seemed to fade. Moving up to New York, I’d try to meet up with various people over dinner to get to know them and try to connect, but it was really frustrating for a while. More often than not, a meal together felt like a rushed appointment. After 45 minutes to an hour, people would leave for their next thing. No kicking back, lounging around, or in any sense of true connection in my mind at least. I was perplexed at first and wrestled with a profound sense of loneliness as I experienced a lack of people who seemed to shared in what I valued.
A few months into moving to the city, I was invited to a cigar night by a friend. I was the only asian person that evening and was already aware that I stuck out. I’d never smoked a cigar before, so after some awkward fumbling at first with learning something new, the night finally went under way to a startling discovery. I quickly realized that for this particular group of guys, “cigar night” was their version of my “dinner table”. Awkward silences were filled with the slow puff of a cigar instead of the chewing of food. People who I had struggled to connect over a meal with were in this moment kicking back and perfectly at ease in the way that I hadn’t ever experienced them before. A light bulb went off as I began to wonder what other versions of “cigar nights” or “dinner gatherings” existed in the city that I was not aware of. How did people from other backgrounds feel connection and safety at the deepest and most authentic level? In what settings and shared experiences do people different from me come the most alive in? I was excited to begin learning.
In my discovery process, I started to see how dancing for my Puerto Rican roommate created the same connection, safety, and of coming uniquely alive. I saw how singing and poetry created bonds of shared expression and experience for some of my African American friends. Not only was I making the connection of how dancing, singing, and cigars all were different expressions of my “dinner table” but like my love for food, these activities were far more than just cliches or stereotypes but carried unique richness, depth, and weight to other people and cultures. My journey of learning and appreciating this diversity and of crossing cultures in this way slowly shifted my outlook from focusing on the awkwardness and discomfort of trying something different to learning new ways to celebrate and fellowship. I began to see my capacity for joy and connection increase as I found more ways to bond with others and discovered many more unique expressions for fun and laughter.
Coming back to my dinner table. The place where I personally experience the most richness and vibrancy, I had learned a few things. The space where I feel the most comfortable will inadvertently make someone different from me feel equally uncomfortable, nervous, or out of place. My dinner table must be reimagined as a place where I have both the courage to vulnerably be me and have the sensitivity to learn and add from the unique experiences from others with grace and humility. And my dinner parties have become all the better for it. I used to only care about great food because that was the only grid I had for a great experience, but friends have expanded my idea of greatness and excellence. Added mood created from the music suggested by others, a table with beautiful flowers brought by guests, and most importantly a room filled with the eclectic company of dynamic and interesting people all have lead to a better party and a truly richer time together. I want to continue the push pull process of entering into other people’s worlds and inviting them back into my own. I hope my dinner table begins to look a bit more like the table we’ll sit across from at the ultimate banquet as I continue learning about and embracing diversity.