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10 Ways You Know You’re Dining with a Global Nomad

Illustration for Denizen by Elaina Natario

When it comes to food, global nomads strive for authenticity. A hearty meal gives us sense of belonging when immersed in a foreign culture, but longing for an exotic dish makes us succumb to homesickness when we have moved away.

Third Culture Kids are exposed to different flavors and cuisines at an early age. Without access to familiar treats such as Pop Tarts, we had to quickly acquaint ourselves with the local cuisines of wherever we were. “There was a constant party of flavors in my mouth, a party with uninvited guests at times, but once introduced, came to be my very close friends,” says 27-year-old TCK Vivek Mahapatra, who has lived in France, India, Thailand, Chicago and New York. As Third Culture Kids, we are the jack-of-all-trades of the epicurean world, and perhaps, master of none.

Which brings us to this list, of how to know if you are dining with a TCK:

10. We eat everything.
We’ll try almost anything at least once. Scottish haggis? Bring it on. “I want to eat what everyone else is eating,” says Annie Conn, 29, who has lived in the United States, Australia, Taiwan and China. Global nomads don’t pluck ingredients out from dishes because we know that’s the way the meal was meant to be enjoyed. We’ll eat all parts of the fish, because we know that’s how the locals do it. “Why are you picking out cashew nuts from your pineapple fried rice when you know it’s one of the main features?” wonders Carol Lin, 26, who grew up in Taiwan, Thailand, Canada, Chicago and San Francisco. Picky eaters have no place at our dining tables.

9. We have food ADD.
We will almost never order only one dish, or repeatedly order the same dish. There is more to Mexican food than a steak burrito, more to Thai food than Pad Thai and more to Chinese food than sweet and sour chicken. “Part of being a Third Culture Kid makes you restless about being in one place. If we can’t travel, the next best thing is to enjoy food from all over the world,” says Freda Auyeung, 25, who has lived in Hong Kong, Thailand, Atlanta, New York City and most recently, North Carolina.

8. We love to share.
Don’t be weirded out if our forks find its way onto your plate at some point of the meal. We think it’s odd to eat only one dish when it’s so much more fun to share food family-style. Pat Talvanna, 27, has carried over the concept of sharing from her home countries of Thailand and Malaysia. “Even though some dishes may be just for one person, I still have the urge to share,” she admits.

7. We cherish group eating.
“Eating together gives us a tremendous sense of occasion,” says 26-year-old Sarah Murray, who has lived in Paris, Hong Kong, England and Singapore. Constantly relocating in our childhood meant that family and close friends were all we had, and the time we spent eating together was precious. As we get older, this extends to our tendency to be the ones that gather our friends together. Big groups equals big eating!

6. We complain about food prices…
…especially if we know we can get it better and cheaper from the country of origin. Stefan Lyman, 23, who grew up in Argentina, Chile, Venezeula and Spain, believes it’s important to understand the origins of a cuisine. “Tapas is like bar food, and it should not be expensive like it is here [in the U.S.],” Lyman said. To top it off, it is almost never as authentic as it should be. If you’re going to make us pay exponentially for a sliver of home, at least give us the right flavors.

5. We don’t get the “fusion food” trend.
What exactly is “Peruvian-Japanese”? If we have a craving for Japanese food, then we’re going to get Japanese food. No need for plantains to appear in my sushi roll. We will also never suggest going to a restaurant that claims to serve “Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indian” food. However, we will be the first ones to pledge our allegiance to the hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop shop down the street with questionable sanitary violations.

4. We appreciate the need to “fuse” food.
While we may not get the appeal of “Indian-Spanish” cuisine, let’s be honest, Third Culture Kids are the epitome of “fusion.” That’s why we have a soft spot for places like McDonald’s. When growing up abroad, the fast food chain represents a sense of comfort and home to many of us, while celebrating internationalism by adding local flavors to their menu such as: beer, rice burgers, spaghetti, gazpacho, salmon and pita burgers, to name a few. Auyeung nailed it when she said, “It reflects a sense of belonging anywhere and nowhere at once.”

3. We create unconventional combinations when we cook.
Stir-fry with toasted tortilla. Pork belly with naan. We look at ingredients in different ways. While a tomato may mean “pasta sauce” to some, the same tomato can be the base for a curry dish, Oddie Gopalan, 22, pointed out. Having spent his life abroad in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Kingdom, and eventually the United States, Gopalan enjoys experimenting with all kinds of ingredients, flavors, cuisines and equipment in his kitchen.

2. We have strange rituals.
We bring many dining customs with us across the seas, and might not even realize its “strangeness” unless someone says something. We may overly sauce everything (curry with French fries, anyone?). We eat marmite for breakfast. We eat cheese for dessert. We eat on Spanish time. We eat with a fork and spoon, or with no utensils at all. And many of us appreciate a level of spiciness that no one else can comprehend. “I love spicy food, something that originated in Asia and continued into the time I spent in the US. Now, in Colombia, spicy food is incredibly uncommon,” says Tatum Cochran, 18. Having lived in Taiwan, Vietnam, US and Colombia, she will readily reach for any hot sauce, jalapenos or peppers available.

1. We are avid foodies.
While some people collect baseball cards, Third Culture Kids collect food memories. “Can you be a TCK and not a foodie?” asked Michelle Erickson, 32, who grew up Hong Kong, all over the United States, and Spain. “Unless your parents totally sheltered you from the culture you were living in, it was hard not to be exposed to the food culture of another country.” As Third Culture Kids, we can identify and name specific flavors. We’ve been exposed to all kinds of cuisines. We have a strong sense of appreciation for food in its most authentic, cultural context. And we refuse to settle for anything less.


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  2. what a fantastic and well written article! how true is #6? I went to Le Colonial one time and was stunned a bowl of Pho could cost so much money! then Takashi’s ramen at $13!! but then again, I’m sure it would be about the same price if it were served in Tokyo. However, I don’t mind the occasional fusion food, Sushi Samba is pretty cool.


  3. Suzanne says

    I LOVE THIS PIECE. LOVE. Smiled throughout this piece because it resonated so much:

    I get poked fun of for eating “dinner food” for breakfast – but come on. Granola ain’t gonna cut it. Give me curry!

    Spicy food should make you sweat.

    I’ve chosen the “bizarre” item on the menu not because I’m trying to prove something, but because I’m honestly curious what it tastes like.

    I always share food. Family-style is the best style of eating.

    Great piece, Betty!


  4. Julie says

    I will admit I am not as adventurous when it comes to meat. I don’t eat pork. I’ve had shark and horse (that one was unknowingly), but I’ve turned down ceviche and cuy (a rodent they eat in Peru).

    But give me anything with beef, chicken, turkey, or maybe lamb…and of course anything that doesn’t contain meat and I will try at least a little of it!! My husband (who has never even been outside the US) laughs at me about it, but then again I laugh at him for his predictable orders at restaurants!!


  5. Hilarious! i was laughing myself off the chair XP OMG so, i’m not the weirdo huh? just so-much-me that i can’t say anything, eager to share it in my own language(korean) but well.. it’s pubilished stuff… is it ok if i leave a trackback? just asking 🙂


  6. Muriel SR says

    So true. My Europeam friends who did not grow up in Asia don’t understand my passion for garlic, chili etc and think my taste buds were numbed by chili overload at an early stage in life….and ‘yes’ sharing = goooood! More things to try.


  7. Absolutely! Both my wife and I are ATCK’s and we will ATTACK almost any cuisine. The spicier the better. It is not uncommon for us to have Indian, Malaysian, Mediterranean, Kiwi lamb, Hawaiian – at home and all in the same week. The Spice of Life! And a great wife who knows how to cook it!


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