Education About Asia: Online Archives

Using Art to Teach Culture: Rice in Asia

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When I first lived in Indonesia in 1971, I was often approached by people curious to ask about life in the US. Initially I was uncomfortable when strangers asked personal questions, but before long I came to cherish the warmth of this characteristic style of offering friendship and to appreciate the way it pushed me to extend myself in turn. Despite the diversity of people I encountered, the questions they asked were so similar I could often predict them. First came questions aimed at establishing who I was and why I was there. “Are you on your own?” “Are you married?” “Where is your family?” “What is your religion?” Then I was asked about famous people from America, subjects typically broached with a single interjected name: “Nixon!” “Muhammad Ali!” Or, in later years as American popular culture became more widespread through the medium of television: “Tyson!” or “Madonna!” One line of questioning, though, always took me by surprise, because it didn’t seem to represent a very compelling subject: “What is your staple food?” “Can you eat rice?”