May is Asian Heritage month. The term Asian indicates inclusive and diverse customs or people who come from the region. Asia denotes broad areas such as East, South, Central and Southeast where different cultural heritages are celebrated. As you know my cultural background is Korean and we at West Point Grey United have many people with Chinese cultural heritages. We, East Asian people, share a similar cultural heritage in which a wholistic way of thinking is celebrated among the people. The cultural heritage which spread from north west Asia to China and from there to Korea and from there to Japan changed somewhat in the process so may you recognize differences in culture from all three countries.
In the month of May there are many occasions which reflect our attention to personal relationships. In Korea there are many days set apart to celebrate our relationships, for example, Children’s Day (May 5), Parent’s Day (May 8) and Teachers’ Day (May 15). These celebrations remind us that we are surrounded by many people who give us joy and promote our growth. In Canada, today is Mother’s Day and is celebrated in our faith community as Christian Family Sunday. Embracing the many cultural differences in our faith community, we are invited to rejoice in the presence of Asian people and learn something of their cultural heritages to enhance our faith journey together.
As we celebrate Asian Heritage month, we may select rice as a symbol of our life together – different yet in harmony. Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for various Asian peoples yet it manifests in many different kinds. More than 40,000 varieties of cultivated (Asian) rice (the grass species Oryza sativa) are said to exist; the exact figure is uncertain. Among those varieties and ways of preparation, you have brought many different kinds of rice to the communion table. Isn’t it beautiful!
In Korea, the traditional morning greeting is “Have you had breakfast? 진지/ 식사하셨어요?” Later in the day the greeting changes to “Have you eaten?” Korean people ask all the time about whether someone has eaten. The greeting can be formal and polite or casual and more intimate, much like “How do you do?” or “Hello?” in North America. In Canada, a mother may ask her children just come home from school if they are hungry or a friend may ask a schoolmate if they’ve eaten because they themselves are hungry and want to eat, so they are hoping the answer is yes, so they can both snacks. But it is not a greeting; in Korea, however, it is. When I was young and living in a village, I would hear the greeting, “Have you eaten?” many times a day. If my answer was no, inevitably food would be served. I could have a meal at many different people’s homes, not because my parents did not feed me, but because we considered our neighbours as family. Children in a village were fed by all and any villagers. The villagers raised all the children together.
When Asian people gather together for a meal, along with other dishes they usually share a bowl of rice since rice is the most widely consumed staple food for Asian people. Even as we human beings are all different so is rice – different in length, shape, colour, texture and aroma; but beyond the differences there is one commonality in rice – it gives life. For more than half of humanity in the world, rice is life.
The Korean poet Kim, Ji-Ha says in his poem, “Rice is heaven; 밥이 하늘입니다 .” The poem, frequently used as a grace at meals, goes like this:
Rice is heaven,
Because heaven cannot be possessed by one
Rice must be shared with each other.
Rice is heaven.
Just as together we view the stars in Heaven,
Rice, must be shared by all.
When rice is eaten
heaven enters the body.
Rice is heaven.
Ah-ah! Rice must be shared!”
This poem reflects Asian people’s holistic thinking of life as interconnected or interdependent. Heaven, earth and human beings have to work together to produce a bowl of rice. A bowl of rice on our table is the collaborative work of heaven’s sunshine, cloud, rain and thunderstorm, of mother earth’s nurturing embracement and of human labour. A bowl of rice embodies heaven, earth and human labour. For East Asian people, rice is an embodiment of peace. Peace in Chinese characters is - 平和 in Mandarin Hépíng (和平), Heiwa in Japanese and in Korean, 평화- all meaning to eat rice (和) together equally (平). Since rice is such an embodiment of our interconnected, interdependent life, it is supposed to be shared together. Since “heaven cannot be possessed by one” alone, “Rice must be shared with each other.”
In one post-Easter story in Luke, two of Jesus’ followers and a stranger – we now know him as Jesus – are journeying from Jerusalem to a village named Emmaus. As they reach Emmaus, the stranger is about to leave them, but they say to him, in wonderfully evocative words, “Stay with us, for it is evening and the day is far spent.” They sit down at table together, and the stranger takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them, and then, Luke tells us, they recognize him as Jesus. When Jesus breaks the bread, the memory of him doing that with his disciples and other people brings them to recognize him. They remember the meals with the crowds of people beside the lake and many more meals with the poor.
In his ministry Jesus ate with the poor and those called sinners by the rulers of the day. By eating with the people Jesus empowered those who were living under a realm of domination. By eating together with other people, there is no dividing them into high or low. When everyone is invited to the table all are equal to each other. When I was young I often observed this ritual in farming communities. At snack and meal times, all including bystanders and passersby are invited to share the food. There is no dividing line between us and them; all are invited to the feast to share the joy of heaven, earth and human labour. In a bowl of rice is the universe and an endless chain of work. In a bowl of rice is the people’s joy and their tears. So, eating rice is a scared act; eating rice is inviting the universe and people’s labour into my body.
For Asian people, sharing meals has been a common ritual, particularly among agricultural societies. In our sharing of meals together, there is peace. In our sharing of meals together, there is community. Whether a communal or individual ritual, eating rice is a sacred act. So, the greeting in Korea, “Have you eaten?” is a helpful reminder that people care about each other’s wellbeing. We are not alone, we are all connected – heaven, earth and all human beings – in a sacred act. “Rice is heaven.” Amen.