By Osmund Agbo
Ever heard of culinary diplomacy? Me neither. At least not before now. But little did I know that my daughter’s sixteenth birthday would unlock a treasure trove of knowledge, starting with this conversation.
Wife: You remember your daughter will turn sixteen in a few days right?
Wife: Did you just say ok? I know you don’t pay much attention to birthdays and the likes but this is your daughter’s Sweet Sixteenth, sweetie. Please don’t start with me on this one. (She said half-rolling her eyes and chuckling through it.)
Husband: And? (I queried further, keeping my best poker face.)
Wife: Well, you can pretend all you want but remember you dropped her off last weekend to her friend’s quinceañera party, didn’t you? (She asked, with a suppressed smile. Then continued…C’mon, I know you got her a car but…)
Husband: But what? Her friend is Hispanic and we are Africans. We don’t celebrate birthdays like somebody is having a wedding. That’s just too much. I mean, we can invite her friends, order a nice birthday cake and stuff, just like we had done before. But I am not sure she needs those other extras.
Wife: Oh no! Sweetie! This is different. Sixteenth birthday is actually a big deal. It’s the celebration of a young girl’s new milestone in the journey to adulthood. I know how you feel about some of these things but all her friends are going to be throwing some kind of party, one way or the other. Not necessarily as big as Laura’s but at least something. She can’t be the odd one out.
Convinced there was no way in the world one could possibly win such an argument, I surrendered completely and went quiet. The lecture lasted for a grueling hour and half. All I did was listen and learn. I learnt that a Sweet sixteen party was previously known as a debutante party and originated in the Victorian era as a way to present a young woman to society in hopes of finding a suitable husband. Clearly our princess is not ready for prime time but I thanked her mum for the history lesson nonetheless.
I already knew this whole production and guilt-tripping was to prime my mind about the coming spending spree. Each time wifey starts a sentence with “your son” or “your daughter,” I am convinced she is about to unfairly appropriate to me, a specific type of parental responsibility which most often has to do with depleting my pocket. Of course, my guards were already high up and waiting to be triggered.
In all fairness though, she has a good reason to be forcing about birthdays. As my fiancée years ago, I once committed the cardinal sin of forgetting her birthday. It wasn’t funny at all but I am glad I survived it , though not without some bruises to show for it. I also believed one had sufficiently atoned for that one sin since I have been paying for everyone’s birthday celebration year after year, irrespective of whether or not I remembered. She claims to have forgiven me but whenever our kids’ birthday comes up, it is a good time to remind me, just one more time.
Surprisingly and for the first time ever, our birthday girl sided with me on this one. The young lady had it all planned out; first we went for dinner at this Thai place in Downtown Houston she said was suggested by her friends. We then followed it up with a group game at the arcade and they all ended at our house for a sleepover thereafter. The tab? Just a little over five hundred dollars. Going by today’s rough economy, I could have pushed a little harder but it wasn’t bad at all, considering the million dollar alternatives my wife could have suggested. It turns out that this girl has been paying some, even if little attention to my many unsolicited exhortations on financial responsibility which one could tell hardly excites her and her brother. But I make them listen regardless.
The restaurant was located right in the middle of an upscale business district. As soon as we walked in, we were warmly greeted by a young lady probably in her mid twenties. The place was brim-full with foodies chatting away at different corners while munching down. The wall decor was modest and mostly were framed vintage paintings depicting Thai people and culture in a background of scenic natural beauties. The server wore a professionally-sewn burgundy-colored double-breasted short sleeve chef coat. It had back ties probably for adjusting the fit. We were each given a bowl of white rice and another bowl for any soups to be served.
The meal consisted of “kow” (sticky rice), “tom” (soup), and “gaeng ped” (curry, “krueang king. There were condiments of side dishes made up of curried chicken, shrimp paste, bamboo shoots, cucumbers and sautéed vegetables. One thing we observed was that rather than being served in courses, a Thai meal is presented all at once, so that diners can enjoy the juxtaposition of contrasting flavors. No one complained.
As we sat there enjoying the hot meal, all I could think of was how a little Thailand boldly asserted itself in the middle of America. The food was great and the environment, impeccably neat. More than most Asians I had met before, the people were intentionally warm and inarguably second to none in customer service. Our tip was generous and just before we made it to the door; my wife leaned over and whispered that we probably should consider Thailand as our next vacation destination. For a budget-sensitive husband, she was both surprised and elated that I didn’t protest.
But if you think that nature fortuitously conspired to bring about this unique Thai experience, it’s because, like me, you have no idea what culinary diplomacy is all about. The entire thing was meticulously planned in their home country and by no less authority than the government of Thailand.
In the early 2000, the Government of Thailand embarked on a massive plan to open more than 3,000 new Thai restaurants in the United States and elsewhere, as a way to showcase the people and their culture throughout the world. With that in mind, they started talks with several potential franchise partners in the U.S., including Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. They even came up with different names and models to operate. There was the Elephant Jump for the fast-food branches, Cool Basil for mid-priced restaurants and Golden Leaf for the upscale eateries. In conceptualising this, they hired the consulting firm, Arthur Andersen LLC as an adviser and Thai officials raised more than $10 million in start-up funds.
The Thai government operating this business entity called Global Thai Restaurant Co., sent dozens of Thai chefs abroad, helped launch giant culinary training centers around the world. They also formed vast networks of food and tableware suppliers, and organized countless food shows. Today, there are over 5,000 Thai restaurants in America alone and thousands more in other places of the world. Thai food has become one of America’s fastest-growing cuisines, along with Vietnamese and Indian.
Though Thailand earns more than $6 billion a year from food-related exports, this is not even the main success story. Thailand’s tourism business has since experienced a significant boom. In the year 2000 alone, nearly 10 million tourists visited Thailand, nearly double the levels in 1990. That’s the power of culinary diplomacy otherwise known as gastrodiplomacy which before now, I wasn’t aware of.
A 2013 article published in “The Hague Journal of Diplomacy” and written by Chapple-Sokol, defined culinary diplomacy as “the use of food and cuisine as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation.” It’s a way to positively brand a nation by focusing on culture instead of dwelling on politics. Some studies done years ago found that gastrodiplomacy programs of several countries have had success in improving the nation’s brand. Thailand is obviously one of such success stories.
My family’s positive experience in a Thai restaurant and my wife’s suggestion to choose Thailand as a potential vacation destination in the coming year, clearly explains how culinary diplomacy works. Thai restaurants didn’t just sell us food, they marketed their country to us and thousands of others. In contrast, poor African countries spend millions year after year, catering to lobbyists in Washington and other western nation’s capitals, in an attempt to burnish their nation and leadership credentials which end up in private pockets and do nothing to showcase their lands.
By having a presence and being noticed, countries can control their narratives instead of letting others define who they are. The United States perfected this art so well and for such a long time to the point that you can’t help but notice her everywhere you go. If you are not watching American movies and dancing to Hip-Hop tunes, you probably love to watch Cable News Network (CNN) or like stopping by your favorite McDonalds for a quick bite. Thailand’s home grown successful model is based on marketing itself to the world subtly and organically through culinary art. In contrast, Africa lets the rest of the world define her as a jungle wasteland of impoverished people, waiting to be either salvaged or left to be ravaged by hunger and disease. Like everything else, we always find a way to reach for the bottom.
But on a lighter note, here is a happy birthday to my only daughter and our princess. Her smile brightens our day and if you see her, please wish her well. Who knows, in our next family vacation, we will not just go to her favorite Thai restaurant, we may be visiting the Ayutthaya Historical Park in Bangkok.
Osmund Agbo writes from Houston, Texas. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com