Can somebody please tell me what the heck this is?
Yes, regrettably it’s true. We Peace Corps folk in Azerbaijan are frequently asked this question. It’s nothing against the local crowd that asks it. They’re curious, and, frankly, they’re also from a much smaller country with distinctive (and tasty) national dishes.
However, when an American is confronted with such a question, he can be stumped. Now, I can say that when I was asked this question (more than once in a day) at my future school in Qumlaq, what first came to my mind was a hamburger and fries, so I explained that. It seemed to be pretty standard, but how often do you really eat that back in the States? I mean, I love it, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re eating a juicy burger and fried taters on a regular basis, you’re setting yourself up for problems down the road.
So, was I fair in telling these students that the national dish of the United States of America is a hamburger and French fries? My answer now is no. What I should’ve said was that the United States doesn’t have a national dish. It’s not feasible to pick one national meal from one of the world’s most diverse countries, not to mention the fact that it contains about three hundred million people.
When one heads off and does something like Peace Corps in another country, an image of the United States is not only what you give them, but it’s what they give you. Now, what in tarnation does that mean? It means there’s a good chance a particular vision of the United States and what it is like will already be instilled in some people’s heads before you arrive. You show up in a community, perhaps as the first U.S. citizen these folks have ever seen, and you have an Asian background. What? Wait, that’s not supposed to happen. We ordered an American, not an Asian. Well, it turns out the United States has people of Asian ancestry. Go figure. In fact, while many, many people in the U.S. are eating hamburgers on a given day, several others are eating kung pow chicken.
To be honest, I feel for the wonderful people in Azerbaijan that receive us every year. It might not be pleasant to receive what you did not expect, but how cool is it that we get to expose the rich facets of our great country? While they educate us, we educate them. How great is that?
I still stand by my fondness for burgers and fries, by the way.