I just returned from a culinary diplomacy tour hosted by the U.S. Embassy Jordan in Amman. It was my first time to the Middle East, and I thoroughly enjoyed it in spite of the turmoil happening in neighboring Syria. The people I met in Jordan were friendly and hospitable, the food fantastic, and the overall experience memorable. I ate the national dish of Jordan, mansaf, which consists of braised lamb shank, rice, and a fermented goat milk sauce. I ate falafel, shawarma, kibbeh, kofta, kebabs, hummus, labneh, tabbouleh, and tomatoes stewed in amazing olive oil called galayet. Perhaps two of the most memorable things I tasted were eggplant and kanafeh. The eggplants were often grilled or roasted and tasted superb—never before had I loved eggplant as much as in Jordan. They would be mashed into yogurt or tahini and made into a dip called moutabel. Kanafeh is an Arabic dessert consisting of melty cheese topped with crispy vermicelli-like pastry, doused in rose syrup, and garnished with pistachios. I loved it, and I’m not even a sweets person.
But I digress…
While in Jordan, I participated in several events with key messages ranging from women’s empowerment, disability awareness, and youth culinary education. The main takeaways I tried to leave behind were the universality of food and, thus, the relations between America and Jordan and, therefore, humankind.
Every time I am invited to participate in events like these, I am reminded of the bigger picture of my life: that is, I lost my vision, which made my story and accomplishments unique on MasterChef, which allowed me to achieve a certain amount of fame, which I can then use to raise awareness and advocate for social issues like the rights of women, Asian-Americans, and those living with disabilities and/or vision loss. I am also reminded of my fortunate circumstances in that, being a Texan, I was provided certain resources through the Division for Blind Services at the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services; without this agency, I would not have been able to receive orientation and mobility training, learned how to use computer screen readers, go back to school for my MFA, relearn how to cook, and live a more independent life. I feel lucky that I come from a place where such support is available. In countries like the Dominican Republic, where I also recently visited, and Jordan, such resources are still in their infant stages, if they even exist at all.
My message today is just to remind us of our blessings and that the world can still use our help, no matter our abilities and backgrounds. You don’t have to fly to the Middle East for Embassy work; you can just start with small things. Donate $20 to a charity in whose mission you believe. Educate your friends, family, and community of a cause about which you feel strongly. Identify your gifts and talents, find your passion issues, and think of a way to contribute. They don’t have to be big leaps. Remember that all movements started with one person taking one small step forward.
I truly believe it’s this attitude that has helped me remain resilience throughout my setbacks with Neuromyelitis Optica/NMO and vision loss. We feel the most joy when our lives have purpose. Today I challenge you to do one small kind thing for someone else. If we could all think and act this way, maybe one day, there will be peace in the Middle East.