by Donald Wilson on May 12, 2011


Chinese Chicken Salad (It’s the chopsticks that makes it Chinese!)

Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit.

Mark Twain

Andrew and I were in the kitchen cleaning up recently when the subject of friends came up.

“So who are you hanging out with these days?” I inquired.  Andrew rattled off a few names and except for one, they seemed to all be gringo names.

“Do you find that you hang out with mostly white kids or Latino kids?” I pushed him.

“Well, I sort of move around from group to group.  I don’t like to just be in one type of group,” he confided and then added, “some of the Latino kids call me whitewashed.”

I asked him how he felt about that and he said he didn’t care.  He told me that they gave him a hard time about how little he knows about the things they take for granted like where to go and eat tacos.  I found it hard to believe that taco knowledge was the great cultural divide, but it is eighth grade after all.

I didn’t find it hard to believe we were having this discussion. I had been expecting it for sometime.   As a white guy raising a brown boy, you can’t ever escape the feeling that you are somehow colonizing a human soul.

With the first decision to speak mostly English, I knew that I was making a choice that would silently scream something about my values.  It was a choice, too, because I speak Spanish at a native level.  However, I decided that I needed to make sure he could compete in the larger world and in my mind English was the first step.  I made other choices as well.  Our read “alouds” were classic English Lit 101 for kids, our food was strongly European, and the music concerts were opera and classical.  Our first trips together were to the Utah Shakespeare Festival and a road trip from Paris to Rome.  Andrew was even so immersed in my family and our culture that he once asked me, “So if your twelfth great grandfather came over on the Mayflower, that means that he was my thirteenth great grandfather.  Right?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that a more likely scenario was that my twelfth great grandfather gave his twelfth great grandfather a good case of the plague and it probably killed him.

The irony is I have spent the better portion of my life immersing myself into the heart and soul of Latino culture.  My love affair with everything Latino started many years ago in Chile where I spent almost two years as a missionary.   I went on to live in Spain and Mexico and even got a degree in Spanish literature.  My home is Spanish inside and out, my music collection is easily described as South of the Border, and I can’t think of a single close friend that doesn’t speak Spanish.  And I spent 17 years teaching in Latino neighborhoods.  In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that I would end up with a Latino son.

I know there has been a lot of controversy about white parents adopting children of color, but I had been told that I was “more Mexican than a frijol” so many times that I never imagined that the controversy applied to me.  Upon hearing what Andrew’s friend were calling him, I had the “near death” experience of seeing my life with Andrew flash before my eyes.  I suddenly had to confront the possibility that even though I had spent thirty years trying to assimilate everything Latino, I have spent the last five years blindly whitewashing him in my tiger mother-like pursuit of ensuring he has access to the American dream.

I worry that I’m no better than Tom Sawyer tricking others into the business of whitewashing so the Aunt Polly’s of this world will feel better.

However, I am a white dad with a rich and beautiful heritage of which I’m proud.   I love my son and I want and will share this part of me with him.  It’s what every parent does for his or her children.  It’s the right thing to do.

I want Andrew, as well, to fully realize his Latino heritage and feel equally proud that he has a foot firmly planted in both worlds.   If I can help him do this, I know it will serve him well in the future.  A recent experience gives me hope that I may be on the right track after all.

On our trip to Mexico, I warned Andrew that much of it would be spent just “hanging out” and that most nights would continue long past midnight.   We had been there a few days and had seen the pyramids, Guadalupe, and the rest of the Aztec ruins which Andrew loved.  But it was the first night in Veracruz with my ex’s family that I realized there wasn’t enough paint in the world to cover my son’s Latin heart.  We arrived late and they were all there at the house waiting for us.  We pulled up a chair and for the next three or four hours the house was filled with laughter, kids running around, adults catching up, and we finally went to bed around 2:30 am.  As I helped Andrew prepare his bed, he turned to me and said, “Dad, this is the best vacation we’ve ever had.  I like it even better than Europe.”  I knew where this was coming from, but I asked him to explain, “It’s just that everyone was together.”

“We get together in the U.S. too,” I prodded.

“Yeah, I know, but it’s different.  I can’t explain it, but it’s just different.”

“I know what you mean, Andrew.  I feel it too.  I feel it every time I come here and it’s what keeps me coming back again and again.”

I decided to attempt an explanation “I can’t put my finger on it, but I think it might have to do with life not revolving around all the things that money can buy.   It feels like people work to live here and not live to work, so there seems to be more time for being with family and friends. I guess I always feel like no matter what I’m doing here, they make me feel like that moment with me is more important than anything else they could be doing.  They seem to live like there’s no tomorrow and we put all our energy in what tomorrow might bring.”

“That’s what I mean!” he answered in one of the few teenage moments where he actually agreed with me about something.  “It’s like all they want to do is spend time with each other and enjoy life,” he concluded.  I suddenly couldn’t have been happier that he was with me on this trip.

It’s not that he didn’t love seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Coliseum.  It’s not that he doesn’t need to know the Western canons of literature, music, and art.  He does.  He’s going to need all the knowledge and opportunities that I can uniquely provide him.  But just as importantly he got what it means to be Latino.  It’s not about knowing where the best taco joint is, but knowing that a taco is much more than a taco when it’s a shared communal experience.  He has seen through all that glitters to find that Latino gold is found in the heart of family, friends, and the bonds the table can forge.

I’m at peace.

The kid’s going to be all right.



Not So Chinese, Chinese Chicken Salad

Chinese Chicken Salad

Even though one of my Mexican recipes would be a great thematic fit here, you just can’t get any more “whitewashed” than this salad.  The only thing “Chinese” about it is the name.  This has been a Wilson family staple since the early 70’s and is one of Andrew’s favorites.  It’s a great way to get kids to love cabbage and onions.  It  has a few eyebrow raising ingredients since it’s coming from a guy who tries to be organic and sustainable most of the time, but the Top Ramen component is crucial.  It just wouldn’t be “Chinese” without it.  And, yes, I do understand that Ramen is Japanese.   I promise that if you try this once it will become a family favorite.  Regardless of national origin, it’s just plain good.

1 small head of cabbage

5 or 6 green onions (scallions), finely chopped

2 to 3 chicken breasts, boiled and meat pulled apart into small shreds

¼ cup sliced or slivered almonds, toasted

1 package Top Ramen, broken into pieces and toasted

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1/3 cup fresh, chopped cilantro (optional)



2 tablespoons sesame oil and olive oil to complete ½ cup

3 tablespoons sugar (yep, that’s why the kids love it)

¼ cup rice wine vinegar

¾ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper


Cut the cabbage in half and core it.  Thinly slice the cabbage and then turn it and chop into bite size pieces.  Place it in a large bowl with the onions, chicken, and cilantro, if using.

Meanwhile, place the sesame seeds, almonds, and broken-up ramen on a cookie sheet and place under broiler until lightly browned.  Watch carefully as it goes from brown to black quickly.  I’ve even had the ramen catch on fire before!  Set aside to cool.

To make the dressing just place all the ingredients in a small canning jar or Tupperware and shake vigorously until mixed well.

Pour the dressing on about 10 minutes before you serve it and toss the salad with the toasted dry ingredients just before serving.

We like the taste of the vinegar a lot and sometimes add more at the table.

Note:  This is a great potluck dish and will get eaten up fast.  Bring the dressing separately in a jar and the dry ingredients in a Zip Lock and toss it together when you get to the party.











{ 1 comment }

Jill Packham May 13, 2011 at 4:18 am

beautifully told – love this story…and only as a result of your respected culinary advice could I EVER use top ramen in a recipe and expect a delicious outcome!

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