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Dietary Culture Shock Greets Immigrants to Land of Plenty

October 24, 1985|KATHLEEN DOHENY

One immigrant family stockpiled peanut butter received from a federal food supplement program because family members didn't know how it was supposed to be eaten.

Thay Phan sidestepped the sandals and sneakers strewn on the front porch of a tiny beige clapboard house on Alabama Street in Canoga Park and rapped on the door.

Within seconds, Siv Til, a 73-year-old Cambodian refugee, stood in the open doorway, clasping his hands in front of him--a traditional greeting of welcome in his homeland--and flashing a toothless grin for his visitor. Surrounding Siv Til were most of his other 15 family members.

Phan's visit wasn't a social call, although he has grown friendly with the family since its members began arriving here six months ago. As a community worker with the refugee program at the Canoga Park Health Center, a facility of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Services, Phan, a Cambodian turned U.S. citizen, was making a visit to provide nutrition instruction.

The Siv Tils are experiencing what some social-service workers describe as a kind of dietary "culture shock." Besides coping with a new land, new home, schools, job-hunting, English classes and health-care appointments, the family is learning how to operate modern cooking appliances and how to deal with new dietary customs and food choices.

Rice, Corn in Native Diet

In the mountainous area of war-torn Cambodia where the family once lived, the native diet included mostly rice, corn, chicken and potatoes. "In Cambodia," Phan explained, "most people don't know about cereal or fresh milk." In Canoga Park, the family is finding a much wider choice of foods: everything from Slurpees at the 7-Eleven to Big Macs at McDonald's and grocery-store produce departments overflowing with exotic fruits and vegetables.

They're not alone, as statistics show. During 1984, 218,600 immigrants settled in Los Angeles County, many of them in the San Fernando Valley, according to figures compiled by the Population Research Unit of the California Department of Finance.

Although many immigrants, especially those who lived in large cities, are somewhat Westernized, many others are not. Valley social-service workers tell of one immigrant family that did not know the purpose of an oven and used it for storage.

Another immigrant family stockpiled peanut butter received from a federal food supplement program because family members didn't know how it was supposed to be eaten. When the larder got too large, the family tried to give away the peanut butter as gifts.

Need for Refrigeration

Immigrants unaccustomed to refrigeration often fail to preserve food properly and risk poisoning and other ill effects.

The bulk of Valley immigrants in need of nutrition education, according to social-service workers, originate from Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, or from Mexico. Of these groups, Southeast Asian immigrants generally have a more difficult time adapting to American diets, workers say, partly because of the limited availability of Southeast Asian food here.

American supermarkets are "beyond belief for some immigrants," noted Gayle Schachne, a registered dietitian and project director of the Women, Infants and Children Program at Granada Hills Community Hospital. WIC, a federally funded food supplement program for lactating or pregnant women, infants and children, has 15 Valley clinic sites and includes many immigrants as participants. "Where else has a refugee seen such a wealth of goods? These people are introduced to everything all at once."

Private nutrition counseling, at $35 an hour or more, is often financially out of reach for immigrants. And, even if such counseling is affordable, a language barrier often inhibits its effectiveness. As a result, health-care programs sponsored by federal agencies and county health centers squeeze nutrition education in their already packed agendas and provide help for immigrants in nutritional quandaries.

Cushion for Culture Shock

Basic nutrition instruction, such as that provided by Phan during his home visits to the Siv Til family, helps to cushion the cultural shock. The goal of workers like Phan isn't to completely revamp the immigrants' native diet, but rather to teach them to incorporate the best of their dietary customs into the healthiest of American practices and to take advantage of ovens, refrigerators and other modern appliances.

During earlier visits to the Siv Til home, Phan, fluent in six languages, had already demonstrated the use of the stove and oven and reminded them of the importance of covering and refrigerating perishable food. He had also informed them of the locations of both American and ethnic supermarkets in the neighborhood. During his most recent visit, Phan, who also helps immigrants get medical appointments, family planning and other services, conversed in their native language, asking if all was well, if the stove was working and if they had any questions.

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