By Coco McCracken
I was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where my Chinese father and his parents lived in one of the city’s multiple Chinatowns. If you traveled deep enough into their neighborhood, the sounds, smells, and faces would not be too different from ones from their homeland. I imagine that during tougher times, tucking into a hot bowl of melon soup, or sharing stories over a mahjong game, might have helped provide just enough comfort to last through another day in the life of a family adapting to strange new surroundings.
One generation later, I find myself in Portland, Maine, where I’ve never felt more like I’m straddling divergent worlds. I took for granted the bustling diversity Toronto afforded me. In Portland, at work meetings, I am often the only Asian woman at the table. In almost every writing workshop, I am the only woman of color. I never before connected my mental health with being surrounded by those ancestral sounds, smells, and faces. When they disappeared from my immediate surroundings, I began to feel depleted.
According to the last census, Maine’s population by race in the category of “white alone,” comes in at a staggering 94.2%, which confirms that Maine is one of the whitest states in America.
This worried me, an Asian woman moving to the Pine Tree state during a pandemic that led to people pointing fingers at the same culture I came from. After an Asian woman in my community was assaulted around the corner from my house, I started to feel lingering stares, and the questions about where I came from became less subtle, more probing.
It didn’t take long for someone to introduce me to Stacey Tran and Veronica Perez of Tender Table, an organization that celebrates the Black and brown communities through storytelling and food. My first event with them was a picnic on the Eastern Promenade for people who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). The concept of excluding white people sat uncomfortably with me at the start. Three generations of my family have believed in the narrative that to fit in, get a great job, and find success, blending in was crucial.
I walked up to the small group of 10 or so folks all gathered under a tree, the sea shining in the late summer sun. I was nervous. Tran started the picnic with an introduction about Tender Table, and their mission to bring a safe gathering space to the BIPOC community of Maine. Somewhere we could share our stories and histories over food and drink. I asked myself then, if popular culture and white-collar boardrooms have steered the power dynamics about marginalized groups for decades, why couldn’t we make our own table? I felt my shoulders relax knowing that, for the first time in years, I might make a new friend without them inquiring about what “mix” I was.
As we went around the circle introducing ourselves, I couldn’t believe how many stories were similar to mine. We shared food, we laughed about misconceptions about our identities, we made friends. Such a simple format powerfully echoed inside me long after I went home that night: an empty chamber started to reverberate and ring, one that I didn’t know needed to be filled.
Later that year, Tender Table threw their first annual Food and Poetry Fair in Congress Square Park. As I approached the event, I saw the tents first, dotted with bright flowers that were being wrapped up for party-goers. I smelled BBQ chicken and fermented Korean treats. Poetry and music erupted from the mic. Each taste of food, every resounding lyric, every new friend made started to fill me up again.
I recently read the data from the Census again and I re-framed my thinking. I cleared out the “Maine is so white” hyperbole from my small-talk toolkit. To not see the diversity in Maine would be a disservice to the communities of color that have lived here for generations, to the new ones making change. Our diverse population seems small, but look what two people, Tran and Perez, have accomplished in such a short amount of time. It took me attending two events to gain almost 10 new friends, and a handful of new creative collaborators. What does the ripple effect look like when the 5.8% of us start joining the table, too?
Learn more about Tender Table at tendertable.com and follow Tender Table on Instagram @tendertablemaine.
Here is a list of upcoming Tender Table events:
(please note some are BIPOC only):
Full Moon Picnic
Date: Friday, August 12
Food & Art Fair (rain date: September 10)
**Open to the public/everyone is welcome**
Date: Saturday, September 3
Location: Congress Square Park
Food & Art Fair After-Party (in collaboration with Indigo Arts Alliance & Over Here)
Date: Saturday, September 3
Location: Over Here