I went to an interesting lunch many years ago. It was held at a small local community centre. I took a plate of food and shared it with the people who came. It was the first time I participated and I was a little shy.
Known as the Welcome Dinner Project, the lunch was run by the not-for-profit organisation Joining the Dots. They gather strangers to meet over a meal and provide the opportunity for them to become friends. The community dinners or lunches aim to connect people new to Australia with those who have been here longer. It can be hosted in a home or at a larger venue, but the aim is always the same — to get people talking and understanding a little more of each other.
I remember taking some honey soy chicken wings to our lunch. Bought at the local supermarket already marinated, the dish was a hybrid like me. You couldn’t quite tell if it was Australian with an Asian heritage or Asian dish that has been Australian-ised.
My young son was also with me. We drove 40 minutes to the community centre where the Welcome Lunch was being held. When we arrived, there were people who greeted us at the door and ushered us in. We took our plate of food and placed it on a large table in the centre of the room with all the other dishes. The place was cheerfully decorated with colourful flags and balloons.
The project started five years ago in Sydney. Since then the organisers state more than 200 meals have been shared in homes and community venues across Australia. The popularity of these dinners grew and the Welcome Dinner project spread to 11 cities, including my childhood home, Hobart.
I would have loved something like this when I was growing up in Tasmania. There were not a lot of Asians there when we came, let alone Koreans. I think for a time we were the only Korean family in Hobart. There was another Korean family, but I believe they were living in Launceston, on the other side of the state. Perhaps these Welcome Dinners would have made me feel less isolated those first few years when we were settling in.
For Tassie Welcome Dinner Coordinator, Lisa Stautmeister, the dinners and lunches are a great way to engage a diverse community over food.
“It provides a reason to get together and start a conversation,” she explains.
“As people bring food from their own culture and introduce it to the other participants, we get to hear, not only about the dish, but their story as well.
“It’s a safe place where we can meet people from different cultures and learn from each other. Barriers get lowered and people start making connections. In those small moments of conversation, relationships form and people are welcomed.”
Lisa came to Tasmania from Dresden three years ago and understands some of the challenges of settling into a new community.
“I had never lived outside Germany before and when you are new, it can be hard at the beginning. The culture is different, and before you develop your own network of friends and start getting involved in the community, it can be very isolating,” she says.
She hopes the dinners will go a long way to break down the social isolation many new migrants, international students, those with a refugee experience and asylum seekers may feel.
“It has been lovely to see newly arrived people so warmly welcomed and to see established Australians stepping up and welcoming people into the Tasmanian community. There is a lot of initiative shown by the participants by simply showing up to the dinners and we encourage people to stay in touch.”
Lisa has big dreams for the project in Tassie. She wants to see it grow and reach some of the regional areas of the State and establish cross cultural training programs for the volunteers.
“We need more facilitators, volunteers and hosts. We would like to start offering professional development training in cross cultural communications. All these things need funding as well.”
I hope she gets it. I hope this grassroots movement grows and continues. Because it is these positive ordinary interactions full of good will and interest that help build a harmonious community; that encourages understanding and fosters peace.