What I Learned about People (and Myself) by Eating a Cockroach

One of the coolest parts of my job is that I get to take my strategic communication graduate students on an international trip every year. This year’s destination? Cambodia. And one of my many highlights from the trip? Eating an enormous cockroach.

When I plan these trips, I have five primary goals in mind:

  • travel to a place where most of my American students have not traveled to (no Italy or Ireland or France);
  • do a strategic communication project for a non-profit organization that is doing amazing things in the world;
  • participate in historical, cultural, and geographical experiences that will awe and inspire;
  • and emphasize to my students and to myself the importance of enhancing soft skills in order to be not only a better communicator and leader, but a better human being.

In an effort to achieve these goals, we did the following while in Cambodia:

  • We traveled to a fairly unfamiliar country (none of the students or faculty had ever been to Cambodia).
  • We collaborated with Sustainable Cambodia, an amazing organization that helps communities and villages become self-sustained through training, education, and assistance in clean water procurement, agriculture, finance, business development, and more. Our project was to visit the remote jungle villages, schools, and farms, interview and get to know the people of the villages, and create informational and promotional videos for Sustainable Cambodia.
  • We visited many of the major highlights of the country, including Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Banteay Srei, a floating village, the National Musuem, the Royal Palace, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and the Killing Fields. We also stayed in a rural, non-touristy location called Pursat and we attempted to eat a variety of foods, participate in musical and dance performances, and even ride in their preferred mode of transportation: tuk tuks.
  • We did our best to interact with people of a variety of backgrounds, to better understand their language and culture, to listen, to adapt, and to understand.

But one of the moments that has given me a great deal of reflection was when we toured the Central Market in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, and when I willingly (but admittedly hesitatingly) ate a cockroach that had been seasoned and prepared for locals to purchase and snack on.

We had a guide that took us through the market and she would tell us all the fascinating ways in which food was prepared. We had opportunities to sample many of Cambodia’s unique flavors, including coconut cakes, durian fruit, jackfruits, lychees, grilled squid and calamari, and yes, even deep fried silkworms, miniature frogs, and, well, jumbo cockroaches.

As the first in my group to sample the cockroach, I became an immediate spectacle to my fellow travelers. Visually grossed out, they tossed questions at me like, “are you really gonna eat that?” and “are going to eat the head first?” and “you’re not gonna eat the whole thing, are you?” Admittedly, I was asking myself the same questions inside. And I even vocalized one more question to our local guide: “Is it dry inside or is something going to squirt when I bit through it?” (She assured me nothing would squirt.)

I stared at the cockroach briefly, asked a colleague to take a picture so that I had proof, and went for it. It was, perhaps, as difficult to “swallow” (little pun there) as any less-adventurous American may expect—it had long antennae and little black beady eyes that looked into my soul; when I bit through it, the legs got stuck in my teeth; and I had to tediously masticate the wings and thorax for nearly two minutes before it would fully dissolve and go down my throat (and I did, after those two minutes, grab a bottle of water.)

Truthfully, though, the flavor wasn’t bad. And if I was offered another one, I wouldn’t have any problem eating it. The experience emboldened me and I even ate one of the deep-fried mini frogs right after. Tasted sort of like a burnt potato chip.

But the whole experience has made me later reflect. Why was it such a spectacle? I’m a little embarrassed as I think about how we must have looked to local passersby—a group of about ten Americans, all with cameras out, gawking and squealing and laughing as I ate a food that was entirely normal to local Cambodians. While perhaps some of the locals found it amusing, I can’t help but wonder if anyone found us to be mildly offensive or insensitive. Crickets and cockroaches and silkworms are common snacks in Cambodia, indulgences akin to the American peanut or snack mix. The insects were seasoned, grilled and fried, and they were cooked and prepared by a women who meant for people to enjoy them, not grimace at them.

In my young adulthood, I had the opportunity to live in Sicily and Southern Italy for nearly two years. While I hate to even admit my late-teen ethnocentrism, I recall when first arriving how things Italians did or said would bother me. Thinking to my American ways, when I was new there, I would often mumble to myself things like, “why don’t the women shave?” or “why do people have to get so close to my face to talk?,” or even, “what’s up with kissing me on the cheek all the time?”

Fortunately, the longer I lived there, the more I fell in love with their way of life and the more I realized that the “American way” isn’t the only way and it certainly isn’t always the better way—it’s just a different way. But I recall being flabbergasted as I would learn things that really bothered many Italians about Americans. Why don’t Americans use straws when they drink out of a soda can? Don’t they know how gross that is, not knowing where the can has been? And how in the world can they stand to have carpet in their houses? Don’t they know that carpet is a reservoir and breeding ground for mold, bacteria, and viruses? And, for heaven’s sake, why don’t they use bidets!? How can they possibly effectively clean themselves with a tiny wad of dry toilet paper?

Clearly, any one of those arguments about American culture is as valid as any strange notions Americans concoct about other cultural practices. Having visited many cultures and countries throughout my life since my time in Italy, I’ve grown an immense respect and understanding for diversity of thought, culture, background, ethnicity, religion, way of life, and perspective. And I’ve truly come to appreciate the words of author Andrew Solomon when he said, “It’s nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” Truly, if we take a moment to listen, we’re almost guaranteed to not only love the person, but love their unique way of doing things.

It’s hard for me, then, to reflect on how I could be so flippant and repulsed by the thought of eating something that had such cultural significance to the Cambodian people. In my moment of tourist-like cultural aloofness, I failed to remember that insects were often used as “hunger foods” in the late 1970s during the famine caused by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime—a merciless dictatorship that is blamed for killing over 2 million people, nearly one-third of their population at the time. In addition, I failed to remember that some sources report malnourishment in up to 79% of Cambodian children and insects today are viewed as a cheap and plentiful source of protein for those in need.

While I recognize that inherent biases and misconceptions are something we all must fight against within ourselves, and while I will say that we as a group were in no way overly dramatic or intentionally or overtly insensitive, I must admit that the experience has once again given me pause about the importance of self-awareness and, even more, the importance of understanding the many nuances of peoples and cultures in order to find always a mutual love and respect.

I don’t know if we offended anyone in that brief moment. And I recognize that something so foreign to the common American—eating a cockroach the size of a sliced potato—is likely to cause a visceral, aversive reaction for many. All people are, in some way or at some point, going to have natural inclinations to eschew the unfamiliar or the uncertain. In many ways, it’s human nature and in the case of eating things, it’s a biological, brain-induced behavior designed to keep us safe from consuming things that we’re not sure are edible.

But I do think that we all, as human beings, can do a better job of understanding why people do things the way they do before we assume we know the better way. Whether it be eating a food that turns us off or practicing a religion we find strange with or living a lifestyle we don’t agree with, I think we can all recognize that we have our own cockroaches that are going to be unfamiliar to someone else. An old saying says, “don’t judge me for sinning differently than you.” In a similar vein, the world would be a much better place if we weren’t so critical of other people’s cockroaches and we learned to accept that we all have different personal and cultural cockroaches in our own lives that will be foreign to someone else. That doesn’t mean we have to eat their cockroaches, practice their religion, or agree with their lifestyle, but we can, as fellow humans, learn their story and respect their reasons for doing what they do.