I remember an awkward moment at a party between myself and Raj, who was from India. It was a pot-luck party, and he’d contributed an Indian dish, some kind of red stew with chicken in it.
I vaguely knew Raj, who’d been living in America for the previous two or three years as a graduate student.
I caught his attention and asked him about the delicious food he’d brought.
“This is really good!”
“Thanks,” he said.
“What’s it called?” I asked, spooning up some more of it.
“Oh, it’s just a vegetable stew. With dumplings. As you can see.”
"Right, dumplings.” I somehow got the impression that Raj wouldn't welcome my request for the dish’s Indian name. “ Well, thanks for bringing it, it’s great.”
Raj was looking away at the rest of the party, and he didn’t seem interested in talking about the dish he’d brought. I really liked it, though, and I wanted to try to make it myself.
“This is really great, Raj. Could I get the recipe? I’d like to try making it.”
“Yeah, sure sure, I’ll get the recipe to you,” he said, almost dismissively.
“Um, is this something you ate back home? Maybe, your mother’s recipe? I cook some of the things my mother used to make.”
“No. I don’t think my mother ever made that.”
“Okay, well, thanks for bringing it, Raj,” I said, moving away.
Although Raj and I weren’t friends, we knew each other well enough that we could find plenty to talk about in other situations. But now he seemed to be acting . . . annoyed. And I thought I was just being friendly.
Afterward, this incident reminded me of an earlier one at another party. There was another tableful of various foods brought by the party-goers, including some really good egg rolls. Someone I knew told me that a “foreign student” had made them, and then pointed me in his direction.
“Thanks for the egg rolls!” I said to him. “They’re especially good.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“What did you do when you made them? They have an extra, um, something . . . something better than most egg rolls.”
“Nothing much,” he said, looking away. I now realize that he was acting a lot like Raj did when I asked about his dish. “I did use fresh vegetables, instead of frozen ones. That’s important.”
“Ah. Well, thank you for bringing them. So, you’re from China?”
“Originally, yes. But I’ve been here for about six years now.”
“Ah. I hope you’re not homesick.”
“No. Not at all.”
“So, are egg rolls something your family had back home?”
“Oh, no. Not really.”
Then he saw someone he knew, and he moved off without another word. I didn’t get a chance to ask for a recipe, and I was left wondering--was it something I said? I’d also wanted to ask if egg rolls really are an original Chinese food, or something created for American Chinese restaurants.
I cannot know, of course, what was going through his head. But I now think that, as with the sudden coolness of Raj, yes, maybe it was something I said. Or maybe, how much I said, about the food they’d brought, and about their connection, or supposed connection, to the food.
Both Raj and the student from China (whom I hadn’t known before the party) seemed uninterested in talking about the food they’d brought to share.
Now again, I have no idea what was going through the heads of these two “foreign students” during these exchanges with me, at parties where each had contributed a food that they’d taken the time to prepare. I don’t even know for sure if the egg rolls were something truly Chinese, nor if the “vegetable and dumpling stew” was something authentically Indian.
But I do think that by asking about the food these two people had brought, I’d used the food as a way to approach them. I also talked about the food as if it represented something about them, instead of just talking about the food itself, or just talking about them.
Had I gone too far this way, in pointing out or highlighting their “foreign-ness”? Had I exotified them, or trivialized them or their culture, by making a big deal out of the food they’d brought and its supposed connection to them, and to where they were from? Maybe they were tired of Americans oohing and aahing over the food they brought to parties?
My focus here, though, is not on trying to figure out what they were thinking. Again, I can’t know that. This is about what I, as a white American, was doing in those moments. If I was doing any of the things described in those questions I just listed, then I was basically using their food as an entryway into their foreign selves and their foreign cultures. I may have been engaging in what could be called “culinary Orientalism.”
For those who don’t know, the concept of Orientalism (which springs from Palestinian American scholar Edward Said’s book of the same name) is often used in discussions of relations between the “West” and the “East.” Orientalism basically refers to common Western misconceptions of the East, or rather, of people from it, as exotic, untrustworthy, feminized, backward, and some other specifically derogatory adjectives.
As for the terms “East” and “West,” Angry Asian Man just posted a cartoon on his blog that neatly illustrates these geographical concepts, as well as their ethnocentric bias:
So if Orientalism describes fallacious “Western” conceptions of “Eastern” people, I may have been performing culinary Orientalism in these two party settings when I focused on the food of Other, foreign people. I may have felt that I was expressing curiosity and appreciation in friendly, even welcoming ways; instead, I may have been in a way reducing these two people to their exotic, pleasing foods. Or perhaps, making too strong a connection between them and “their” food.
In a study of Asian American literature, scholar Sau-ling Wong discusses a related concept: “food pornography.” Crediting the Chinese American writer Frank Chin as the originator of the term, Wong defines food pornography as “making a living by exploiting the ‘exotic’ aspects of one’s ethnic foodways . . . . . in order to gain a foothold in a white-dominated social system.”
This term describes non-white people highlighting a connection between themselves and their food, rather than the opposite, the imposition of that connection onto them by white people. Examples include restaurants, of course (and in her excellent book, Wong provides a thorough explanation of the historical circumstances that led many Chinese Americans, especially, into the food industry), but also such cultural forms as novels and movies.
Renowned director Ang Lee, for instance, has been charged with conducting such ethnic self-exploitation. In his film Eat Drink Man Woman, for instance, food pornography is said to be on display right from the opening sequence (warning: this clip contains images of a gutted fish):
In an analysis of Eat Drink Man Woman, Sheng-mai Ma writes that in this “tourist-friendly” film, a mix of deliciousness, “strange” food choices, and culinary wizardry combine to provide “an exotic tour” for non-Chinese audiences:
Even though Lee has asserted that part of his intention in Eat is to demonstrate the sophisticated Chinese civilization in cuisine (“Eat Drink” in the title) blended with the primitive sex drive (“Man Woman” in the title), the filmmaker has yielded to the stereotype of an artistic yet unfathomably inhuman Orient. The end result is box office success, since the film confirms global audiences’ preconceived notion of a mysterious and inviting East.
My point here is certainly not that I think either of these two foreign-student party-goers meant to, in Frank Chin’s terms, “prostitute” themselves and their cultures to an American audience, by serving them exotic ethnic food. Again, and to the contrary, they didn’t seem interested in talking about the food they’d brought, and I have no idea why either of them brought it (though I was glad they did). I also can’t be sure about why they seemed annoyed by my interest in their food and its supposed connection to who they were and where they were from.
Instead, my point is that these Orientalist ideas about the exotic East are still out there, including those that strongly associate “Eastern”/Asian people with their food, and those ideas seem to have sunk into my head. I think that at those two parties, I demonstrated a common white (and/or Western) tendency, which is to seek connection with foreign people on my own American or “Western” terms, and more specifically in the case of seemingly Asian people, via the easy pathway of Asian food. After all, there’s probably nothing white Americans in general like more about Asians and Asian Americans than their food, or rather, the mostly modified versions available in Chinese restaurants, and sometimes in Indian, Thai, Japanese, and Vietnamese places (and occasionally in Korean places).
I think it’s fair to say that a common thing white people do--a common, socially instilled tendency--is to perceive and magnify a connection between apparently “Asian” people and food, and as one result, to sometimes ask foreign or non-white people for recipes and such at pot-luck parties. And to not realize, as they carry on about the details and deliciousness of the food and where it's from, that they may well be reducing the identity of the person that they're trying to compliment to little more than the food they eat.