Wednesday, November 12, 2008

associate asian people with food

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.”

“You’re welcome.”

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.


  1. LOL! This post was so cute and made of win up to and including the XKCD comic. After that, it was so-so.

    I'm glad you're being honest. You actually often behave this way online as well (i.e., white). You're naive and being what you think of as friendly, and then you don't understand why people act coldly to what you have said.

    (The photo you used at the beginning of your blog post is food pornography as well, attracting the eyes of white readers.)

    This post is highly entertaining to me, as I always wondered what was going on in the white person's head when he acts like an asshole in this very manner and I try to get out of talking with him.

    Had I gone too far this way, in pointing out or highlighting their “foreign-ness”?

    Hell, yes. Why is this even contested?

    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?

    Obviously, yes. Why is this even contested? (Oh yeah, because you're white.)

    Maybe they were tired of Americans oohing and aahing over the food they brought to parties?

    Probably that too.

  2. this is a really insightful post. as an asian-american chick, i've been placed in those same situations in which people will question me about things -- sometimes food but not always -- and it makes me feel that my identity has been vanquished and that i'm merely a representative of "my people." and yes, it's annoying because i'm totally as american as any white person here is -- and it's frustrating that even good friends of mine whom i may have known for a long time will end up making me feel that way.

    but i totally appreciate this post. i can understand your point of view. you were generally interested in the dishes, and you totally meant no ill will.

    i guess it just depends on how it's done. like, certain people can ask me things about my ethnicity or about the foods i eat or whatever, and i won't get offended. but there are other people who do the same but go about it in a much more direct and abrasive (to me anyway) manner. and that's when i start getting annoyed.

    for sure, it's a hard line to discern. but that's why i love your post. it's academic yet also personable, and i know it must be just really weird for you, too. i have to applaud you for having the sensitivity to know that they were irked. most people are clueless! but your heart's in a good place. and if you were to ever ask me about how to make pho or whatever, since i know you have good intentions, i wouldn't fly off the handle at ya.


    nice job.

  3. Good post.

    I recently saw a racist commercial.

    A Chinese woman is setting up paper plates, 5 at a time, in pentagon formations all around her empty living room floor. Her daughter comes in wondering what this is all about.

    Then magically, the mom's imagination turns her living room into a bustling restaurant, with 5 people per circular table.

    The commercial is for throw-away "china" -- you know, the dishware. Only now it's paper. So Chinese people can live out their dreams of opening restaurants.

    Jebus, we're such assholes.

  4. yeah. this is old hat. well for us obviously, but probably new to some readers. it can get annoying how easily we're linked to food. it's weird; white people tend to know way less about what food is good than others, yet think it makes sense to use it to enter and end conversations.

    it's crazy to me what white people won't eat for twisted moral reasons.

    but it's also a trip how readily many asian folks in this country will associate themselves with food for white folks benefit (of easy categorization).

    ANYWAY. the white guy at dinner scene in "joy luck club" is like the height of all these things comign together for me. apparently, chinese people have some widely-accepted norms for home cooks to bring out their best dish first and insult it. it's a funny scene because it combines bullshit, bullshit, food, and more bullshit.

    it really paints this picture of chinese/asians - specifically women - as being unable to speak their mind about anything. plus it subtly tells us asians are pretty much only good at cooking, and even when it comes to that, still defer to white men. in addition, we are supposed to believe chinese/asian families routinely put visitors through weird tests that require everyone to hold their breath and stare. and nobody - not even random clueless white andrew mccarthy - would act the way that guy ends up acting in that scene.

    my mom, btw, is the exact opposite of the character in that book. she would announce her best dish as the best dish, and if someone didn't like it - i'm imagining because it never happened - she would have berated the person for having no taste and told them to go back to eating pizza hut and honeycomb cereal because giving good food to them is a waste.

    anyway, there's a million stories i could give you here that actually relate to your post, but any asian person could give you just as many, so i'll end here.

  5. As a woman of Caribbean descent, it is the idea of being conquered through food. Yes everything about my culture can be known by eating curried goat and rice and peas.
    Also depending on how the questioning is done it makes it seem like my food is weird, exotic and does not belong somehow.
    Oh last point, the way that some people will use the idea that they have eaten food from a different culture to prove how open minded and anti racist they are. Yeah it's revolting. They have lowered themselves to eat fried plantain and all of sudden I am expected to believe that we are thought of as equals. Thanks for allowing me to be your experiment and a testimony to your openness.

  6. Maybe a problem is: seeing culture as something that is consumed, rather than lived.

  7. cheekyricegirl:

    but your heart's in a good place. and if you were to ever ask me about how to make pho or whatever, since i know you have good intentions, i wouldn't fly off the handle at ya.

    You're much too charitable, and it makes me sick. I guess that explains why you would call yourself 'cheekyricegirl'.


    but it's also a trip how readily many asian folks in this country will associate themselves with food for white folks benefit (of easy categorization).


    What do you do when there's a potluck with mostly white people? If you bring Western food, white people may get visibly disappointed, or they may wonder if your Western dish is Asianized, or maybe you're insulting/appropriating some Italian person by bringing inauthentic spaghetti. On the other hand, if you bring an "Asian" dish, white people will like it even if it's crap, but you're reinforcing stereotypes, and the dish may become an entry point for a conversation you don't want to have.

  8. Why do you ask such questions?:

    “Um, is this something you ate back home? Maybe, your mother’s recipe?"
    “So, are egg rolls something your family had back home?”

    And I also think that it depends, how you ask.

  9. I agree that you had good intentions in this situation and although you didn’t mean to annoy these party guests, I think the question related to making the dishes back “home” might have done you in. Complimenting a guest’s food is pretty customary, which is why I disagree with restructure! -

    “On the other hand, if you bring an "Asian" dish, white people will like it even if it's crap…”

    Even if the dish was crap, maybe a white person would say that they enjoyed this dish, just like they would tell any cook they enjoyed any dish. No one walks around a party telling people their food is awful, regardless of their race.
    At the same time, you have to keep in mind that what some white people think of as “Chinese” food could be some fried mess covered in soy sauce from Panda Express so when they are served a more authentic representation of the cuisine by someone who knows what they’re doing, it probably does taste very good and has that “something extra” that fast food Chinese is lacking.

    I can see where it is offensive, being Polish I know that if I brought Polish food to a party and people asked me how to make it, I would feel fine giving the recipe but uneasy beyond that. I’m not from Poland, my parents aren’t, but my grandparents lived there most of their lives until they came to America. Since they are no longer living, it would be hard to be seen as representative of a culture that I am so separated from and know little about besides making a few easy dishes. While I could immerse myself in it and devote my time to educating people about Polish culture, that is a burden that many people, including myself, aren’t willing to undertake.

    I applaud these people who made these foods and brought them knowing that they could face some unwanted questions along the way. At least it creates a dialogue and a brief introduction to different food and options that people might not normally see.
    Food often provides a window into many cultures that we wouldn’t typically be exposed to. Greek, Indian, and French foods are some of my favorites, though I don’t claim to know any more about these cultures from the Western interpretation that I receive on my plate. I think the problems occur when you have that good egg roll and say to yourself, “Those Chinese, they know how to make a good egg roll” rather than “That party guest, his egg roll was the best I’ve ever had.”

  10. giles, yes, old hat, but not to most white folks. We're trained to be pretty clueless in such encounters. Thanks for the reminder of that Joy Luck Club scene (Amy Tan often strikes me as another cultural pornographer); I found it on YouTube--poor image quality, but still watchable.

    cheekyricegirl, I'm glad you found something of value in my attempt to spell out such moments. Yes, sometimes I do try to mix the academic and the personal, so I'm glad to hear that you thought that worked here.

    Thanks for the lesson in online communications, restructure! How nice for you that you found this post's description of an "asshole" "highly entertaining." I guess people like that deserve the "crap" you sometimes serve them, eh? Assuming you ever do go to parties, and bring "Asian" dishes.

    aerik, that sounds like one messed up commercial. I wonder if it's online.

    Yes ripley, when people have been led to believe that they have little more obligation as citizens than to consume and pay taxes, that certainly plays a part in the common white assumption that other cultures are there to be consumed; it also certainly plays a big part in the common association of Asian people with food held by many people not of Asian descent.

    renee, thanks for pointing out that this type of condescension happens between whites and other peoples too. I think that "conquering through food" is a great way to label so much of what goes wrong via food.

    jw, to answer your question, I used to engage in that sort of "small talk" in such instances because I was basically taught to associate Asian people with food, and was thus led to think that a way of being friendly to an Asian person was to try to get to know them by asking about the part that food plays in their lives. I'm glad that I now know better. As for "how" a white person asks a seemingly Asian person such questions, I asked them very nicely and sincerely, but I doubt that made them good questions to ask.

  11. >As for "how" a white person asks a seemingly Asian person such questions, I asked them very nicely and sincerely,

    Regardless now if interracial communication or not, what one believes about him/herself to appear or to be is not necessarily true. Many people may think they are friendly, but communication also happens with signals of body language etc. and there the body, face, voice often tells something very different than words want to tell.

  12. As a black person I am guilty of doing this, not just with asian cuisine, but others as well, but I can say the same has been done to me. One of the first conversations I ever had with my now brother in law was him asking me questions about chitterlings, greens, and ham hocks. I also hate the moments in which I am approached by people of other races who want to bond with me by telling me how much they love fried chicken and kool-aid.

  13. yeah dude. yeah.

    i've probably been guilty of being a food porn purveyor.

  14. There is a lot of interesting layers to your story. Namely, the one that stands out the most is the connection between food (or associated customs) with a type of person. Now, on the surface it may seem harmless, but indeed many people take offense to such a link. We are constantly striving to derive connections between people and tradition/observations. I think it is in order for us to establish some kind of a preliminary bases for our future interaction (e.g. not to say certain things or words or to avoid specific grey areas of conversation that may be damaging to the relationship).
    But another question is...why are we, as you say specifically white people, so interested in pursuing a connection with cuisine/assumed traditions and a people. What is so compelling about the answer to those questions? Why must we know?
    And if in fact I may be taking this to far...that it's not "we must know NOW" but indeed the curiosity may just speak for itself.
    All in all, I think that this story is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what it says about society and the people in it attempting to understand and label everyone.

  15. Coming from Jamaica, people ask me a lot about Jamaican food and really; I see no problem. It's popular but almost nothing is known about ingredients and preparation outside the country so if I can get one more person taking time to cook it or appreciate it more rather than buying the frozen bullshit masquerading as our cuisine in the grocery store; I see it as a win for JA. However, once they just talk about it in a way of "foreignizing" me I don't get real mad either because hey; I AM foreign!! AND PROUD! But my or my food's "foreigness" or you trying to reaffirm a stereotype is all you really care about, THEN we have a problem as far as I'm concerned. Then we have violence, lol.

    Also, I ask a lot of the same questions you did to other people of colour and never got the reactions you did--ever. Is it because I'm Black and a girl? (girl=stereotypically relegated to cook; cooking skill=higher valued girl) Dunno. People are always eager to help me learn and will even go into detail about the history of a recipe, the appropriate season to eat certain dishes in their culture, how/where different ingredients can be found and prepared in their homeland, etc. Then we have dialogues from that because food does have a history and different dishes and ingredients mean different things to different people and it's interesting to compare and learn.

    There's nothing wrong with good intentions and I bet you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who got their point across harmlessly 100% of the time. Although I can see how it could be interpreted offensively, I don't think you were being so purposely because what you were saying seemed more about learning about the food and trying to get some of the cultural implications out of that (i.e. "do you eat this at home"? I've eaten things people brought that counts as "fast food" in their country and not necessarily homestuff and if I didn't ask, I'd be subconsciously assuming/stereotyping). I didn't read any of this as "Hey, coloured person! Eat this weird stuff all the time? GODWHATISTHIS!?!"

    Come over to my house, we'll make Jamaican food and you can ask all the questions you want. Perhaps I'll purchase a cheesecake or a 40 of Olde English for dessert. Just do the dishes after, that's all I ask.

  16. restructure:

    You're much too charitable, and it makes me sick. I guess that explains why you would call yourself 'cheekyricegirl'.

    fuck you. not charitable, just fair. i can't help it if the tone of this post persuaded me.

    like i wrote, it is all in the delivery. i'm a california girl, born and bred. i lived in white-bread utah for seven years. do you know how many times i've had this same situation happen over and over? sometimes with food, but not always. but it's all the same -- some white person trying to "understand" or "get" me using food as a platform.

    i like the other comments here, especially renee's statement that it is through food that some white people try to "other" or "conquer" non-whites, as if understanding or liking our food brings them to a better understanding of us on a collective and individual level.

    i hate when that happens. it pisses me off. it bothers me. and in utah, you can imagine that it happened a lot -- and in a patronizing way -- so i can honestly say i spent most of my time while living there being pissed off by the lack of cultural awareness and respect that i encountered.

    but it doesn't piss me off or bother me all the time.

    it's all about the delivery. it's a determination made on a case-by-case basis. i didn't take offense to this post at all. i thought it was a great, clear, and honest attempt to understand.

    i ain't just a reactionary asshole like some people.

  17. To davita:

    Maybe people don't get upset at you because you're foreign and of color. So when you say you're interested in learning how to cook that food, it does not come with the context of cultural chauvinism that it comes with when a white American says it.

    It's kind of like the difference between a woman saying she wants a strong man, and a man saying he wants a woman who can cook. (I saw a cartoon about this on some feminist site.) In the latter case, there's a chauvinistic overtone, because historically men wanted women to be domestic and sexual servants rather than true partners and some men still feel that way. Women in live-in relationships also tend to end up doing most of the housework, still.

    So when you say to another foreigner, "Nice dish! How do you cook it?" the fellow foreigner does not feel like you're trying to steal her culture, ignore her as a person, and reduce her to a stereotype. She will feel that way about a white person saying the same, though, and for good reason.

  18. i have been thinking a great deal of what i would consider my "cultural cuisine" as a white person, or generally looking at the history of food we commonly eat.
    most of the dishes i enjoy that i might consider have either been appropriated or exploited by colonialist practices originally.
    for example, tea. being partly british i have a great affiliation with tea, particularly black tea with some soy milk. and (as an american) no one ever asks me if i am english or from england for drinking tea.
    but as is commonly known though not examined, tea grows nowhere near england. it primarily grown in india, where england has historically had a very oppressive colonial role. in fact, tea plantations started in india when england was at war with china and couldnt get their fix anymore. and it turned out it was cheaper to exploit people in india than trade fairly anyway. thus the "english breakfast" tea i enjoy so much, and consider a cultural tradition, is a grossly inept label.
    there is a similar dynamic with much of the food i grew up with and currently eat. how globalization and colonialism affects are notions of food. makes exploitation and colonialism present but invisible.


  19. I am both amazed and pleased by your ability to turn the lens inward, and, without thinking of yourself as some sort of evil, perverted individual, examine the situation and re-examine the situation until you figure out how you could improve yourself.

    I am a black American, and I can't say that I have not done this, NUMEROUS TIMES, and have never even taken a second look at myself.

    This country teaches you that you have the right to ask such questions, and also, the right to interrogate the supposed cook until they not only give you the answer as to how they prepared the dish, but given you another dish to try, and invited you over for dinner. Western and westernism is an invasive cultural standard, pioneered by...the pioneers.


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