On Commodification of Asian Food Culture

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A friend recently asked,

In the article you posted about white supremacy and fetishizing Asian women, it says white supremacy is the commodification of food and culture. Should I feel bad for liking Japanese/Asian foods and snacks and for loving their culture?

It’s a really good question with a complicated answer. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this, but I decided to do a little research into what that might mean, and share some questions for all of us to consider.

First, What Is Asian?

Asian peoples, Asian Americans, and their foods and other cultural products are incredibly diverse. While there may be similarities — a strong presence of rice, some common vegetable choices, perhaps a propensity for seafood — these are also ingredients and trends shared with other global cuisines, influenced by geography and history, and maybe just stereotypes imposed by Western palates.

Farther back in time, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), Near Eastern foods such as spinach, lettuce, almonds, sugar beets, and figs were adopted. However, the balance sheet of these borrowings is more than matched by China’s contributions to others’ cuisines. Food across Asia, for example, bears a strong Chinese influence, including the cuisines of Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam, Malaysia and Thailand.

Chinese food culture: Influences from within and without, by Ken Hom

The menus at my favorite restaurants in New York’s Koreatown may include traditionally Japanese foods like sushi and teriyaki-style meats, but will serve with more kimchi than wasabi, while a Japanese restaurant is unlikely to serve bibimbap. A Vietnamese phở and bánh mì spot isn’t the same as a ramen restaurant, and both will have a very different menu than the Tibetan restaurant I loved in grad school.

I couldn’t even tell you what kinds of foods are typical to Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines, and I want to remind you that Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan are also Asian countries that, even within their own borders, are incredibly diverse and eat foods that are also influenced by local and global products and tastes.

What Is Food Commodification?

In the context of combatting anti-Asian racism, when we talk about the commodification of food, we’re mostly talking about white people profiting off of so-called “Asian” foods, or when foods that were an excuse for bullying and discrimination twenty years ago are now “cool” and “trendy” because mainstream white American culture has “discovered” them.

It’s not the “authenticity” in a vacuum so much as who gets to benefit and receive acclaim. Ricker is a White guy from Vermont who decided to travel to Thailand and decided that he’d bring back this food he tried to much fanfare. He sells the idea that he managed to journey out there and bring back this authentic cuisine—and is rewarded for mediocrity and Columbusing.

Acclaimed Mediocrity: On Pok Pok and Ricker

(Please do click that link about “Columbusing.”)

… what happens when your food is dressed up, transformed, and suddenly becomes mainstream America? It’s baffling now that our foods, dishes once described as smelly and disgusting, are suddenly deemed “remarkable,” “interesting,” and “complex” (depending, of course, on who is doing the cooking).

Ultimately, it seems Asian fusion — or Asian cuisine in general — has become more widely accepted as white people have discovered pleasure in ethnic foods.

Asian fusion food mattered to me before white people discovered it

The classic example of food commodification and white supremacy is Uncle Ben’s Rice and Aunt Jemima syrup. These products took the work of Black people at a time when they were not considered equally human, and turned it into decades of wealth-generation for white capitalists.

The man on the box is actually Frank Brown, a restaurant maitre d’ who posed for the image around World War II. The rice has been sold under the Uncle Ben’s name since 1937 and was supposedly named after a rice farmer in Houston who had a reputation for high-quality rice.

At least a couple things are wrong with the name “Uncle Ben,” according to Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, who wrote a history of advertising (via The Wall Street Journal). For one, calling Black men “uncle” was common decades ago because white people avoided giving them the title of “mister.” The image of the smiling Black man in a bow tie also perpetuates a stereotype of subservience.

The Real Reason Uncle Ben’s Just Changed Its Name, by Ralph Schwartz

Chinese food in America is a more complicated example, because while restaurants are a great way for immigrants to become involved in the American economy, they’re also mostly serving what Americans think Chinese food is, not really resembling what you would find in China itself. We think Szechuan food, for example, is all about the chili pepper, but it’s so much more than that.

When I was living in Cairo, one night my friends took me to a Cantonese Chinese restaurant they had discovered, excited about its authenticity. It was not at all what I had expected. We found ourselves on plastic lawn chairs at a long folding table outside of a tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment that was mostly kitchen. The menu was just a bunch of pictures cheek-by-jowl on a laminated page, and I was surprised to discover no rice, only massive bowls of noodle soup, rich with beef hearts, tripe, kidneys and such. It was immediately apparent that this restaurant wasn’t meant for us, nor for Egyptians, either. Close to the medieval walls of Al Azhar University, this was a place for the Chinese Muslims who had come to study at the oldest university in Islam. This restaurant served their comfort foods, not the way Americans are used to eating Chinese food, but the way their grandmothers fed them.

What Do I Do Now?

Think critically about where you’re getting your Asian foods and products. Where does your favorite Asian restaurant lie on the spectrum between “clueless white-dude fantasy in which Asian identity and cuisine are reduced to a string of ironic clichés” or “juvenile racist trash,” versus a restaurant with a Thai or Thai-American chef designing the menu?

When we were kids, you grimaced at my Tupperware, called my noodles worms and wailed about the smell…. [Now,] you tout the occasional dinner at the Chinese restaurant as an “authentic” experience with very little regard for the space you demand as you try to Instagram your bowls of rice posed deftly next to wooden chopsticks. And hey! Is it true that you actually know where to find the “best” dim sum in town?

The Problem With the Explosion of White-Owned Dallas Asian-Fusion Restaurants, by Stephanie Kuo

So, if you like Chinese or Japanese or Thai or Vietnamese food, and you buy locally from Asian-owned restaurants (not big commercial chains like Panda Express that mostly enrich white people), you’re supporting your Asian-American neighbors, but please also recognize that you may be contributing to this expectation that your local Asian restauranteur will serve you in ways that appeal to you, not necessarily to them.

I don’t pretend to have the right answer here. You have to work out for yourself what feels like genuine appreciation and support of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) cultures, and what feels like exploitation.

And remember that attitude is everything. I remember once attending a workshop about racist microaggressions in Unitarian Universalist congregations in which an Afghan-American congregational leader shared how often people would ask about how she came to be living on Long Island. Their questions, she said, implied that complete strangers felt entitled to hearing all the intimate details of her story, or implied that somehow her marriage to an American had cynical motives. I lingered after the workshop to say, “I was a Peace Corps Volunteer like your husband, and my mother’s family hosted an Afghan family in the 70s, and so I’m genuinely curious about your story. How do I ask that question without being offensive?” And this perfect stranger said to me, “I don’t think you could ever ask that question in a way that would be offensive,” which I understood to mean that my genuine curiosity and openness come through in the words and the way I ask the question. (Although, she also didn’t tell me her story!)

I think it’s fine for people to make and enjoy food from other people’s cultures and stuff. The difference is how much you get to center yourself and take the spotlight in that practice in comparison to that community.

Acclaimed Mediocrity: On Pok Pok and Ricker

Continue to educate yourself and, in the immortal words of Maya Angelou,

Do the best that you can until you know better. Then, do better.

I’m continuing to compile more resources for understanding and interrupting anti-AAPI hate here.

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