Craving the Other

Craving the Other
Article by Soleil Ho, Illustrated by Ana Benaroya, appeared in issue Food; published in 2013; filed under Consumer culture, Social commentary.
One woman's beef with cultural appropriation and food

For a long time, Vietnamese food made me uncomfortable. It was brothy, weirdly fishy, and full of the gross animal parts that other people didn’t seem to want. It was too complicated.

I wanted the straightforward, prefabricated snacks that I saw on television: Bagel Bites, Pop-Tarts, chicken nuggets. When my grandmother babysat me, she would make tiny concessions, preparing rice bowls with chopped turkey cold cuts for me while everyone else got caramelized pork. I would make my own Bagel Bites by toasting a normal-size bagel and topping it with Chinese sausage and a dash of Sriracha. My favorite snack was a weird kind of fusion: a slice of nutrient-void Wonder Bread sprinkled with a few dashes of Maggi sauce, an ultraplain proto–banh mi that I came up with while rummaging through my grandmother’s pantry. In our food-centric family, I was the barbarian who demanded twisted simulacra of my grandmother’s masterpieces, perverted so far beyond the pungent, saucy originals that they looked like the national cuisine of a country that didn’t exist.When I entered my first year of college in Iowa, a strange pattern began to emerge as I got to know my classmates. “Oh, you’re Vietnamese?” they’d ask. “I love pho!” And then the whispered question—“Am I saying that right?” The same people who would have made fun of me for bringing a stinky rice-noodle salad to school 10 years ago talked to me as if I were the gatekeeper to some hidden temple that they had discovered on their own. Pho seemed like a shortcut for them, a way that they could tell me that they knew about my culture and our soupy ways without me having to tell them. I would hear this again and again from that point on. I’m Vietnamese? They love pho! I told people to pronounce it a different way each time they asked, knowing that they would immediately march over to their racially homogenous group of friends to correct them with the “authentic” way to pronounce their favorite dish. I’m sure that they were happy to learn a little bit about my family’s culture, but I found their motivations for doing so suspect.

What can one say in response? “Oh, you’re white? I love tuna salad!” It sounds ridiculous, mostly because no one cares if a second-generation immigrant likes American food. Rather, the burden of fluency with American culture puts a unique pressure on the immigrant kid. I paid attention during playdates with my childhood friends, when parents would serve pulled-pork sandwiches and coleslaw for lunch. (It took me a long time to understand the appeal of mayonnaise, which, as a non-cream, non-cheese, non-sauce, perplexed the hell out of me.) From watching my friends, I learned to put the coleslaw in the sandwich and sop the bread in the stray puddles of sauce in between bites. There’s a similar kind of self-checking that occurs when I take people out to Vietnamese restaurants: Through unsubtle side glances, they watch me for behavioral cues, noting how and if I use various condiments and garnishes so they can report back to their friends and family that they learned how to eat this food the “real way” from their real, live Vietnamese friend. Their desire to be true global citizens, eaters without borders, lies behind their studious gazes.

When I go to contemporary Asian restaurants, like Wolfgang Puck’s now-shuttered 20.21 in Minneapolis and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market in New York City, it seems the entrées are always in the $16–$35 range and the only identifiable person of color in the kitchen is the dishwasher. The menus usually include little blurbs about how the chefs used to backpack in the steaming jungles of the Far East (undoubtedly stuffing all the herbs and spices they could fit into said backpacks along the way, for research purposes), and were so inspired by the smiling faces of the very generous natives—of which there are plenty of tasteful black-and-white photos on the walls, by the way—and the hospitality, oh, the hospitality, that they decided the best way to really crystallize that life-changing experience was to go back home and sterilize the cuisine they experienced by putting some microcilantro on that $20 curry to really make it worthy of the everyday American sophisticate. American chefs like to talk fancy talk about “elevating” or “refining” third-world cuisines, a rhetoric that brings to mind the mission civilisatrice that Europe took on to justify violent takeovers of those same cuisines’ countries of origin. In their publicity materials, Spice Market uses explicitly objectifying language to describe the culture they’re appropriating: “A timeless paean to Southeast Asian sensuality, Spice Market titillates Manhattan’s Meatpacking District with Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s piquant elevations of the region’s street cuisine.” The positioning of Western aesthetics as superior, or higher, than all the rest is, at its bottom line, an expression of the idea that no culture has value unless it has been “improved” by the Western Midas touch. If a dish hasn’t been eaten or reimagined by a white person, does it really exist?

Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, often claims that to know a culture, you must eat their food. I’ve eaten Vietnamese food my whole life, but there’s still so much that I don’t understand about my family and the place we came from. I don’t know why we can be so reticent, yet so emotional; why Catholicism, the invaders’ religion, still has such a hold on them; why we laugh so hard even at times when there’s not much to laugh about. After endless plates of com bi, banh xeo, and cha gio, I still don’t know what my grandmother thinks about when she prays.

Others appear to be on a similar quest for knowledge, though they seem to have fewer questions than answers. Like a plague of culture locusts, foodies, Chowhounders, and food writers flit from bibimbap to roti canai, fetishizing each dish as some adventure-in-a-bowl and using it as a springboard to make gross generalizations about a given culture’s “sense of family and community,” “lack of pretense,” “passion,” and “spirituality.” Eventually, a hole-in-the-wall reaches critical white-Instagrammer mass, and the swarm moves on to its next discovery, decrying the former fixation’s loss of authenticity. The foodies’ cultural cachet depends on being the only white American person in the room, braving inhumane spice levels and possible food poisoning in order to share with you the proper way to handle Ethiopian injera bread. But they can’t cash in on it unless they share their discoveries with someone else, thereby jeopardizing that sense of exclusivity. Thus, happiness tends to elude the cultural foodie.

Why am I being such a sourpuss about people who just want to show appreciation for another culture? Isn’t the embrace of multiculturalism through food a beautiful expression of a postracial milieu? Aren’t I being the true racist here?

Item: "Asian Girlz" by Day Above Ground, a wannabe–Red Hot Chili Peppers bro-band, is full of references to East Asian food juxtaposed with violently misogynistic lines about their yellow fever: “I love your sticky rice/ Butt fucking all night/ Korean barbecue/ Bitch, I love you.” (Yum!) When criticism surfaced in summer 2013, the band insisted that the charges of racism were ridiculous because none of them were racists, that their many Asian friends thought it was hilarious, and that, at its heart, the song was about sharing their love for the culture. You know what they say: If you really love something, treat it with flippant disrespect.

Item: Alton Brown’s “Asian Noodles” episode of Good Eats takes us on an educational trip to the typical Asian American grocery store—by having its host travel through a lengthy underground tunnel that is a visual echo of the idea of “digging a hole to China.” He emerges onto a set decorated with noodles, a red-and-gold Chinese scroll, and that typically “chinky” erhu music that plagues any mention of Asia in any media, ever. Also on the set is a bearded white man wearing a kimono and a sumo topknot wig who acts out the stereotype of the severe Asian American grocery store clerk. As Brown shares his vast pool of knowledge with the viewer, the clerk harasses him in fake Japanese (“Waduk! Chiyabemada!”). Clearly, knowing a lot about Asian food does not preclude one’s ability to be an asshole about it anyway.

These items speak to the Westerner as cultural connoisseur and authority, a theme that has shone like a brilliant Angolan diamond in the imperialist imagination ever since Marco Polo first rushed back to Europe to show off the crazy Chinese “ice cream” that he discovered on his travels. I don’t doubt that these guys love bulgogi and soba and want more people to enjoy them, but that kind of appreciation certainly doesn’t seem to have advanced their understanding of the Asian American experience beyond damaging and objectifying generalities.

Their commonality is their insistence on appreciating a culture that exists mostly in their heads; they share a nostalgia for someone else’s life. Nostalgia traps the things you love in glass jars, letting you appreciate their arrested beauty until they finally die of boredom or starvation. The sought-after object cannot move on from you or depart from the fixed impression that you have imposed upon it. After all, a thing can’t be “authentic” if it’s allowed the power to change. Robbed of its ability to evolve on its own, the only way such a thing can venture into the future is as an accessory worn by someone who can. The pho you had at a dirty little street stall in Saigon or the fresh goat’s milk you tasted in Crete as a child may both be beautiful in and of themselves, but their value diminishes if they are allowed an ounce of banality. In order for them to make you look like a more exciting, more interesting person, they must remain firmly outside the realm of the mundane.

All of this makes the experiences of the immigrant’s Americanized children particularly head scratching. We’re appreciated for our usefulness in giving our foodie friends a window into the off-menu life of our cuisines, but the interest usually stops there. When I tell white Americans about the Maggi-and-margarine sandwiches and cold-cut rice bowls that I used to eat, they tend to wrinkle their noses and wonder aloud why I would reject my grandmother’s incredible, authentic Vietnamese food for such bastardizations. What I don’t tell them is, “It’s because I wanted to be like you.”

We live in a time where the discriminating American foodie has an ever-evolving list of essentials in their pantry: ras el hanout, shrimp paste, lemongrass, fresh turmeric. With a hugely expanded palate of flavors, you can experiment with these ingredients in ways that used to be possible only for Medieval kings and nobles who spent fortunes on chests of spices from the Orient. By putting leaves of cabbage kimchi on a slice of pizza, you’re destroying the notion of the nation-state and unknowingly mimicking the ways in which many Korean American children took their first awkward steps into assimilation, one bite at a time, until they stopped using kimchi altogether. Over time, you grow to associate nationalities with the quaint little restaurants that you used to frequent, before they were demolished and replaced with soulless, Americanized joints. You look at a map of the world and point a finger to Mongolia. “Really good barbecue.” El Salvador. “Mmm, pupusas.” Vietnam. “I love pho!" When you divorce a food from its place and time, you can ignore global civil unrest and natural disasters (see: Zagat declaring Pinoy cuisine the “next great Asian food trend” this past fall as deadly floods swept through the Philippines), knowing as you do that the world’s cultural products will always find safe harbor in your precious, precious mouth.


Soleil Ho is a freelance writer, teacher, and MFA student living in New Orleans. Her essays have appeared in Mason's Road, The Heavy Table, Interrupt Mag, Impreachable, CLAP zine, the Twin Cities Runoff, and Art Review & Preview. Whenever she visits her grandmother, there always seems to be a big bowl of chicken curry on the table, just for her. You can find a bunch of her writing at soleilho.tumblr.com.

Comments

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“Oh, you’re Vietnamese?”

“Oh, you’re Vietnamese?” they’d ask. “I love pho!”

What can one say in response? “Oh, you’re white? I love tuna salad!”

Why not. I never get angry when people tell me they love Mexican food. I love it too! Also I love Vietnamese food, it's my favorite ethnic cuisine. And if a person of Vietnamese descent told me they loved menudo-I would be a-ok with it. I'm sorry you felt your food was "other". I like a lot of "American" food but I never made the mistake of thinking it's better. For the most part I realized it could never hold a candle to my mother's cooking. Mayonnaise IS gross, LOL. I still find I eat things that I thought were perfectly normal that your standard WASP American thinks is weird.

It's such an odd thing to say, though

I'd say something like that if someone told me their hobby was cooking. Why would someone jump from a person's heritage to the food of the region where their ancestors came from? My ancestors were Jews from Russia, the Ukraine, and Hungary. I eat American Jewish food like lox and bagel, but not Russian food, Eastern European Jewish food, and I have no clue what Hungarians and Ukrainians eat. When I cook ethnic, I mostly cook Chinese-influenced food or Tex-Mex. Most Chinese or Mexican people wouldn't have a clue that their food heritage inspired my cooking, but the flavors remind me of the food in my favorite Chinese and Mexican mom and pop restaurants.

Mostly I think of George Takei playing Sulu in Star Trek's The Naked Time episode. Stoned on a contaminant from planet Psi 2000, each infected crew member begins to act out their deepest desires. Sulu is soon swashbuckling in the corridors. Originally the script called for Sulu to assume the persona of a Japanese swordfighter, but Takei asked to play a European swashbuckler instead. The idea was that in the future, all cultures would borrow from each other.

I knew someone in school who was a retired Marine and plays bagpipes at military funerals. He's of Filipino heritage. People are a bit surprised when he shows up with his pipes, in a kilt, but he plays so beautifully and respectfully of the service of these veterans that in the end, it is what he does and not who his ancestors were that is important.

in which above person does

in which above person does not understand how cultural appropriation works and completely misses point of article

There may be some points of

There may be some points of how cultural appropriation works that this person ignored, but they also brought up a valid point that you shouldn't throw out with the bathwater. It is possible to borrow respectfully and humbly from other cultures and not to equate one small thing about a culture with the culture as a whole.

No one likes being seen as an exotic emissary of another culture, instead of a human, especially in a friend's eyes... and that grates on you the more times it happens. Had some of those friends wanted to see the author as a person, including whatever cultural differences she brought to the table (but not fixated on them as defining her), she might not have been so hurt by the repeated fixation on food.

"Why would someone jump from

"Why would someone jump from a person's heritage to the food of the region where their ancestors came from?"

Because they're racist. Let's not pretend it's not. Imagine if someone said to you "Oh, you're Jewish? I love bagels!" But, that doesn't mean that eating it is itself racist, which is the conclusion the article seems to jump to.

Just to point out, Tex-Mex

Just to point out, Tex-Mex isn't "ethnic" and isn't from Mexico, it's from Texas. Mexican food and Tex-Mex are very different. From a Mexican living in Texas, this confusion is a huge pet-peeve of mine.

If you felt it necessary to

If you felt it necessary to make this insipid response to this article then you didn't understand the article. Why you need to share that with us or the author eludes me. "LOL"

Food

Haha I know!
I am white, but I'm first Generation Canadian from a Slavic Family.
My Mother always used to pickle our lunch meat and feed us leftovers from the night before for school lunches.
Usually, we ate green soups, dubbed "Monster food" by my peers. (I wasn't popular in the 'lunch trades'!)

Years later, casually looking them up on facebook, I am the only one who isn't overweight.

Fat shaming! Check your thin

Fat shaming! Check your thin privilege.

moral of the story?

I don't get it. So your culture's food is only worth it because the people who made fun of you are overweight? Are other cultural food then deemed worthy of derision if it means people who ate it as children are overweight adults?

What an interesting kettle of

What an interesting kettle of fish.

I feel very uncomfortable saying this, but I do not buy espresso from Chinese people. Similarly, I prefer my Mexican food to be made by actual Mexicans.

You said, "When you divorce a food from its place and time, you can ignore global civil unrest and natural disasters". But I think when you divorce a food from its people, you may lose an unknowable affinity for flavours and processes. The Italians have been playing with oregano and rosemary for so long, they tried fusion interpretations centuries ago. I think there is a way of knowing food in cultures that runs very deep, and cannot be appreciated, by cooks or customers, without being of that culture.

And when you divorce a food from its place and time, when you pursue other people's food, you lose the opportunity to create a cuisine of your own place. This is one of the drivers of the localism movement--what are the flavours of right here? I saw a documentary that said Peru has 2,000 varieties of potatoes. Can you even imagine having that sort of diversity in your place? That comes from centuries of investment in you soil and your cuisine, not in chasing whatever fads are on the food networks.

While you wouldn't buy

While you wouldn't buy espresso from an Asian, would you feel comfortable buying espresso from a white barista? As a Vietnamese-American, I am fully confident in my ability to make good coffee. Similarly, can I never make a good hamburger because my ancestors did not live in the German highlands in the 1500s? By insisting that people have a quasi-magical "unknowable affinity for flavours and processes," you perpetuate the "otherness" of minorities: I can never be good enough to make an espresso that someone like you would deem worthy. That you would judge my coffee or food-making abilities based on my skin tone is simply insulting.

PS: the best pho I have had in my life was made by an African-American.

GOOD GOD. I JUST LIKE PHO,

GOOD GOD. I JUST LIKE PHO, OK? SOME PEOPLE JUST LIKE PHO. I also don't give a shit whether strangers / friends / aliens like Mexican food in a world where Taco Bell exists. I'm a first generation Mexican immigrant, and while I find the backhanded, and hypocritical, ethnic "appreciation" of Mexican food in America offensive in a world of ponchos and mustaches for Halloween, I am not about to politicize the act of eating a taco.

Cultural tourism is a problem, yeah, duh, but how about you let me eat in peace without worrying about who, or if I, am being inauthentic; too Mexican or too American? First, second, third, whatever number generation immigrants, including those who have never been to their "native" country or speak the language, who obsess over their and other's authenticity / culture / boundaries do not have a distinctly immigrant child problem: Modern American culture is just that, the endless quest to find a culture where you belong - even if that means taking it, whether it be from your parents or some dish in a dingy place somewhere.

People politicize food. It sucks.

People liking pho, or whatever 'exotic' ethnic food, Mexican, Ethiopian, or otherwise isn't a bad thing at all! It's pretty rad. It may not be about you, and your approaches to food. It's too bad we can't have our cake and eat it too, but people (and not the author) will politicize food. You don't have to do it, but people do it.

We don't exist in a vacuum. People will always hunt for some bullshit "authenticity". And the worst part of it is when they try to impose it on others. You shouldn't have to worry about being inauthentic, but we get pressured anyway. If we could just beat it into their heads that authenticity is a phony ass-concept, and trying to force it on other people is being an asshole, life would be better.

For the record, as the child of Chinese immigrants, the author's stories on "bastardizing" ethnic food. It's a thing.
I remember the bitching for the institution of pasta for dinners. That, and ketchup on rice. When you're an easily impressionable kid, and more than half your peers are white kids, it's bound to happen to make an effort to blend in.

loving this

Goddamn, this is so sardonic. Stellar insights. Artful but trenchant wit. I could quote various parts that I liked here and there, but that would be a little futile since it's all very good. Keep writing, even if you feel no one is listening, or if you feel you are preaching to the choir. This is some seriously witty stuff. Hope the MFA is giving you the sustenance you need. You say you are freelance? Do/have you written for any other publications?

guilty as charged

all the things you say = so true!!! behold some of the names of asian food trailers in austin, tx, past and present:

pretty thai for a white guy
trai mai thai
coat & thai (really?)
me so hungry
and, the latest offender, which i'm shocked really exists, something along the lines of
cum bun yu
(NOT JOKING... RATHER INFURIATING)
fresh off the truck
be more pacific (what??)

i was brought up in a food-centric family (jewish, duh), and i'm guilty of liking to talk about people's ethnic backgrounds as they relate to food, especially when their roots go back to a country whose food i love. i do sometimes think about how ignorant we are about what is actually going on in these countries whose foods we devour with such 'ganas,' and feel slightly guilty about it, and also how many countries and cuisines there are out there whose food we don't even know about simply because the trend hasn't surfaced in the US yet. and when i meet someone whose ethnic background includes a cuisine i especially like (yes, vietnamese food is one of my favorites, but I won't tell you that if i ever meet you in person:))) i TRY to hold off on blabbing to them about such things until i get an indication that they're actually into food too... anyway, thanks for writing this, it's given me much food for thought, and i admire your eloquence and mad writing skills. i'm going to pass along to friends and hopefully have some interesting discussions.

"be more pacific" It's a joke

"be more pacific"

It's a joke on "be more specific", duh.

Do I need to feel guilt while I eat?

I'm honestly not entirely sure how to feel after reading this article. I feel like I should apologize on behalf of my entire race. However, I'm not in any position to speak for millions of strangers, plus it'd be doing a large swath of society a disservice to assume that white people as a whole are all such tools. These examples of ignoramus behavior are as vile to me, a White-ish American, as they would be to anyone else who doesn't have their head lodged firmly up their ass. Still, should I worry when I'm the only Caucasian in a Korean joint that everyone around me is assuming that I AM like that? Dude, I just really, really love radish Kimchi. That's all. I've never once been tempted to associate the people or history of a country to a dish that happened to originate there and it's appalling that people do that. Oh, but in the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit to having used those "unsubtle side glances" in order to learn the correct way to eat something new, though I really was trying to be subtle. There was no one to "report back to." I simply didn't know how to do it the right way. No offense intended. I think all of this really just boils down to unfamiliarity. When people don't know a lot of folks from a particular region they generalize based upon whatever tidbits of information they have. Obviously, in some cases it's food. This in no way excuses the behavior, but don't for a moment think that this isn't prevalent in other countries as well, especially ones that tend to have a more homogenous population. I've been accosted multiple times in certain countries (which shall remain nameless) because the only exposure to America is trashy TV, music videos and porn, which has left the locals with the impression that all American women are promiscuous. People are fools a lot of the time, no matter where you look. I'll endeavor not to act like one regarding your culture if you'll try not to assume I'm out to disrespect you just because I like Pho. :)

Don't feel guilty!

I've seen a few angry comments on here from people who feel like the author is actively pointing her finger at non-Asians, blaming them for enjoying food, and thus ruining their peaceful pho experience. Where they reacted in anger, you considered guilt - Don't!

I'm Asian American, so I really feel this article. The author isn't blaming food-lovers for liking whatever it is they like, she is daring to expose a problematic trend of Asian food (and thus culture) becoming a fad/trend/commodity in food circles. It's that cringe moment with the "punny" Engrish restaurant names, the use of "bamboo" font (yes, we Asians do have typography not made of wood), the use of "elevation" in fusion restaurants (as if our food wasn't good enough before it was blessed by Western chefs). It is the problematic fact that these modern so-called Asian restaurants are using our culture and food to lure customers, because it's "exotic" and trendy, without ever /really/ trying to get some firsthand knowledge outside of a trip or two.

But the worst part is, the more common this subtle cultural appropriation and often racism becomes in restaurants, the more acceptable it is for that racism/appropriation to exist towards Asian culture as a whole.

Imagine if America became a trend, and diners used the flag as a napkin to wipe ketchup off their face and the US military uniform to dress their servers across the world - All without ever trying to understand the deep history and connection we Americans have to our identity, culture, and people. Children who grew up eating at these "American restaurants" would grow up thinking that proud uniform was just a cheap get up for waiters, create odd images of all of America just from chefs who had been to Florida once and claimed to know, preserve, and prepare all of American culture in one dish. You would feel as crushed and disappointed as I do when I see some trendy new sushi shop open with girls in geisha getups and chopsticks in their hair. I am so happy when people like Japanese food, but the reality is is that my culture is misrepresented and used every day just to make money because it's "in". I don't blame the diners who love the food, how would they know it was wrong? I see it not as a problem of diners but of restauranteurs who continue to use my culture to line their pockets and perpetuate stereotypes.

I just posted one of those

I just posted one of those "angry" comments (not angry so much as defensive, I guess), but your comment did help me understand the article a little bit more. Although I feel like the author actually was blaming innocent people, if her ultimate goal was to expose a problematic trend, I agree a little more with the article.

However, as someone who has lived abroad for a year and a half, I have to say that what you say about America becoming a trend in foreign countries is actually the reality. There are (bad) stereotypes about Americans, the culture and food is extremely misrepresented, etc. It bothered me when guys would assume I was slutty just because I was American, but I didn't mind the other misconceptions because the people who held them were generally friendly and open-minded to new ideas. Or if they were ignorant, I didn't care because they weren't worth my time.

Anyway, just my opinion!

American stereotypes

I agree with you - Americans becoming a trend/stereotype abroad is something I've faced too. It's never a good thing for any culture to become a cheapened commodity.

At the same time, I think it just sucks that much more to be a minority in America - an American - and face that misrepresentation of yourself/your culture/your roots in your own country. Where you faced stereotypes against you while in another country, we face stereotypes in our own country and home. [And by that I don't mean to negate your experience, which I find valid in itself. Just presenting the flip side to this story]

We were told the American ideal of the great Melting Pot, of equality, but in reality if you're a minority you're often times "The Other" as in the author's title. Right now that means the exotic, strange, usable/sellable/trendy "other", further marketed to the masses by trinkets or photographs of authenticity; as if our culture was a brand to be created rather than respected in its own right. The author is thus angry that her once judgmental friends/certain white people are now suddenly, creepily, into Vietnamese food because it's hip and "authentic" - as if culture was a fad, a checkbox to conquer, a thing to do: "The same people who would have made fun of me for bringing a stinky rice-noodle salad to school 10 years ago talked to me as if I were the gatekeeper to some hidden temple that they had discovered on their own."

It's all good if you just like trying new foods, but it's problematic when people use certain foods as style points while simultaneously snubbing their nose at the rest of the culture AND turning an American into a foreigner in her own home. (Which is why I'm against restauranteurs opening half-hearted "Asian" restaurants and thus further promoting/perpetuating that exoticism/objectification/cultural appropriation.)

Maybe I can see how the author came off as too accusatory to some, but I share her some of her frustration and disappointment too so it's hard for me to write her off completely. I'm really glad that in spite of your reservations to her view you gave this comment a shot!

Welcome to reality.

There were like five kids who weren't made to feel like the other in school. Okay, so you were made to feel like the other for being Asian-American. White kids were made to feel like the other for being fat or poor or redneck or having a oddly-shaped head or whatever. Everyone feels like the other growing up whether or not they had pasta for dinner.

Really? REALLY?

Except that being mocked for the shape of your head is something that happens only in school. When you're made fun of for your race, or your sexuality, or something else that's a societally-oppressed class, it doesn't end at school, and so all the teasing takes on a more painful shade.

In other words, go back to Racism/Social Justice 101, please.

I guess you don't have a funny-shaped head

In what universe do you think people stop being mocked once they leave school? I suspect you have been too busy cataloging your own oppression to notice what's going on around you in the real world.

"Imagine if America became a

"Imagine if America became a trend, and diners used the flag as a napkin to wipe ketchup off their face..."

Have you never left the US? There are restaurants like this where other cultures "bastardize" American food ALL OVER THE WORLD. And you know what? I don't feel crushed and disappointed when I see them. I either think "that looks gross" or "what a creative interpretation of [insert food here]!"

Japan is a major offender in this department and you'd probably know that if you were as in touch with your culture as you say you are.

a pleasure to read!

Thanks for this! We're all in this together.

I think you are being

I think you are being incredibly racist to the people of Spain, and to me as a thrid generation spanish-american, mayonnaise is not american, it's from Spain, a country that right now is in a deep economic crisis....

i think you don't understand

i think you don't understand the meaning of racism.

i think you don't undersatand

i think you don't undersatand sarcasm...

How dare you appropriate the

How dare you appropriate the food of the city of Mahon into your Spanish manifest destiny? The Illes Baleares are proudly Catalan-speaking Catalonians! Jo no sóc espanyol!

Pho real?

I'm sure it's hard to be a minority in America and I can't pretend to understand that, but I think it's amazing that you grew up eating something different than the average American. I think it makes you unique and it's something to be cherished. Why does it have to be something negative? I know there's a lot of racism and people go about trying to be culturally sensitive and fight racism in less-than-perfect ways, but why do you assume that everyone is trying to learn about other cultures and their foods merely to be "cool"? Can't they have interest outside their own background without being labelled culturally insensitive? I'm confused about what your friends should have done and I think I would have been insulted if I was your friend and read this post. In the same paragraph you say you watched other kids to learn how to eat pulled pork, then mock people who have never eaten pho and are unsure of themselves. Yes, it is a little racist that they expect you to know how to eat it because you are Vietnamese, but dude, you did grow up eating Vietnamese food! And you are Vietnamese, why is it that bad that they expect you to know about Vietnamese food? It's a little ignorant, yes, but I think their intentions are good. Why is it so bad they are trying to be "global citizens" anyway? Should they just sit at home and eat pb and j?

I apologize if I have been unintentionally ignorant or racist, which I'm sure someone will claim I have been, but this issue frustrates me because I have nothing but the best intention,s as I'm sure your friends do, and you mock people like that behind their backs! By all means call out the intentionally racist or the unintentional but hurtful prejudiced remark, but really, I think you are wrong when you say you're lunch mates are just trying to impress their friends by eating pho with you. If you feel like that, why eat lunch with them anyway?

If I am missing something in this issue, please explain. Like I said, I'm not a minority (although I have been in other countries I've lived in), so I'm sure it's offensive if you think people are just using you. And some of them maybe are. But I just think you should have a more optimistic view of human nature.

Sorry, I should also add that

Sorry, I should also add that you are an excellent writer, and I agree that cultural insensitivity and reduction are common problems. Then again, it is hard to not reduce cultures to stereotypes because there are so many different cultures in America (part of what I love about it) and that's just how the human brain operates - drawing conclusions based on the facts they have at hand. How could we solve that?

My biggest problem is when people think less of other people based on their heritage or culture or race. I honestly think people are inherently the same everywhere, just with different eating habits or clothes they wear or climate they live in. I think it's amazing to be different and to realize that every single person is unique and interesting. People just need to realize that their own culture isn't superior or inferior, it's just different.

Anyway, the real point of this post was that I wanted to let you know I enjoyed your writing, I just think you were a little too harsh in your judgement of other people's intentions.

1. I agree with you that

1. I agree with you that collective image/PR matters for people. We reject shitty racist stereotypes. So do you really need to insist on putting Third World Suffering, all that les damnes de la terre stuff, out in front? You think it's BETTER if people see the Philippines on a map and think "deadly floods requiring Red Cross" rather than "lechon is delicious"?
2. stop giving racist loser videos more clicks just to make the most tangential of points (and yes they're losers, they're not profiting from their efforts, Rebecca Black has had more of a career than that)
3. why do you write as if the opinions of white kids about asian food matters more than those of asian kids? indeed, why is it important for whites to Understand The Asian American Experience at all -- is there some weird validation thing going on here? as if it's not a PBS documentary-worthy Ethnic American Experience unless some white kids can discuss it with expert proficiency! (let's talk about another minority, one smaller than asians and suffering more: soldiers returning from our wars. who in mainstream civilian america understand THEIR experience? and yet they get along fine, as fine as can be in between PTSD episodes: certainly they aren't suffering from the angst of NOT HAVING THE DOMINANT GAZE ON ME, they DGAF about your sissy civilian "understanding".)

So right

I totally get you, Soleil Ho, and thank you especially for the paragraph on authenticity and nostalgia. Also: isn't it truly amazing how entitled some people act?

know the context

people who are offended don't understand how these uneven "exchanges" of culture are built on histories of extreme violence and oppression. when people of color eat or adopt things practiced by "white americans" it's because it is a culture that has been imposed on us from birth, often forcefully through colonization and imperialism, or systems of racism that shame us for not doing so. meanwhile our cultures have been systemically attacked, here and in the countries of our heritage. our languages have been made illegal. our agriculture has been changed for the benefit of large multinational corporations. we have been attacked throughout our lives for the food that we eat. we are often in this country due to those histories. our lives are shaped by these histories. and as we try to hold onto the pieces of what has been so violently taken from us throughout history, it then becomes appropriated and commercialized in a way that does not respect or honor us, but expects us to provide even more resources that either come to represent us as a whole or are completely appropriated and turned into something else. meanwhile, whether or not our food has been "discovered", people of color still continue to face America's extreme ignorance every day of our lives, often in violent and debilitating ways. that's why when white people start consuming our foods when they become trendy enough, while believing they are "discovering" or "elevating" them, it becomes problematic. please read the nuances of this article and stop yourself from your endless track of ignorance and defensiveness.

Thank you for writing this!

This was great to read. I'm arabic, and in grade school (in the 70's) other kids would make fun of me for my "smushed up" lunches - sandwiches made with pita bread rather than "regular" sliced bread. As health food shops started popping up I'd see more and more pita sandwiches, but the humus or felafel or whathaveyou would be topped with sprouts and shaved carrots and very non traditional things like that. Like, tabbouli is a salad made with 90% parsely, not a 90% grain dish with a smattering of green flecks. It drives me crazy, still. Great that these foods are popular, but either do it right or call it something else! (/end rant).

My experience in no way compares to disgusting Orientalism, it was just nice to read a similar complaint. Food and culture are completely intertwined and it sucks to have the culture and history stripped out of a dish so it can be sold to the masses. Change the name, at least - acknowledge that it's now something different.

Change the name, at least -

Change the name, at least - acknowledge that it's now something different.

Exactly.

This piece is AWESOME. 'Nuff

This piece is AWESOME.

'Nuff said.

Of course your food is other,

Of course your food is other, you're Vietnamese. Vietnamese food is not even as common as Chinese nor Japanese. It's exotic and different. I find this utterly ridiculous and am quite annoyed. If we need to have a discussion about people
enjoying foreign food, we're going too far and lost sight of why cultural appropriation matters. I find it funny that you mention Bagel Bites and typical American dishes, why isn't that cultural appropriation? It was other for you. You wanted what you didn't have, the same as them.

you're simple-minded :]

you're simple-minded :]

confused

I went to Vietnam and the food was awesome. The people who sell food on the street were pretty much cool, super friendly and stuff. I want to write about all this on my food blog, because I really liked Vietnam, and I think other people should go there to visit and eat. It's a wonderful place.
But now I'm confused. Do you think I should work into, in my blog posts, info about how the Vietnamese government jails newspaper writers, oppresses Christians, and appropriates land from farmers? Should I talk about the poverty I saw, and about how some (apparently) well-connected rich kids drive around in SUVS, ie about drastic differences in income levels? Our guide told us that there are usually horrible floods in Hanoi and Hue on a monsoon season. Should I include that too?

Or would it be OK to just talk about the super awesome crab and noodle soup I ate in Hanoi?

Trying to Connect

I completely agree with the author about how "ethnic" food is described, about foodies searching for authenticity, and about that stupid Andrew Zimmern show. But, I really am struggling to understand why her interactions with "I love Pho" commenters makes her so upset. I want to know, so that I don't offend people when I tell them I love certain foods from where they or their family came from.

Because, I myself, love it when people tell me that they love Persian food (I'm Persian). At the end of the day, I just see this as people trying to connect to one another. When someone tells me that they love Persian food, I know that on some level, they are just trying to say, "Hey, we have something in common: we both appreciate something beautiful--and delicious--about your culture/background/family history/etc." And, is that really so surprising? Food plays a HUGE role culture. So much of our lives revolve around food: what types of food do we eat, how is it prepared, who do we eat with, etc.

I'm just not ready to condemn everyday folks looking to connect.

I love Persian food

I'm gonna be honest here, if I met you and you told me you were Persian, the first thing I would say is "I love Persian food!" And I'm glad that you wouldn't be offended by that. Frankly, I think the author's feelings about white people run a lot deeper than whether or not they like pho.

just hungry...

And then there are those of us who just like the taste of a certain type of food, and don't give a damn about anything else. We're not trying to appropriate anyone's culture, we're just hungry.

Guilty As Charged.

Yup, I'm guilty of watching other people eat. I'm guilty of asking people outside my ethnicity for advice on how to eat a certain dish. I'm not doing it for bragging rights. When I do it, it's because I'm unfamiliar with the cuisine and I don't want to look like a dumbass by eating it wrong. Or I don't want to miss out on an amazing culinary experience because I forgot to use right condiment.

I have these insecurities because I've had restaurant waitstaff chastise me for eating something the "wrong" way. This has happened to me a few times. I know they're trying to be helpful and I appreciate that they have good intentions, but it's embarrassing. I'd rather save myself the trouble by asking a friend for help or by watching other diners for clues.

Why would you think this is limited to the U.S.?

And yet this entire article is based on the premise that it's only Americans who do this. Yet when I went to China, everyone was anxious to a) practice their English, b) tell me how much they loved American food, especially fast-food hamburgers. Were they just being overly polite and welcoming?

The Japanese sub-cuisine known as yoshoku is very specifically the adaptation of foreign cuisine to Japanese tastes (think uni spaghetti). Mexicali has hundreds, if not thousands, of restaurants serving would-be Cantonese food that caters to the Mexican palate—and it's completely different compared to the Chinese-American places just over the border in Calexico. Cultural appropriation and "dumbing down" isn't limited to the U.S.

I eat what is good. Chowhound helped me find places that titillated my taste buds (uh oh, objectifying language!) on budgets my impecunious twentysomething wallet could afford. Then I wrote about it, because I was genuinely excited that such things existed in Los Angeles.

Food eaten outside its place of origination doesn't give insight into the culture it represents so much as it gives the desire to get to know the culture it represents.

Finally, the reason people tell you they love pho rather than Vietnamese food in general is that outside the loci of Vietnamese immigration (Orange County, the San Gabriel Valley, San Jose, Houston, Minneapolis, etc.), most people's only experience with Vietnamese cuisine is pho and the other dishes that pho shops in the US tend to sell, like bun thit nuong, goi cuon, cha gio, and ca phe sua da... and if you think about what someone in Sioux Falls, South Dakota probably grew up eating, the flavors in those foods are a huge wakeup call.

Let me tell you why, friend.

Hi Dave, fellow food writer extraordinaire,

The difference between my experience in the U.S. and your experience in China is that you went to a foreign country as a foreigner. Thus, you were treated like one. It would be foolish to pretend that this isn't a typical experience for tourists. The behavior of the people you are talking about served as a reminder that you were an "other," a mere visitor.

However, I, an American-born citizen, have been treated in similar ways in my own country. The behavior that I describe in my essay served as a reminder that I am an "other," a mere visitor in the place where I was born and raised. This is a phenomenon that many Asian Americans experience: that of being the constant foreigner, despite how we may actually act or feel.

Much of what I'm interested in as a writer and cultural theorist is based on the idea that things aren't always what they seem; that our behaviors in the here and now are the result of decades upon centuries of ideological shaping and historical trends. If you're interested in learning more about where I'm coming from with my critique, I would recommend reading "Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction" (http://tinyurl.com/q4dqjl7) or "An Introduction to Postcolonial Theory" (a pdf of the introduction of the introduction is here: http://tinyurl.com/ohtqcdr).

The article's premise is

The article's premise is interesting, but the work itself confuses a hand-picked collection of anecdotes and ignorant statements made to the author and seen by her in menus, on cooking shows, etc, as representative of Western appreciation for foreign cuisine. The author also attacks the fact chefs have been known to make arrogant statements about the superiority of their own cuisine at the expense of the food of other cultures, yet ignores the fact this is seen all over: go watch a cooking channel in Turkey, or Brazil, or China, or Japan, or India. Superlatives abound describing their own foodstuffs. That cultures believe their own foods to be the best is neither unique to the West nor necessarily an aspect of colonialism in the least.

Further, the flippant remarks about Marco Polo, one of the most influential explorers in Western history whose works reveal a deep fascination and respect f or the cultures he visited were themselves ignorant and stereotyping:

"These items speak to the Westerner as cultural connoisseur and authority, a theme that has shone like a brilliant Angolan diamond in the imperialist imagination ever since Marco Polo first rushed back to Europe to show off the crazy Chinese “ice cream” that he discovered on his travels."

Characterizing Marco Polo's arduous journey back to what is now Italy as a "rush" to "show off" ice cream (itself an unsubstantiated legend that ignores that the Arabs and Romans had comparable foodstuffs) is just as ridiculous as portraying China with a gong crash and red and gold decorations on a silly cooking show. You may reply that your comment was a joke, which is exactly how one would expect the producers of the television show you mentioned to respond about their Chinese food episode.

Consider the function of humour in daytime media before employing it yourself, please.

Finally, I've often had people mention certain foodstuffs when I mention my ethnic origin, and I always find it flattering. Their intention is almost universally to show their openness towards my background in a world where prejudice abounds, and even when they mention a foodstuff I don't like, I appreciate the intentions of their gesture.

An analysis of how foreign foods are portrayed in the West would be interesting, but this piece is far more of a frustrated windmill-tilt than a proper exploration. Quite disappointing.

I completely agree with

I completely agree with this.
I'm Vietnamese currently living in London and I find it flattering too. I haven't had one person however straight out say to me 'you're Vietnamese ! I love pho!' It's usually been later on in the conversation or they have simply asked what food I tend to eat at home.

Okay. I read this really

Okay.
I read this really trying to get behind your point, but I found the whole thing over-generalising and quite bitter.
There are some people that will equate a food with a persons whole culture and think they know them, but then there are equally people who just don't do that.
I'd like to know how the writer thinks, in particular white people, should go about eating. I'm genuinely confused as to whether you are saying putting kimchi on pizza is a bad thing?
Since turning a vegetarian in a situation where a lot of the food around me is meat, I looked online for recipes I could use, many of them used ingredients from other countries. Because I would never want to knowingly offend someone, could somebody shine some light on how this article would relate to somebody like me? I do not 'elevate' foreign food.

There is nothing wrong with

There is nothing wrong with "elevating" food that is foreign to you. All cultures do it. Even when they take American food and put a spin on it. All "elevating" foreign food does is make it more appealing to the culture it's being brought into so that the people of the culture will (more likely than not) find it better for them. Does this mean it makes the food better over all? That's really objective. It depends on the person eating it. For instance, if you live in a culture where most people are not used to extremely spicy foods but wanting to make food from a culture that has very spicy food you would tone down the heat so that people from the culture not used to the spice could eat it. It's because you feel the food wasn't good until your culture got a hold of it, but you were making it so that your culture could enjoy a taste of it. There is nothing wrong with that.

And as far as "equating a food with a person whole culture" goes. What the OP is talking about was more than likely her American friends finding something to relate to with her, not say "hey I know your culture because I like Pho", she was just taking it too sensitively. When you meet someone new and you want to get to know them, you first have to connect with them. If it's someone from a different culture you grasp at what you know from their culture, in this person's case it was food. Because honestly, who wants to meet someone new and start out with "I know all this horrible stuff that happens in your home country."?

Long story short. You are doing nothing wrong, OP is trying find offence where none should be taken.

**It's not because you

**It's not because you thought the food wasn't good

I think what you are missing

I think what you are missing with the encounters you are finding so offensive is something you are, in fact, doing yourself and you pointed it out here:

"When I tell white Americans about the Maggi-and-margarine sandwiches and cold-cut rice bowls that I used to eat, they tend to wrinkle their noses and wonder aloud why I would reject my grandmother’s incredible, authentic Vietnamese food for such bastardizations. What I don’t tell them is, “It’s because I wanted to be like you.”"

Why did they tell you "Hey I like Pho!"? Because they wanted to connect with you and let you know you had something in common to break the ice. They wanted to be like you.

Cultural consumption: what the pho-ck?

I remember when none of my friends knew what pho was. Now at the slightest mention of my Vietnamese heritage, friends and strangers alike wax poetic in their adulation of steaming bowls of pho and crispy banh mi. But I can’t imagine, in Saigon, someone going out to have Ethiopian or Greek food the way white Americans rush headlong to Argyle in Chicago for gastronomic discovery. It’s inconceivable.

I wonder if you're basing

I wonder if you're basing this on actual visits to Saigon or on imagination. I'm a second-generation Asian immigrant, and in my travels to my home country (which have occurred every 2 years or so throughout my life), people are ever so eager to tell me how much they enjoy American fast-food and point out the newest American food franchises that opened in the city. Fast food isn't a delicacy to me, but people assumed I would like it because I'm from America--even though my race and heritage are 100% Asian. I don't consider this racist, or other-ist, or bad, and I shouldn't.

Like many other commenters here, I believe the author is taking offense where none is due. Having grown up trying to eat like an American and believing her own culture's food to be inferior, she is experiencing cognitive dissonance when faced with peers in college who like and take interest in her culture's food. She can only make sense of it by assuming those peers are trying to become "global citizens" to stroke their own egos. Thus, if she introduces herself as Vietnamese and they express interest in her food, she can safely categorize them as racist egoists who don't want to see her as a human. This is easier to rationalize with her childhood thought process. To recognize that they're responding to her introduction with an honest attempt to find common ground, she would first have to believe that Vietnamese food is worth appreciating, and that someone might actually do so. Then, she could grow up, and instead of giving them a fake way to pronounce "Pho", she might say, "Really? I never liked it myself," give them a fuller view of her character, and not need to rant on the Internet to relieve her bitterness.

What the pho-ck, cultural consumption?!

I remember when none of my friends knew what pho was. Now at the slightest mention of my Vietnamese heritage, friends and strangers alike wax poetic in their adulation of steaming bowls of pho and crispy banh mi. But I can’t imagine, in Saigon, someone going out to have Ethiopian or Greek food the way white Americans rush headlong to Argyle in Chicago for gastronomic discovery. It’s inconceivable.

Except they totally do . . .

I can't speak to Saigon, but in Seoul people do exactly that. Korean food blogs are full of information on where to try wood oven-fired pizza, directions to sushi bars reigned over by chefs from Japan, which hotel is hosting a special tasting menu in collaboration with the Spanish embassy, and where you can find the hip new bakery making artisan loaves or vegan cupcakes. And just like in the west, people do it for reasons that are complicated, from genuine appreciation of the food, to try new things, to show off their affluence, and to gain prestige by staking a claim to a cosmopolitan, global identity.

Amazing article !!! Thank you

Amazing article !!! Thank you for your analysis and for sharing your experience, I never thought of food this way. I was not aware it was that much a problem.

Food then is the perfect archetype of culture appropriation, a part of culture transformed and consumed by the "west world" for their enjoyment of something other, a literal experience (a taste) of the "exotic", as if a culture was a thing to be bought and lived as a ride on a roller-coaster. And I don't know if the gross essentialisation is worst or not.

thanks again :)

I should stay home and eat oat cakes, I guess

Wow, talk about inciting paranoia. . . the fact that I enjoy the foods of many cultures now seems somehow shameful to me. And since I'm an Anglo, of Scottish, Welsh and Irish ancestry, perhaps I should only be enjoying potatoes and haggis, given than anything else would be an attempted and unappreciated appropriation of others' foods for nefarious reasons? Honestly, I feel that I've been chastised for the sin of exploration and appreciation. Bummer, back to the oatmeal for me.

Thanks for writing this!

Thanks for writing this! You've written what's on my mind a lot, and many of your lines are golden!

Thanks for wittily capturing

Thanks for wittily capturing my own feelings about food appropriation by fashionable scenes of the day! For the hurt commenters below, appropriation is not the same thing as eating something and appreciating it. It's just the accompanying attitudes of cultural ownership, which have mostly to do with aggrandizing oneself as an eater/cultured person rather than eating the food. I think a measure of deference/humbleness/sincerity and recognition of one's separateness are key when invited into someone else's "home."

YES. It's the attitude of

YES. It's the attitude of cultural ownership that's totally gross, especially when the "cultured person" knows more about a given aspect of my cultural food (like a particular regional Japanese delicacy) than I do and then acts all superior and cosmopolitan.

food is a commonality for ALL

food is a commonality for ALL people. talking about food is akin to talking about the weather. it's completely inoffensive banter, and making it seem like it has some underlying nefarious goal is a complete mischaracterization. this article is like the people who are really condescending about liking good bands before "they sold out." look, people try to relate to others, that is just human nature. if you think something has worth and value there is no reason why it shouldn't be enjoyed by everyone.

Thank you.

As a Japanese-American, this article hit the spot. I can't TELL you how many times white people have gotten all cultured and cosmopolitan and hip around me when they wax rhapsodic about whatever Japanese delicacy they've discovered. I particularly hate people telling me how they love some Japanese delicacy that I've never heard of or have never tried or just don't like, and then they act all surprised and superior and start whitesplaining the dish to me as if THEY are the ones initiating ME into Japanese food. It makes me feel less Japanese in a society that ALREADY is trying to take my cultural heritage away from me. I also saw an article that was like "Move over ramen, udon is the new thing!" as if the food I've been eating all my life are flashy trends-of-the-moment that can be taken up or discarded at will. So gross.

I have nothing against people of all ethnicities enjoying all the little teriyaki joints we have in California, for example. I even love that Japanese food has become such an engrained part of Californian culture. But it crosses the line when people get all snooty, act like they're the rightful owners of my culture, and take up and throw away that culture at whim.

The reflexive property of culture

The reflexive property of culture is what ruins the substance of the foodie appreciation. I am Iranian, thus all things Iranian I shall be/consume; conversely I shall be/consume all things Iranian, thus I am Iranian. In any culture that honors Experts only, there will always be this problem. Great piece.