New & NowChinese

Who Has the Right to Capitalize on a Culture’s Cuisine?

18 Save

If you like it, save it!

Save and organize all of the stuff you love in one place.

Got it!

If you like something…

Click the heart, it's called favoriting. Favorite the stuff you like.

Got it!

Six years ago, I published a story about a live octopus hot pot I ate in Queens that hinged on a video of the cephalapod writhing across a hot stew of vegetables. Predictably, animal rights activists skewered me for my insensitivity, and as someone who wrestles constantly with questions of ethical eating, I can’t say that I blame them.

But I’m more uncomfortable with that piece today because it was sloppy journalism: it was a story built solely for page views, and to accomplish that goal, it removed an aspect of Korean food culture from its broader context and exploited its oddness for the American audience. Worse, I, a white woman who grew up on the Wonderbread cuisine of middle America (and had eaten Korean food about 10 times before writing that piece), potentially shamed Korean readers for their food habits while elevating myself for being “brave” and trying such a “bizarre” food.

This type of journalism—and dining—has been a major component of American food culture over the last several years. A few years ago, New York had an annual balut-eating contest, daring diners to house fertilized duck embryos popular in many Southeast Asian nations as fast as they could. The Travel Channel airs a show called “Bizarre Foods,” and bills it as an exploration of other cultures via the weirdest regional specialties host and creator Andrew Zimmern can find. Outlets as diverse as National Geographic, USA Today, and Buzzfeed have run columns asking travel journalists, “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?” Eating clubs fetishize dining on odd animal parts or racy chilies or fermented vegetables; restaurateurs and chefs scour the globe for inspiration that hasn’t yet hit mainstream eating consciousness; and writers rush to collect street cred by “discovering” “new” cuisines and ethnic enclaves.

But over the last year, we—diners, chefs, journalists—have begun to discuss whether this is okay. Who has the right to capitalize on a particular culture’s cuisine? Who has the right to cook it, and who can write about it?

The traditional courtyard homes of Beijing are one of the most unique parts of the city.
The traditional courtyard homes of Beijing are one of the most unique parts of the city. Photo by Rob Christensen

I’ve spent the last year pondering this from afar. Last June, I touched down in Beijing, where I planned to spend a year studying Chinese food and agriculture so that I could eventually write a book, and so that I could immediately apply what I was learning to stories I'd pen for a variety of publications. I hadn’t been here long when campus protests erupted across the States, bringing to the forefront, among other issues, a roiling conversation about cultural appropriation, which, as transgender writer and activist Julia Serrano masterfully articulates, takes issue with white Americans profiting off of cultural contributions made by minorities and outside groups, while erasing those groups from the cultural historical record in the process, or worse, denigrating those groups by perpetuating negative stereotypes.

The author and her partner, Rob, at a street they frequented full of restaurants famous for crayfish and bullfrog hotpot.
The author and her partner, Rob, at a street they frequented full of restaurants famous for crayfish and bullfrog hotpot. Photo by Rob Christensen

I watched the discussion hit the food world soon after, when Rick Bayless caught flak for building an empire off of Mexican food, and Sean Brock and Mike Lata were chided for carrying the mantle of Southern food without properly acknowledging the slaves who'd originally brought to the region the dishes they were now using to form the foundation of their menus. In the journalism world, Eater’s Hillary Dixler found herself in the middle of her own appropriation controversy when she asked a black DC-based food historian whether Charleston’s food culture was appropriative (thereby launching that Brock/Lata controversy), after which John T. Edge and Tunde Wey discussed whether white writers should be commenting on black food at all.

"I didn’t expect to love learning Chinese characters, but I came to appreciate them as an art form," Laura says.
"I didn’t expect to love learning Chinese characters, but I came to appreciate them as an art form," Laura says. Photo by Rob Christensen

It’s been an odd conversation to observe from China, partially because I’m living in a culture where the power dynamics are reversed: I am the outsider. Moreover, unlike an immigrant in America, who can eventually become a naturalized citizen, I will never be Chinese, no matter how long I live here, how well I speak the language, or how much I fold myself into society. Even if I married a Chinese person and had half-Chinese children, I would still be a wai guo ren—a foreigner.

Therefore, it is totally non-threatening for me to write about, learn about, or cook Chinese food here—Chinese culture reigns supreme as the superior culture of the land, and China doesn’t much care what a non-Chinese person has to say about it. Of course they should want to participate in this culture, the thinking goes. It’s the best. The cultural appropriation debate is not a conversation China is interested in having, at least not in the way we’re having it.

But this is not really a conversation about China—it’s a conversation about America, and what it means to be American, and it’s about to get personally relevant for me: I’m getting ready to come back to America, and when I start to write about Chinese food there, I’m going to be forced out of the observational perch into which I’ve comfortably nested abroad. I’m going to have to confront this conversation head-on, and, as Edge said, I’m going to have to prepare to be uncomfortable with other Americans who disagree with me or take issue with my context.

And context is not easy. Living and researching here has made me realize how much Chinese food—hell, Chinese culture—has been flattened in mainstream American conversation. Despite how it's presented, China is not a monolith. It's a country with incredible regional diversity, and it’s more accurate to talk about Hunan cuisine or Xinjiang cuisine or Yunnan cuisine than it is to talk about Chinese cuisine. These are all Chinese cuisines—but they’re about as different from each other as German food is from southern Italian, or Tex-Mex is from mid-Atlantic seafood.

Sijiminfu’s Peking duck represents a style of duck roasting that was invented 150 years ago.
Sijiminfu’s Peking duck represents a style of duck roasting that was invented 150 years ago. Photo by Rob Christensen

Moreover, Chinese food, as with any part of a living culture, is not static. Sichuan food is world-famous for its spice, but the region boasts a 5,000-year-old history of civilization, and it didn't fully integrate chile peppers until the 1800s. The most common preparation of Beijing duck, an iconic dish here, evolved over at least 600 years, and didn't take its current state until the 1850s (and Da Dong, a celebrity restaurateur here, is famous because he tweaked that duck further in the 1990s). One of this country's most ubiquitous dishes, a spicy chicken number called la zi ji, was invented in the 1920s, and it didn’t become a menu staple until the 1990s.

As I think about who should tell that story, it’s weird to me that we’d necessarily expect Chinese-Americans to speak on behalf of the entire culinary canon. Asking your Chinese-American friend to weigh in on whether something is “authentically Chinese” strikes me as just as problematic as debasing their childhood comfort foods as “weird” or referring to a Chinese restaurant as a “discovery”: It totally misses that individual’s own history, personal identity, and, frankly, their American-ness, in favor of referring to them only by their race. (In a similar vein, any attempt to qualify anything in America as “authentic” misses the point—it’s been removed from its own complex cultural context and layered into the complex cultural context in America. To qualify a dish as such is to imagine it in some sort of cultural vacuum, and implies a kind of end of history -- that dish can no longer evolve or adapt to circumstance, we’re saying, or it will lose something essential.)

And to insist chefs adhere to recipes from their own cultural background or demand eaters not venture out to experience new cuisine seems to build the very walls we’re trying to tear down. Experiencing positive aspects of other cultures is often the first bridge to breaking down the other-ness barrier, and food seems like an obvious way to do this.

But to dismiss this conversation out of hand is dangerous. Because the problem is, a lot of us haven’t been asking any Chinese-Americans—or Chinese food experts—to weigh in on our “discoveries” or “oddities,” which means we’ve no hope of bridging any sort of cultural gap or increasing diners’ understanding of the cuisine. We’re stripping out the context, and so not only might we be unintentionally perpetrating negative stereotypes or myths, we’re likely missing out on incredible stories.

So where does that leave me? I’ve always seen my role as a journalist as an imperative to immerse myself in something so well that I can explain it, clearly and entertainingly, to my audience. To illuminate murky subjects. To find the story. China is now inescapably part of my own story, and that’s going to come into play, in ways both subtle and pointed, as I encounter things that are overtly Chinese and things that are not. It’s going to color my writing even if I try to separate it. But it’s on me to continue to expand my own understanding so that I can more accurately illuminate a realm of food that is tasty, relevant, and vastly underexplored, and it’s on me to listen to Chinese people and Chinese-Americans who might have a different perspective or interpretation, or who think I’m dead wrong.

It’s on me to be a better journalist. It’s on all of media to elevate voices of diverse backgrounds to add to our collective understanding of the complex cultural and racial history that we’re a part of in America. And it’s on all of us to consider the context of our actions, to seek perspective that might differ from our own, to engage in breaking down walls, to listen to each other, and to understand that America is really a patchwork of contributions from a multitude of backgrounds, and culture is always a work in progress.

It’s on us all to continue this conversation. And there’s no better place than over a meal.

Tags: Long Reads, Essay