Anybody who has spoken to me before knows that cultural identity is a very important issue in my life. There are various posts on this blog that focus on how I’ve tried to understand who I am and what my culture and race mean to me on a larger scale, which you can see here.
In an older blog post, I wrote about the difference between surface and deep culture, and how that was manifested in things like food and language, and familial relations (respectively). Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between culture and environment, the interactions people have with my culture, and the problem of cultural erasure (even in academic contexts, but really, who wants to read anything more than 160 characters long? Anyway). I think it’s time for me to revisit the topic of food after taking some time away from it.
Of course, as always, it’s not my duty to speak on behalf of anybody but myself, nor do I claim to be the knower of all things about my culture – in fact, I personally feel the opposite is true in that I probably know less about my culture than I make it seem. But that does not mean that my experiences are less valid than someone else’s.
A Bit of Cultural Background
I was born and raised in Western Canada, and grew up in a predominantly South Asian community. My parents immigrated here in the 90’s from a small country on the South East Asian island of Borneo named Brunei.
My grandmother is the first real star of my experience with food. She was a young girl amidst WWII and spent a lot of her time running from Japanese soldiers during their occupation of the island. She learned to cook to help keep her family alive during desperate times, and when she was older she worked as a chef for a brigade of the British army (who were of Nepalese descent – the Gurkhas, as they were known; both Nepal and Brunei were affiliated with the British at the time, with Nepal as a buffer state between China and India, and Brunei as a colony).
My grandmother was Malaysian and Borneo Native, but with through her experiences, her interaction with food was naturally a “fusion” because of the area in which she grew up, the people she was around, and her ties to her own background. Her cooking had its roots in her native cuisine, plus the spices of Malaysian cuisine (which were influenced by India with the expansion of trade routes across the Indian Ocean), and the inspiration of Nepalese cuisine.
The second star of my experience with food is my dad. My dad is a great cook, and has always urged me to appreciate cultures firstly through their food. My dad took on after my grandmother’s fusion-type cooking style – every ingredient is tied to some part of history that both of them could recount. There is always a reason why a certain dish is the way it is.
This is a bit of a reiteration and condensation of my older post mentioned earlier, but there isn’t any harm in repeating for those who don’t care too much about revisiting.
Public school was the gateway into the initial deterioration of my relationship with my culture. Of course, there are many aspects of one’s cultural identity that aren’t affected by external environments, such as notions of courtesy and cleanliness, but a lot of the surface culture aspects had to be set aside to assimilate.
This meant that I could not speak Mandarin because it made me sound funny and because there was no one else to speak it to, and that it was probably better if I kept my “smelly dog meat” lunches at home. Traditional Chinese dresses (Mandarin: qipao; Cantonese: cheongsam) were also not as pretty as western-styled dresses, and thus, they shouldn’t be worn to school during special occasions.
I internalized a lot of these sentiments as I grew older until at one point, I refused to speak Mandarin and wear anything traditional. I became very racist towards myself and suffered a lot through the shedding of my culture, and the re-identification with it years later. The only connection I had with my culture that I could not forcibly escape was food.
Food was and is the center of most family functions. Food is a means of communication between generations of people, a reason to sit down together and focus on something other than ourselves, and has a way of surfacing many subtle aspects of deep culture. For example, politeness is exemplified in the act of asking everybody to eat, waiting until those who are older than you have eaten before you start, and having the youngest capable person at the table pour tea for those older than them (generally grandparents and parents).
Despite the importance of food in my culture, I still felt immense shame because of it. I remember bringing baos to school, which are a type of stuffed bun (and a very tame food, I might add – nothing saucy or smelly about it), and being degraded for how weird it looked, and it struck me as odd because people could eat chop suey and beef and broccoli, but could not stand the sight of something non-westernized.
Note: Chop suey is the Cantonese equivalent translation of “leftovers”, and broccoli is an Italian vegetable (thus beef and broccoli is not a traditional Chinese dish, although it was imported to China as a delicacy when trade was thriving and made its way into the cuisine). Chinese food and American-Chinese food are completely different.
The Problem of Orientalism, Erasure, and Fusion
Gonna sneak in a bit of post-colonial theory in here.
Orientalism and the Myth of the East and West
Orientalism is an academic term used to describe a critical approach to the representation of the Orient (encompassing Asia, or the East) in comparison to the Occident (or the West). In particular, it describes the Western scholarship of the Eastern world. Edward Said, theorist and author of the text Orientalism (1978), said that orientalism is inextricably tied to the imperialist societies that produced it – that “the East” is not a concrete thing, but rather a social construction – and is therefore always engaging in an imbalanced power dynamic against the West. Orientalism IS the exaggeration of difference, and thus the source of inaccurate cultural representations. While Said focused his theory on the Middle East, such is also true for other areas encompassed by the umbrella of the Orient.
Do you know any words that have no equivalent translation in English? Sometimes known as “untranslatable” (which is inaccurate because they’re translating them, just not in the equivalent), these words often describe experiences that are specific to a region or culture – hence we end up with “untranslatable” words for “untranslatable” experiences.
Colonial language marks the Orient as other (other to the self – the Occident), and in Canada, assimilation means adopting the oppressive colonial language to describe culture, practices, and so on. Colonial language does the culture and language of racialized people a disservice because it takes Western concepts and attitudes and tries to fit them into a very “foreign”, Western framework.
An example of this is the idea that fusion food is “modern”. Modernity holds specific connotations in the West, and because of the power imbalance between Orient and Occident, conceptualizations of modern, Western food (or modernized cultural food) imply that traditional food is in the past and outdated. This value of modernity is centred around the capitalist structure in that being “up to date” is a measure of productivity in regards to competition, and productivity is good within capitalist frameworks for those that own and maintain the means of production (thus, more profit).
To me, fusion food comes with the image of more people coming together to create such dishes, implying mass immigration towards “tolerant” societies, but this also is paired with the idea that Asian countries are not the places in which that happens. As you’ve seen at the beginning of this post, fusion is not a modern device – it’s been done since trade routes became accessible and people started immigrating and emigrating. So why must we commend “the modern West” for being able to bring cultures together as if it’s the only place/time in the world that does that?
Because of the power imbalance, erasure of specific cultures/cuisines becomes possible. South East Asian cuisine, as well as its people, are often blanketed as East Asian, which erases unique cultural experiences and practices, as well as the history of those societies.
People in the “modern West” don’t realize that there is another level of power imbalances between East Asians and South East Asians, where East Asia is seen as superior in many aspects (such as language – a popular sentiment is that East Asian languages are more prosodically harmonious and therefore purer than South East Asian languages). Noodle dishes are not made the same in Vietnam as they are in China for both geographical and cultural reasons.
For example, when you search “Asian Food” on Google Images, you’ll notice that half the dishes on the return are Chinese dishes and/or are paired with chopsticks (compared to one image that contained any utensils at all with the search, “American Food”). This discrepancy targets the “otherness” of using chopsticks to eat, the homogenization of Asian cuisine, and it assumes that all “Asian food” is eaten with chopsticks (which it isn’t – Thai food is eaten with forks and spoons, and Malay food is eaten without any utensils, for example).
Fun (?) note: Google images has a function where you can see similar searches just underneath the search bar once you’ve retrieved something. Upon my search of “Asian Food”, one of the suggested searches was “Dog Meat”. Go figure?
My problem with fusion food is not necessarily the fusions themselves – I don’t believe that a cuisine of a certain culture must never cross over into another or adopt influences. However, with that being said, the way “fusion” cuisine is spoken about and carried out in the West, and particularly by those with privilege, plays on the experience of social oppression of racialized people, and profits off of this oppression.
When Bao Down, a popular eatery in my area, introduced a new and modern bao that looked like a sad taco (sorry), many of the people who criticized the traditional bao I’d brought to school a couple years prior raved over how new and exciting it was, uprooting much annoyance in me. This sad taco bao thing existed more comfortably in my own society than I ever will.
I also don’t like the fact that there are many local, family-owned businesses close to Bao Down that make homemade baos every day and sell for a fraction of the cost of “modernized baos“, yet these modern baos make much more revenue and promote gentrification within the area (based in Gastown/East Vancouver/Chinatown).
Edit: My friend Johnny informed me that Bao Down’s bao style are “another traditional variant” known as the gua bao, from Taiwan. You can read more about it here, and see the resemblance between the picture in this post and the picture on this page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gua_bao
Again, I think the issue still remains that the notion that these baos are modern and Western and not from Taiwan, which is false.
“So what’s the point?”
If this was too long and you didn’t read it because your brain is only capable of reading 160 characters at a time, this is your chance to get a quick and easy TL;DR.
My point is that when culture becomes a means of profit for people in power regardless of who’s doing the cooking, especially when it is done without understanding the roots and history from which it stems, “modernized food” can become a place of appropriation and theft rather than comfort.
My point is that there are people out there creating “fusion” food every day because of how they’ve grown up, because of their environment, or because of the people they are surrounded by, and are not making as much as the cheap, bastardized versions of very surface-level aspects of culture rather than its nuances.
My point is that there are ways to fuse food (and support this type of fusion!) without sacrificing culture. Here is a video of Jamaican-Korean fusion restaurant, Spicy Belly, in Philadelphia run by two brothers whose Korean mother and Jamaican father influenced their cooking as they grew up:
I’d love to hear what you think about this post! Please feel free to leave a comment or send me a message. This is definitely a watered down version of the argument at hand – questions are very much encouraged to promote open learning on both of our ends.