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More than Meets the Eye: Looking to the Past to Understand the Cultural Appropriation of Asian Food

By Courtesy of @charlesdeluvio
By Angelina X. Ng, Contributing Writer

In the 2019 Netflix Film “Always Be My Maybe,” Marcus (Randall Park) tells Sasha (Ali Wong), the celebrity chef slash love interest in the midst of opening an upscale Asian restaurant, “Asian food shouldn't be served in a shot glass. It should be served in a big-ass bowl. You're just catering to rich white people.” It’s a statement that creates the tropey pre-happy-ending conflict, but it’s a loaded one: It references the history of Asian food in America and complicates the ever-growing conversation on cultural appropriation in the gastronomical world.

According to Krishnendu Ray, a professor of Food Studies at New York University, "American exposure to Chinese food has mostly been cheap Chinese food." This phenomenon has everything to do with the history of Chinese immigration to the United States. With a wave of Chinese railroad laborers in the 1860s, there was a demand for inexpensive, affordable Chinese food, particularly because these Chinese laborers were paid two-thirds what their white counterparts were. According to Yong Chen, the customers that helped introduce Chinese food into the Western mainstream following a boom in Chinese restaurant owners in the 1930s were, interestingly, also of marginalized communities: “bohemians, African Americans, and immigrants like Jews from Eastern Europe” provided the constant customers that sustained these businesses. Chinese American food has historically been marketed as inexpensive fare. Indian food, too, has historically been viewed as cheap in America: With an influx of Indian restaurants opening in the 1950s in major American cities, chefs chose to focus on the “British-ized version of Indian food,” and Indian food in America thus became defined by an incredibly narrow selection of (primarily North Indian) dishes: vindaloo, chicken tikka masala, naan. The lack of appreciation for the complexities of Indian food, which often has multiple ingredients and hours of prep time but is still expected to be affordable, has stunted the growth of Indian food in America. A history of labeling Asian food as affordable has led to an expectation of Asian food being inexpensive today, personified in the iconoclastic Chinese takeout box we see today — convenient, simple, cheap.

Perhaps this historical context, along with the lived realities of current times, explain the increasingly heated accusations about cultural appropriation of Asian food. As violence against AAPI people spiked, a protest sign went viral: “Love our people like you love our food.” Throughout the centuries, there’s been a shift from rejecting Asian food as “other” to discovering it as a culinary novelty. The popularization of previously maligned Asian practices is not unique to cuisine — it’s reflected in the adoption of yoga (which originated in the Vedic period in North India over 5,000 years ago) and martial arts (“Karate Kid,” anyone?) to the Western mainstream. Yet the disingenuity between the appreciation of Asian culture and the apparent apathy towards the injustices being directed towards the people whose cultures are being enjoyed understandably creates a sense of anger. It should come as no surprise, then, that watching non-Asian people adopt, and then profit off, the very same food that Asians have previously been mocked for, touches a nerve. Worse still, when white people take it upon themselves to “improve” and “modernize” Asian cuisine — like when Karen Taylor, a white woman, dubbed herself the Queen of Congee and began selling apple cinnamon and mango and sticky rice flavored versions of the traditionally savory Asian rice porridge.

To be clear, the problem is not in being inspired by other cultures, but rather, recognizing, in chef Christine Nguyen’s words, that “we cannot talk about cultural appreciation of another ethnicity’s food without talking about how these communities remain underappreciated in very practical and systemic ways.” It’s about acknowledging the simplification and denigration of Indian food and how it shaped the way Indian children felt about their identities. It’s about realizing that the boom in Chinese restaurants in the 1930s came about because Chinese immigrants, finding a loophole in anti-immigration laws that allowed Chinese restaurant owners to receive special merchant visas, began opening Chinese restaurants.

It’s interesting to compare this America-centric debate to the conversations going on elsewhere in the world. In Southeast Asia, the debates about the origins of certain foods are fierce and frequent; Singaporeans and Malaysians most recently were engaged in a heated debate about who could claim hawker food as part of their national identity when Singapore registered hawker culture with UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. As histories and cultures collide throughout history, it is unavoidable that what is considered “authentic” will be questioned. But that is beside the point: The global history of colonization, arbitrary borders, and shifting country lines means that there will always be a grappling with the “authenticity” of food. Instead, the debate must be shifted to how there is an inherent power structure when those from the majority group begin borrowing — and then profiting off — a minority group. There is a clear economic disparity created when white chefs begin “elevating” Asian food and marketing it as upscale, ignorant of the history behind the affordability of such cuisines. Perhaps it's wiser to let Asian chefs take the lead in reversing this phenomenon, because it’s also about reclaiming Asian American narratives] and dispelling the idea that Asian food is only good for its affordability. The practice can instead be about Asian Americans knowing their own worth and having the prices they charge reflect that worth. Maybe Eddie Huang, BaoHaus owner, said it best. “My name is Eddie Huang. I was born in America, my ancestors are from China, and my parents were born in Taiwan... I sell Taiwanese gua bao for a full fucking price in America.”

Back to “Always Be My Maybe.” Maybe Sasha is not entirely wrong in trying to create upscale Asian cuisine — she simply is fighting against a history that has made such a concept near-unheard of. Ultimately, the debate surrounding the cultural appropriation of Asian food is not about whether the food created is delicious or authentic. Instead, we should be looking at how the inherent power structures existing in American society prevent Asian chefs from truly profiting off the food from their own culture, and the hypocrisy of how those in more privileged positions can alter such foods and then benefit.

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