An unpopular opinion on the double standard in cultural appropriation and authenticity of food.
I am not a philosopher, sociologist or anthropologist. The other day, I was swimming along the usual social media waters when a Korean content producer I admired commented ‘you need to stop cooking your watered down versions of Asian food. It’s not authentic.’ This caught me by surprise.
Authenticity is subjective and acts as the foundation of the cultural appropriation argument. Today, it’s taboo to challenge any claims of cultural appropriation. Sticking your neck out with a different way of seeing things has consequences — any counter arguments are automatically seen as a defense to capitalism and Western civilization. The concern I have is that we are becoming if not are already so obsessed with identity that we are no longer inclusive, only exclusive and divisive. If cultural appropriation stands to be the bouncer at the Club of Tolerance, who decides on the dress code and should it be enforced?
I am a first generation Chinese-American. My grandparents and my mother immigrated to the United States in the 1970s from Hong Kong. They wanted to start over, build a life for our family and hopefully, with hard work and the grace of God, make it better for the next generation. So when someone shames people for trying to cook Asian food, I question that person’s capacity for empathy. This coming from a person whose family literally made a living operating Chinese restaurants. So my first question is, who gets to decide whether or not things have been culturally appropriated?
“Cultural appropriation is when members of a dominant culture adopt parts of another culture from people that they’ve also systematically oppressed. The dominant culture can try the food and love the food without ever having to experience oppression because of their consumption.” — Wikipedia, “cultural appropriation”
That definition assumes that the eater is a predecessor of the “dominant culture” involved or benefitting from the “systematic oppression”. That those people are so blindly ignorant that they do not deserve to have the food even cross their lips. Now, look on the other side of the curtain at the people that created the food, the so-called “other culture”. Based on this widely accepted definition of cultural appropriation, we assume these people are oppressed, from less means, or taken advantage of. People like my grandparents who came to this country and ended up cooking food, albeit Westernized versions of Cantonese dishes, in order to provide for their families. Or people like Kris Yenbamroong’s family who were pioneers in the Los Angeles dining scene in the early 1980s for Thai food. Yenbamroong owns and operates Night + Market in LA (I highly recommend eating there).
I have a problem with lumping my grandparents into any of these categories. Frankly, I think my grandparents would also find it offensive to be deemed remotely “oppressed”. Are they not just as hardworking as any other restaurant operator regardless of race? Is it not the prerogative of the restaurant owner to serve whoever they want regardless of the belief that is held by the individual on the so-called systematic oppression of the Chinese or Thai people? Why are we expected to label things as appropriation when the people that we are supposedly protecting from the “dominant culture” may not be bothered? Even if someone is truly offended, should we not let them speak for themselves because it is their heritage to protect?
More to the point, should my grandparents feel like they have some kind of claim to the cuisine of their homeland? So much so that they should feel disgusted to see other people “appropriating” their food; creating dishes to the best of their ability with found ingredients because of their love of the dish itself? Should they shame people for publicly displaying their mediocre attempts? Should we not feel excited that people are expanding their palettes by trying different cuisines? Who gets to be the authority on authenticism?
I grew up with a Chinese mother and a Southern father. We often ate gai lan next to fried chicken for Sunday night family dinners. To me, those were authentic meals in the place and people I grew up with. Until my early adulthood, I had never been to China nor Hong Kong (the birthplace of my mother). My experience with the Chinese community was limited to my grandparents, friends at school and trips to Queens to visit distant cousins. Is the food I experienced less authentically Chinese because it was prepared in Jacksonville, Florida and not Hong Kong?
A few weeks ago, I did an informal survey on Instagram. I presented a few scenarios for people to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on:
Question 1: Does cooking recipes from a country not your own count as cultural appropriation? Results: 3% Yes, 97% No
Question 2: Does profiting from that count as appropriation? Whether notoriety, money or both? 43% Yes, 57% No
Question 3: By the affirmation logic of the previous statement, would a Chinese-American family operating a burger restaurant be cultural appropriation? 8% Yes, 92% No
Question 4: How about a Non-Asian, American running Thai restaurants and writing cookbooks on Thai cuisine? Would that be appropriation? 48% Yes, 52% No
Based on the results of this informal survey, there appears to be a double standard on cultural appropriation — only Western or white people are capable of doing it. During a conversation with Coleman Hughes, British celebrity stylist Ayishat Akanbi had this to say on the subject of racial discrimination, “it seems that people are intent on confirming that white people can only be racist.” She goes on to say that by confirming that white people are the only ones capable of this sin, we are by extension confirming the myth of white superiority. The theory assumes that white people are the only ones capable of things like racial discrimination, or in the case of this piece, cultural appropriation because of the supposed collective power they wield in society. Has the term cultural appropriation simply become a pejorative word to describe Western influences mixing with non-Western influences?
Taiwanese-American businessman C.C. Yin is the largest McDonald’s franchisee in Northern California. By his example, it’s ok for non-Western immigrants to own and operate restaurants cooking Western cuisine for profit. But unacceptable for for someone like Andy Ricker to operate a non-Western restaurant as a Westerner. Ricker owns and operates Pok Pok in Portland. He has spent 30+ years traveling back and forth to learn the language, culture and recipes of Thailand. By that same argument, should we also demonize British writer Diana Kennedy? Her 1972 cookbook “The Cuisines of Mexico” was the product of her lifelong dedication to documenting the almost forgotten cuisines of Mexico. She’s been to over 30 Mexican states, won a slew of awards and accolades, and even had her records of native plants digitized by the Mexican agency overseeing biodiversity and ecology because of their thoroughness. Is it possible to remove the embedded double standard from the modern definition of cultural appropriation in the name of equality?
On that note, it’s worth discussing whether or not Western chefs or food writers have more advantages than immigrants when operating restaurants. “An American-born chef is more likely than an immigrant to have the connections and the means to grab investors or news media attention — even more so if the chef came up through a prestigious restaurant or culinary school,” food writer Francis Lam said to NPR in a 2016 interview. By the logic of Lam’s argument, anyone immigrating to another country would have a difficult time opening a restaurant without a home field advantage. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible nor does it make the following people exceptions to the rule, it’s just hard to achieve celebrity status in the food & restaurant world.
- Pierre Thiam: Born in Dakar, Senegal
- Cecilia Chiang: Born in Shanghai, China
- Eric Ripert: Born in Antibes, France
- Marcus Samuelsson: Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Look, there are gross examples of cultural appropriation. I am not here to tell you that we shouldn’t stop labeling things as such. When people wear Native American headdresses or apply bindis to their faces — offense is warranted. Someone’s sacred ritual items shouldn’t be a casual accessory. What I’m trying to point out is that there are a lot of ‘self-appointed guardians of culture’ that are quick to jump at peoples’ throats but not open to having deeper discussions. Culture is fluid. “It’s not fair to ask any culture to freeze itself in time and live as though they were a museum diorama,” says Susan Scafidi, a lawyer and the author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law.
The theme I always see appear when debating cultural appropriation is the intention. So many socially conscious people are less discerning when it comes to understanding context or the full story. They see cultural appropriation as a form of individual erasure despite culture being something that cannot be owned outright. Here are some guiding questions to help determine the intention of an individual. They do not need to fit all of these criteria:
- Was the example disrespectful, inappropriate or even a form of desecration? Or was it simply something distasteful? Like the Lucky Lee story, an example of poor taste blowing up in your face.
- Did the person credit or attribute cultural context? For example, “this recipe was inspired by my personal experience related to travels” or “I learned this recipe from my best friend’s grandmother” or “I am grateful to a group of people for their time in teaching me these recipes”. Cue the story of two Portland women closing their business after claims of appropriation.
- Does this example warrant a public or a private response? Meaning, if the person is simply misguided, should you take the time to educate them as to why it is disrespectful or inappropriate. How can we expect people to learn while they are being sacrificed on the altar of public opinion?
Culture in the aggregate is arguably better off for each instance of appropriation. Fusion between cultures has produced some of the most well loved food — banh mi, budae jiggae, chicken tikka masala, modern sushi and so on. The thought of Italian cuisine without tomatoes or pasta seems like an alternative dimension but prior to the 16th century, Italian cuisine as we know it today was completely different. Japan without tempura? A cooking method that was introduced by Portuguese. Crazy. Great Britain without chicken tikka masala — the national dish? Preposterous. The Southern United States without grits from Native Americans? Unimaginable. Mexico without al pastor tacos which were a result of Lebanese immigration? Sad. I contemplated Scafidi’s rhetoric and came to my next question which was hard to write. When do the results of imperialism, colonialism or other movements of human beings simply become convention?
Food is a powerful symbol in defining culture, identity, and values. It is the story of inexorable exodus, migration, colonialism and human movement. Today, stigmas around cultural appropriation create more lines in the sand than place settings on the proverbial dining table of humanity. That being said, I acknowledge that many, many people have experienced unimaginable suffering as a result of borders shifting, countries dissolving and communities being forced from their homes. Cultures are bound to share things despite how they were brought together. People who come from elsewhere assimilate by adjusting recipes for ingredients at hand. For my grandparents this also meant adjusting in order to cater to developing tastes in their new home. The results? Delicious food that will forever have a mark on my heart. Things that other people, from all walks of life, enjoyed as well.