The Asian Solidarity Myth: Cultural Appropriation, Food, and Pan-Asian Unity

Fact: everyone loves food. I have never met a person that does, or actively denies free food, or going out to eat. There lies inherent comfort in food, from stress eating to healthy living, to nostalgia and home.

Food’s importance crosses cultural boundaries, communicating emotions and bringing people together.

And food, for a lot of immigrant children, ties us to our culture, one of the only links we have to our roots and a homeland we barely know. Sometimes, it’s the only thing we have to remember our families by and where we came from.

 

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Tyler Akin, the featured creator in a Bon Appetit video on how to eat pho.

 

So when my newsfeed became inundated with the same article about a white guy selling pho and trying to pass it off as “the Most Authentic,” it didn’t shock me. Many of them grew up eating the traditional Vietnamese dish with their families and have a special relationship with it. To have someone not part of that, not have the same ties, come into the community and try to say they have authority over it, that’s an insult worse than a lot of curse words. Many were righteously angry, going beyond that to give the restaurant one-star reviews even.

I understand that anger. It’s how I feel every time a white chef talks about Indian cuisine on the Food Network like they know best, it’s how I feel every time I see a white girl wearing a bindi, it’s how I feel every time I see someone wearing a Lord Ganesha t-shirt passing out Bhagavad Gitas on campus and trying to convert other white people.

Cultural appropriation is such an intensive topic, mainly, I think, for the children of immigrants, because sometimes, our culture is the only way we can express ourselves to our parents. To tell them we’re so proud to be who we are and for our heritage. When our cultures become trends, it’s like a knife cutting through us. We’ve already been denied our place as Americans so many times, that when we’re told we don’t really know our own culture, that our culture only matters when it can be commodified and commercialized, and even then, that’s just for a limited time. The popularity of your culture can change at any moment, immediately being labeled inferior again.  

In essence, cultural appropriation is just an extension of imperialism and colonialism, another layer that upholds systematic white supremacy and the continuing marginalization of communities.

But here’s the catch: is cultural appropriation worth talking about, when there are other, more serious issues we should be investing in, such as police brutality against black and other communities of color, the increasing Islamophobia that extends to all brown people, the continued dissolving of Native lands, and prominence of anti-blackness across the globe? And if we do decide it’s worth talking about, who’s cultures are we going to decide are worth actually defending? And who gets to decide that? Are we going to prioritize certain cultures over others, or rather, continue to do so?

Especially within the AAPI community: can we actually get beyond East Asian issues to talk about Pan-Asia? Is it even viable to talk about Pan-Asia as a community, when we only talk about a select group of nationalities/ethnicities?

Where was the same energy to talk about the appropriation of pho to talk about the appropriation of South Asian/Indian culture into a Tumblr aesthetic and trend,

You can read more about this particular incident here, including the backlash and response from Bon Appetit: http://www.phillyvoice.com/philly-chef-reacts-to-online-backlash-over-pho-video/ — we could go over the apology is very fake and doesn’t actually address the issue in question, but that’s a whole other issue.

Here’s also a brief run-down on the history of pho: http://luckypeach.com/the-history-of-pho-andrea-nguyen/