Food and the clash of cultures

It occurred to me today, while reading over my recent journal entries, that it’s been a while since I wrote an entry that was anything more than a “what I did today.” I certainly haven’t been without complicated ponderings in recent weeks, but I have been short on energy, which is what writing requires. Also discipline.

I did write a longish essay-like piece a week or two ago, though, that I’ve been meaning to share, so I guess now is as good a time as any for doing that. The essay is a combination of an article review/summary that I wrote for my directed reading course with my advisor, and a journal entry inspired by an encounter at a restaurant. I read the article shortly before going to the restaurant, so my thoughts during the dinner were influenced by what I’d just read, and that’s why I put the two subjects together.

The essay is rather long, but is a more formal piece than my usual journal entries, which means I put more time and thought into writing it: I wrote it over the course of days, rather than hours. I’m LJ-cutting it so you don’t all have to look at the massive block of text if you don’t feel like reading it.

On Fusion, Sushi, and Being an Overanalytical Asian American Scholar

Lately it seems that “fusion” restaurants are springing up left and right: pan-Asian fusion, Japanese-French, Indonesian-Caribbean, you name it. Anita Mannur’s article, “Model Minorities Can Cook,” analyzes the recent trend of fusion cuisine, linking it to conceptions of Asians in America. Mannur argues that fusion should be seen as more than just a culinary trend; its popularity can be read as an indication of how Asians are currently perceived and accepted in mainstream American society.

Mannur starts off by explaining what she means by fusion, and how the recent phenomenon differs from the cross-cultural culinary combinations that people have been creating for centuries. Today’s fusion is an upper-class cuisine, and it is most prevalent in urban metropolises where people with high incomes seek to consume goods and services that are as upscale as their salaries. Fusion fits this desire because it presents itself as a “cuisine,” fit for connoisseurs, as opposed to just “food,” which everyone eats without necessarily thinking about it. Thus, while people mix random foods from different cultures together all the time, it is not fusion cuisine unless it is presented in a highly cultured, classed way.

Similarly, Mannur argues, people’s reception of fusion cuisine has to do with more than just their taste for the food. Rather, the widespread acclaim for fusion cuisine can be seen as a celebration of a certain type of multiculturalism: in fusion, Asian flavors merge easily with mainstream Western dishes, just as –so people hope– Asian people will assimilate seamlessly into mainstream American society. Fusion cuisine’s appeal is predicated on its seemingly harmonious blending of the “best of two worlds”: Eastern and Western. But this simple characterization overlooks this relationship’s potential inequities. It is the Eastern ingredients that are imposed onto a foundation of Western cooking, rarely the other way around. The same might be said for the people who create and consume fusion cuisine: Asians are expected to integrate into Western culture, but Westerners are not expected to assimilate into Asian culture. While the two worlds, Eastern and Western, are presented as being on equal footing, in neither cuisine nor society is this true.

In support of her argument, Mannur analyzes the roles of two Food Network television personalities as ambassadors for fusion cuisine: Ming Tsai and Padma Lakshmi. Each is representative of a different type of idealized Asian American. Tsai is a young, good-looking, Ivy League-educated Asian American yuppie. He is comfortable with Asian culture, but remains successfully integrated into an American lifestyle and American ideals; Tsai is a perfect model minority. Lakshmi, on the other hand, “embodies the vision of a transnational multicultural America.”(78) She is clearly ethnic-looking, which sets her apart from the mainstream white population, but her “exotic” physical attractiveness and well-traveled cosmopolitan aura make her other-ness hot and desirable. Mannur argues that Tsai’s and Lakshmi’s personae are integral to their success as celebrity chefs and as the “faces” of fusion cuisine. Their personae, like the food they prepare and popularize, takes only the most palatable of Asian features and renders them appropriate for Western tastes; successful fusion personalities could no more be poor, unacculturated immigrants than successful fusion cuisine could include pig’s blood or birds’ nests.

Mannur’s article demonstrates very convincingly that fusion cuisine, like other cultural phenomena, is highly revealing of contemporary relationships and attitudes. It shows the importance of understanding such phenomena not just at their face value, but instead for the valuable insights they can yield. If a seemingly innocuous food fad can tell us so much about the glossed-over tensions of our multicultural society, Mannur seems to be saying, imagine what else we could discover if we looked for these tensions in other areas as well. Fusion isn’t just food, it’s indicative of the way we live. If we investigate other aspects of our lives too, perhaps we will find that other things that seem to be “just ___” will also be more than just that.

Mannur, Anita. “Model Minorities Can Cook: Fusion Cuisine in Asian America.” In East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture, edited by Shilpa Davé, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha G Oren. New York: NYU Press, 2005. pp. 72-94.

I read the above article on Saturday, 18 January, and it was still fresh in my mind the next day, when I had an interesting little run-in at a Japanese restaurant.

Sunday, 19 January. A Japanese restaurant in San Jose.

My parents and youngest sister have been at her tennis tournament all day in Santa Cruz, and my middle sister and I have been shopping and getting haircuts in Berkeley. We are all exhausted; my parents and Allison have been outdoors all day, and Allison hasn’t yet showered after her tournament. On their way home from Santa Cruz, and our way back from Berkeley, we called each other on our cell phones and decided to meet for dinner at Sushi Masa. No one wanted to cook, so this way we could all get dinner over with and go home to bed. Sushi Masa is not a bad restaurant –its ambience falls somewhere between casual sit-down and somewhat fancier sit-down– but we have been going there so long that it has become one of our default places to eat.

The hostess seats us in a booth. This type of booth has a round table on a platform around which we all sit, our shoes removed before stepping onto the platform, our stocking feet under the table.

We order our favorites and begin to eat. Partway through our meal, we hear a party come in and the hostess seats them adjacent to us. My parents and middle sister can see them from where they are seated; my youngest sister and I cannot. I can tell by the expressions on my parents’ faces that the party is all white. I’m not sure exactly what this expression looks like (I recognize it when I see it, but I can’t reproduce it on command), but it conveys to me a mixture of friendly curiosity and faint, benign self-superiority. I register these expressions before I really hear what the newcomers are saying, but after a moment my face probably displays the same look. There are standard table-and-chairs settings in the restaurant, and the other party is clearly thrilled that they get to sit at one of the booths where you have to take off your shoes. I can hear their exclamations of delight at the novelty. My mother leans over and whispers to my father, “They’re taking pictures.” What is a normal meal, even a tired-day pick-up meal, for us, is obviously a new and exotic experience for them.

Throughout our meal, I hear fragments of what’s going on at the next table. It sounds like two of the diners, a man and a woman, are familiar with Japanese food, and their two friends aren’t. The waitress stops at their table, and the man orders. When he’s finished, one of his friends asks if they can have some kimchi, too. My sister Sarah and I exchange glances. The waitress laughs politely, and I know she must be smiling and perhaps bowing a little, in the apologetic way that many Japanese restaurant waitresses seem to have.

“No,” she says, “kimchi is Korean.” The woman who made the request seems confused by this. The waitress continues, “I am Korean, so I know. Kimchi is very Korean.” It’s clear that this exchange puts her a little on edge, just as it does me. She sounds as if she’s defending her territory, albeit courteously and apologetically.

“Oh…” the woman trails off. The waitress leaves, and the woman says to her friends, “But they have it at the other sushi place.”

As the meal progresses, the diners make other requests that the waitress has to answer with explanations. In her apologetic tone I hear a hint of anxiety, the way the Asian staff at Asian restaurants often seem to me around white customers: anxiously eager to please, also a shade impatient at these people who don’t know the rules, and yet even more anxious that they not overtly betray this impatience.

The man who placed the first order asks for something “with masago.”

“No, we only have tobiko,” the waitress replies with a shakily apologetic laugh. “Tobiko is more expensive.” she says, by way of explanation. “Masago is cheaper.” I am eating and only half paying attention to their conversation; it is only after I get home that I remember this conversation and realize the waitress was nervously trying to explain and defend the restaurant’s selection without offending the customers.

In response to the her explanation, the woman who earlier asked for kimchi laughs loudly and tells her, “You’re talking to someone from the slums here!”

The waitress leaves, and the man says heartily to his friend, “You’re in California now! Sushi capital of the U.S.!”

My sister Sarah drops her voice and murmurs, “Since when was California ‘sushi capital of the U.S.’?”

Listening to this white party in a Japanese restaurant started a litany of thoughts going through my head. Obviously, since I had just read Mannur’s article, I had many of its ideas strong in my mind and was hyper-conscious about how the clash of cultures can manifest itself in food. I was offended by some of the things the other party had said. I was uncomfortable, and so was the waitress, and so, I thought, was my family, but less so than I. My analysis (overthinking!) of our feelings made me even more conscious of what it was we were responding to, and how we were responding.

I know the first thing my family was thinking was amusement, a sense of superiority, and a sense of cultural belonging. We knew that kimchi wasn’t Japanese. We knew how to order. How silly that these people didn’t know any better.

But then when the woman asked for kimchi, I was suddenly offended. There goes another white person, I thought, mixing up Asians as if we’re all the same. I felt almost insulted at her ignorance, because she didn’t realize that there could be ethnic or cultural mixing in a restaurant’s staff and menu. She didn’t recognize that even though sushi is Japanese, a Japanese restaurant might be owned or staffed by other Asians, like Koreans, who would then meld their own tastes into the menu: thus, “the other sushi place” that served kimchi. Or, even worse, she didn’t even know the difference between Korean and Japanese foods or people. She didn’t recognize the divisions within Asianness, but neither did she recognize that there aren’t necessarily any boundaries that aren’t completely fluid.

To make matters worse, on top of being offended, I felt ashamed of myself for judging her for what she didn’t know. How could I claim myself as an authority? I am not Japanese, nor am I Korean, nor have I ever worked in a restaurant, nor do I truly understand how restaurants work. Why am I allowed to criticize her for her ignorance? Do I automatically know better, just because I’m Asian? Mannur discussed this in her article too, how Asians supposedly know things about Asian culture, just because of their ethnicity. Tsai and Lakshmi are very American, but people assume they must have some innate knowledge of Asianness that they get by mere virtue of being Asian. Was I assuming the same thing about myself?

Then there was the matter of the man’s comment, “sushi capital of the U.S.” Why would he say such a thing? Is it just because there are a lot of Asians in California? If California is the sushi capital, does that give him the cultural or culinary authority to explain sushi to his friend, just because he lives here? I was also offended at the implication that this dinner was an educational experience for his friend, the self-described woman “from the slums.” Why should this dinner be a lesson in higher-class dining for her, or in the culinary experience of another culture, when it was just a random dinner for us? I thought of them taking pictures when they sat down, and I was irritated that this was such an event for them. Japanese food is just food to some of us, I thought. It’s not this fancy foreign thing.

Throughout the meal, as all these thoughts went through my mind, I felt alternately offended, amused, pitying, and annoyed. I also felt resentful of the privilege our fellow diners’ whiteness afforded them, in spite of their ignorance; they didn’t know the first thing about Japanese food, and yet the waitress – a Korean at that – had to be apologetic and make sure she didn’t offend them. Just as fusion requires a Western base for its Asian influences, in restaurants (and in society) it is the Asians who have to prove themselves, to not offend the white people, even if it’s an Asian restaurant and it is the whites who are ignorant or wrong.

I knew I was overthinking all of this, and I knew my family would tell me so if they knew what was in my mind. And it bothered me quite a lot that I should be so judgmental about these people, who were for all I knew wonderfully kind and pleasant people, and that I should be so self-congratulatory about it. I couldn’t seem to help criticizing them in my mind, so I turned to examining my own self. Why was I so self-congratulatory? I felt a sense of superiority, and I felt a sense of cultural belonging, but these feelings were both false. I realized that I was mentally claiming my superiority on three grounds: culinary, class, and cultural. As a food historian, I may be justified in claiming culinary superiority; because I have studied food, I may rightfully claim to be an authority on the subject. However, the other two aspects were more problematic. On class grounds, if the woman were really “from the slums,” I was assuming that my knowledge of cuisine was superior simply because I, as a higher-class person, must know more about dining in restaurants. On cultural grounds, because I am Asian and they are not, I was assuming a better and more thorough understanding of Asian cuisines and cultures. But the class claim is superficial, and the cultural one is erroneous. I recognized this, and this recognition increased my sense of discomfort.

Then, also, even as I recognized my “Asian” knowledge as an illusion, I felt it was a burden. I thought of my recent meeting with Jonathan Gold, a recognized culinary authority. Were he seated next to this party, he could have taken them in hand and explained to them much about Japanese cuisine. Would they have listened? Yes, probably, and gratefully. What if I had done the same? What if I had leaned over the partition separating our booths, and begun instructing them about Japanese food– would they have listened? Yes, surely, and with interest. But they would have listened to Jonathan Gold because he is a food writer, and they would have listened to me because I am Asian; his authority is culinary, mine is the same “cultural” authority that lends credence to Ming Tsai and Padma Lakshmi as fusion chefs. Race seems inescapable in both scenarios. And even if I had done as I imagined, would they have seen me as a “real” Asian? Or would I have seemed too Americanized, because of my clothes, my manner, because I wasn’t apologetic and deferential like the waitress? Would I be qualified to explain fusion cuisine, but not something more “authentically” Asian?

I am thinking about all these things while still trying to maintain normal mealtime conversation with my family. My thoughts, as well as this juggling act, are making me highly uncomfortable. I sit here eating and passing judgment on these other people, and realizing that I am passing judgment and that I am not justified in doing so, and I feel uneasy with myself.

Much later, I catch another piece of the other party’s conversation.

“Not since the hurricane…” begins the woman who asked for kimchi.

Could this be a Katrina evacuee? I ask myself. It is certainly possible. There has been much in their conversation and attitude that would lend plausibility to this being these people’s first real peaceful meal after moving to a new place and resettling. Another voice inside my head responds: Does it matter if she’s been through all that? Does that change things?

I have to admit to myself that maybe it does. I feel I now have some understanding of these people’s background, and anyway, disasters like Katrina lead (hopefully most of) us to empathize with our fellow human beings across all boundaries and differences. But at the same time, I am bothered by my new empathy. Does surviving a hurricane make someone’s ignorance more acceptable? Does knowing someone is from Louisiana make their orientalism more understandable? Or is it simply that my resentful feelings toward their white privilege have dissipated, now that I suspect that privilege may have recently been uprooted in spite of their whiteness?

I am still turning this over in my mind as we get up to leave, and then something happens to discomfit me further. As I pass into their line of vision, I think they might look up at us curiously; after all, they had earlier remarked on the lack of Asians in the restaurant. But they don’t even look up. After I got home I realized I stared at them the way I expected them to stare at us, the way so many people stare at strangers, with that curious, objectifying glance that says: “Does that person look like me in any way?” The starer expects such a glance to confirm the object’s difference; she expects to discern, somehow, just by looking, what makes people “different.” And so, when I glanced at them and saw nothing unusual, that is the unconscious reason why I kept staring. I expected them to look different, these people who don’t know where kimchi comes from, these orientalizers; but I found that even though they were white, they somehow looked just like us.

If you’ve read all the way to the end, I thank you very much for reading. This may be my first time attempting to combine academic and personal writing on a food-related topic, so if you have any feedback, I would like to hear how well you think this essay works and what interested you about it.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]