It's IBARW this week. I don't talk about racism in this blog, because this blog is just about food. However this blog is specifically about how being Chinese-Anglo by way of SEA and living in Australia impacts my veganism and vice versa, and I'd like to take a moment to talk about food, ethnicity and language.
talking about things to eat
(or: how the words people use to describe food make me feel like a freak)
Growing up as a child, I was familiar with roasts and pasta and pizza and sausage rolls and all sorts of different foods, but almost always when I went home we'd be eating the sorts of things my mother ate as a child, Malaysian and Chinese and Indian, for the most part. We used to eat noodles all the time, and I was ten before I found out not everyone ate rice several times a day. I used to go to the Chinese butcher where I'd peer at whole animals and feet and things, but I know that not everyone grew up this way. I know that this is cultural and it is social and yeah, it has a bit to do with being Chinese from Malaysia.
When we first went vegetarian, the problems this caused for my family and the problems it caused for D's family were quite different.
Feeding us at regular family dinners was not a problem for my mother. Chinese cuisine considers meat as just another ingredient, so altering noodles, curries, and other dishes was as simple as exchanging one ingredient for another. Our meals remained mostly the same. My mother didn't blink at the shift to veganism – about 90% of people of Asian descent are lactose intolerant, so we've never been big dairy consumers – though the loss of eggs threw her for a bit. The real intellectual problem came at holiday events, where dishes become less about tradition (which I tend to view as alterable) and more about superstition – I don't eat fish anymore, so how can I court abundance? I don't eat duck, so how can I show prosperity?
Compare this then to D's family, who eat mostly European/English dishes. For D's mother, feeding us was problematic. We were served a whole lot of dishes made primarily of cheese, and Christmas was a meal of boiled vegetables and cauliflower cheese (note to all who have dinner parties at Christmas: this does not count as a meal). The shift to veganism completely petrified D's grandmother, who literally couldn't think of a single dish to serve us that wasn't a garden salad. So this situation is impacting them differently, but they're trying to think outside what is familiar to them, outside their squares, and they're trying new recipes which I think is worrying them, these unfamiliar paths.
It's interesting, the ways in which we think of food. People have such different backgrounds, and such different habits and histories, but we get used to these things and that's reflected in the ways we think about food. Chinese cooking places so much emphasis on a tiny bit of this, a tiny bit of that, but all elements are essential, and so my mother said to me once, "How can you be Chinese if you don't eat meat?" just the same as I believe she would have asked how I could be Chinese if I didn't eat vegetables, or mushrooms, or rice. Over the years I've become more familiar with English/European food, but it seems so much more focused on the big hunks of things, and so D's family's reaction was (and for some of them, still is) more along the lines of, "But what can you eat?"
I read Jay Rayner's attempt at a week of veganism, where he suggests that "ethnic is the default position for the vegan." I bet he uses 'exotic' ingredients in his cooking, too. I have an ethnicity; we all have ethnicities: the fact that the food I grew up with is easier to veganise than the stuff he ate as a child doesn't make me 'ethnic,' it makes me Chinese. Using these words trivializes the decision I have made to be vegan, and it others my family and my whole freaking life, because using words like that aren't just saying that I'm 'different,' they're saying that I'm 'other.' And he is not alone in this, many people are guilty of this all the time. That you're trying something you've never before heard of doesn't make it 'exotic,' it makes it new to you. And you definitely don't get to describe it as exotic if you're talking about it on the internet - there's a good chance it's not new to your readers. Just because the things I did as a child are different doesn't make me special, and I certainly don't want to feel like a freak. And I realise it's just semantics but semantics are important, because they indicate attitudes - so really, it's not that I have a problem with the word 'exotic,' it's that I have a problem with the attitude that leads to its use, that the food I eat is 'not normal,' that it is other, that I am other.
A guy I know can't pronounce char kuay teow, he always calls it 'koi char' and he thinks that's hysterical. So he can't pronounce the name of a dish that I've been eating since I was little, growing up in the same country as he did, because it's made up of words he's never been bothered learning. Why is that funny? If anything, it's a little sad for him – I can pronounce everything that he eats. If it's anything else, it's a reflection of his privilege, and it's racist – it's different so it's funny. And it makes me feel like a freak, and it makes me hate him.
My food is not exotic because it's different from your food, it's just my food. And it's not ethnic because that doesn't mean what you think it means. I have enough trouble trying to work out how to incorporate the old food superstitions into my life as it is: I don't need to feel like some sort of foreign novelty whilst I'm doing it. So do me a favour and mind your language.
(With thanks to J + L for reviewing this for me)