Thursday, 7 August 2008

talking about things to eat

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.

wintermelon

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.

longan

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.

ba cheng

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.

char kuay teow

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)

29 comments:

kristy said...

I can relate to a lot of this post. I'm an anglo australian and my partner is chinese. I lived in Hong Kong for a while and I was really disappointed with English kids who grew up in Hong Kong and never learnt Cantonese. How could you not learn the native language? It is really insulting. I understand that it is difficult to learn but so is English and they have an opportunity learn it all throughout their schooling and unlike say Italian which was taught to me in school they have continual exposure to cantonese everywhere. I was also really annnoyed by mostly Chinese tourists who would try to speak English in China and then be annoyed when people couldn't understand.

moonbug said...

Stephie, thank you for writing such an excellent post on this issue. I've experienced a number of the things you mentioned and you have worded your experiences much more eloquently than I ever could have.

s-j said...

Fantastic post.

Emma said...

This is fascinating and well-said. Thank you.

johanna said...

Awesome post. I just wrote about the "ethnic" thing for IBARW too!

& I too am a vegan of color -- if you ever want to come over to blog at Vegans of Color, please let me know. I'd love to have your thoughts there. :)

a vegan about town said...

@kristy: I in some ways I understand the not learning Cantonese - if you can get by without it, then is it necessary? Though I actually think that that's incredibly selfish and insular, but it's no different to growing up in Penang and not learning Hokkien - everyone speaks it, but transactions are done in Malay and English, so it's not strictly necessary. Which of course is different to Cantonese in HK, but you get my point.

a vegan about town said...

Thanks sj, emma.

@moonbug: I don't know, you can be pretty eloquent when you try. :o)

a vegan about town said...

@johanna: thanks!

Vegans of Colour is a pretty cool blog, I'm often wandering by for a look. I would love to blog there sometime. :o)

nixwilliams said...

yes, yes, yes. great post! i really like your description of the different ways in which ingredients are approached in (two) different cultures. and you already know i feel this way, but wow, that 'vegan for a week' article is just so offensive. ick.

dan[at]veganalternativeperth[dot]com said...

I hated the vegan for a weak article. (Pun intended - he didn't even make it a whole week!) No wonder vegans get such a bad wrap as being whiny, and 'vegan food' immediately brings to mind the descriptors 'bland', 'boring', and everything we know it's not.

It's like Rayner set out to fail at being a vegan, he didn't have the right mindset from the beginning. But having "tried" and failed means he can justify being a non-vegan to himself and anyone that wants to criticise his precious review because veganism was "too hard" for him.

But this isn't the place for a rant about someone who always intended to become an ex-vegan.

I can't really say anything about this post that hasn't already been mentioned - it is articulate, eye-opening and beautiful in its eloquence.

Forgive me if this is culturally insensitive, but could you not prepare a mock-fish dish to court abundance, or eat mock-duck to show prosperity (both in the monetary and intellectual sense, since you're not relying on animal cruelty) ? I believe both are available in Northbridge at Lotus vegetarian market and Utopia ;)

johanna said...

Ooh, yeah, it would be awesome to have you blog at VoC sometime. Do you have a Wordpress account? If not, you need to sign up for one before I can add you to the blog. Just let me know what the e-mail address used for the account is & I can give you access to the blog (you can e-mail it to sisuzine at gmail if you don't want to post it here). Thanks!

Oyceter said...

Yes, thank you so much! I partly grew up in Taiwan (4-12 grade), and when I moved to the US for college, I hated how all my white friends would make these faces at the things I would eat. I wish I could impart how "ethnic" and "exotic" white American food looked to me, only that still wouldn't convey how the weight of knowledge works, because even in Taiwan, I'm betting more people know about European and American food than the other way around.

a vegan about town said...

@nixwilliams: I think it's really interesting the different ways ingredients/food in general are approached across different cultures, and I always wonder how much it reveals about us in general.

And that vegan for a notweek...yeah. Ugh.

a vegan about town said...

@dan: there are some suggestions that that's why mock meats came about in the first place, to help with the superstitions during meat-free festivals. I don't know how true that story is, though that's what we did for our traditional Chinese wedding banquet.

a vegan about town said...

@oyceter: Yeah, it's just so frustrating and sometimes, I feel really resentful that it still happens to me.

Jason Grossman said...

Thanks. Great post.

tevere said...

my mother said to me once, "How can you be Chinese if you don't eat meat?"

Such familiar words to my ears. I'm vegetarian (not vegan), and also an Australian Anglo-Chinese by way of Malaysia (with my mother being the Malaysian). As you pointed out, despite the fact that many Chinese dishes can have the meat element replaced with tofu or tempeh (or mock meat), in some dishes the meat has a meaning -- a semantic meaning, as well a an associative cultural one. I never really enjoyed that pork and hair-moss thing that we always ate at New Year's, but it was very much part of my upbringing -- a part I don't have access to now. I find a lot of Chinese family gatherings are not just about eating together, but about actually sharing dishes, and sometimes I do feel left out... and it pains my mother, too, who feels there's something 'wrong' and unnatural about my food choices.

I've found that my (Anglo-Australian) partner's family has actually been far more accepting of vegetarianism than my own. I think that despite the 'non-convertability' of many traditional meat-n-2-veg dishes, the concept of vegetarianism and veganism is more established in Western culture -- and eating is a more private, individual thing.

Thanks for posting!

tevere said...

Ok, that very careless phrasing that I'm going to correct: when I said that vegetarianism is more established in Western culture -- what I meant, I suppose, is that specifically in Anglo-Australian culture, it seems to be quite established now, and probably comparatively more established than vegetarianism/veganism amongst Chinese-Australians (I only base this on observation: I've met a handful of other Chinese-Australians who don't eat meat). I guess where I grew up the Chinese population was majority first-generation-Aussie, Cantonese-speaking, agnostic or Christian -- rather than, say, Buddhist vegetarian.

a vegan about town said...

Thanks, Jason!

a vegan about town said...

@tevere

No, it's cool, I get what you mean.

The inability to celebrate New Year the same way that my parents do impacted me so much more than not eating turkey at Christmas - the loss of the duck at NY, for example. And sitting at the table and just not being able to share as much at NY. The thing that was most difficult when D and I were in the run up to our wedding was trying to work out the wedding banquet - there's a Nonya/Chinese restaurant in Perth, so we used them as our caterers but even with the mock meats there were still things we couldn't do, and ugh.

I get what you're saying about Anglo family vs Chinese family being more understanding, but I'm not sure if I agree, hmm. HMM.

Thanks for commenting, though! I'm so excited at finding someone with a similar experience to mine (none of my friends are Chinese or Malaysian at all, let alone vego).

Skyward said...

This is a fantastic post, S.

Thank you so much for it.

*hugs*

Caitlin said...

What an articulate post. I related to your views on semantics, having just arrived back in Australia from spending time with my Dutch in-laws who sigh with relief when they sit down to eat "normal food" therefore classing our food as "abnormal". It's interesting how what is not said by people often communicates more than what is said.

I agree with ethic and exotic being poor adjectives for new foods. Especially when delicious, mouth-watering and fabulous are adequate descriptions!

Hari Mirchi said...

I can relate to so much in this post also. I grew up eating mostly south Asian food, with a few dishes thrown in from my mother's upbringing in the US South. Like Oyceter, whenever people make faces or describe my food as "ethnic" or "exotic" I wish that I could convey how strange and baffling some western european dishes are to me.

a vegan about town said...

@Caitlin - delicious, mouth-watering and fabulous are much better words! I like them very much.

@hari mirchi - I can't decide whether people making faces, or people calling it 'exotic' is worse. They're so - othering is not even the right word. It's such an act of distance, this positioning of YOU versus ME, and it's so disheartening.

seitzk said...

thanks so much for this post! i could scream when people refer to "ethnic" food or freak out at what i'm eating. i had the same experience as you, having to realize as a child that not everyone ate rice every day...

a vegan about town said...

Hi Seitzk! I do wish that people could just be interested rather than freaked out, I'd rather the curiosity of the unknown than the scared/freakiness of the unknown, if it has to be unknown at all. Plus, rice all the time is so good!

V said...

Well said. Why can't people realise that using "exotic" and "ethnic" to describe anything from another country just serves to Other while positioning yourself and your culture as normal and neutral? Exotic brings to my mind bars and animals at the zoo. :(

I'd never thought of the impact of culture on veganism (as a non-vegan) and it was interesting to read about, particularly the superstition involved. I had totally forgotten about what fish and duck represent- now I've got noodles and oranges on the brain...

'Koi char' Guy reminds me of people who mispronounce things (e.g., lacksa, SA-tay instead of SAH-tay) and/or don't bother to learn the correct name (e.g., ketch-whatever-it-is for kecap manis), and then don't bother to say it right despite your correcting them. I mean, these same people would probably ridicule someone for mispronouncing English words, wouldn't they?

steph said...

V, I suspect that people do realise that it positions one's culture as normal, that's why they do it (consciously or not).

I agree, I bet they are the same people who would ridicule someone for mispronouncing English, which makes it all the more frustrating (and all the more predictable) that they're the ones who can't be bothered learning the correct name for 'foreign' things.

disa said...
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