Culinary Cultural Appropriation

This post could have a subtitle: “Getting Over Myself.”

Indeed, it is likely that I could have simply called it “Getting Over Myself” in the first place.

In the past, in fact, just as recently as a few months ago, I felt odd about posting about my explorations on Chinese food, including recipes that I had developed by working out of various out of print cookbooks. I have always felt somewhat odd teaching Chinese, Thai and Indian cooking, in large part because I am not a part of any of those cultures.

I will never forget the first publicly offered class I taught in Columbia, Maryland. I was teaching how to make various dim sum specialties, including steamed dumplings, potstickers, and spring rolls, and I was intensely nervous. I puttered around the high school home economics classroom where the class was to take place, finishing up the last of my prep work. I heard brisk footsteps clicking up the hallway, and I looked up just in time to see my first student pop in the door.

She was a tiny, smiling Chinese-American woman.

She stopped in her tracks, blinked and then blurted out, “You’re not Chinese.”

I swallowed hard, nodded slowly and said. “Nope. But you are.”

She came up more slowly to me, her head tipped to one side. “I mean,” she said, “Fisher is not exactly a Chinese name, but I thought, maybe, hey, maybe she’s married an American.” She blinked right in front of me, and smiled. “But you are definately not Chinese at all.”

“Nope, not at all.” I guestured at my red hair and green eyes and shrugged. “One cannot look much more gwailo than I do,” I quipped with a wink and a lopsided grin.

To my delight, she smiled and giggled. “Yeah, redheaded Chinese women are not exactly thick on the ground, are they?”

Then, we shook hands and I explained exactly how I learned how to cook Chinese food. I explained about my experiences working in a Chinese restaurant years before, and how I had become fascinated with the homestyle food the employees ate after hours, and had applied myself to learning as much as I could about Chinese food through strict study, trial and error, tasting as much good Chinese food as possible and trading recipes with Asian friends and faculty in culinary school.

By that time, other students had begun to trickle in, and a significant minority of them were Chinese or Asian American of some derivation. So, as I introduced myself before starting class, I included my experiences in learning Chinese cookery by way of explaining my status as cooking instructor.

At the end of class, as I cleaned up the kitchen, three of the Chinese-American students came forward, including my very first student, and thanked me graciously for the class and complimented my cooking. All of them said that at first, upon seeing that I was not Chinese, they were wary, but after they listened to my instruction and more importantly, tasted the results, they were convinced that they should take as many classes as I offered.

And they did. One of them finally told me that she was very happy to learn to cook dishes like her grandmother had cooked, but which she had, as a young teen and adult, neglected to learn before her grandmother died.

Understanding that the fruits of my obsession with Chinese cooking and food had become important links to some of my students’ past and formerly neglected culture settled over me like a cloak, and I felt a very strong sense of responsibility. As the years have passed this feeling of responsibility has strengthened to the point that when I learn especially rare or old recipes, I feel compelled to share them with others, as a way of preserving knowlege that might otherwise be lost.

I think that any loss of culture is a very sad thing, and so, I rush to preserve that which is endangered by the hustle and bustle of modern Western lifestyles where cookery is not valued as once it was, and the time spent on it is often devalued by the larger popular media culture.

One thing that I have been happy to hear from readers, especially Asian readers, is that I have become inspirational to them. When a reader tells me that they are inspired to learn more about Chinese cooking, my resolve to continue my study of Asian culinary arts is strengthened further. I often recieve emails or comments on how my fearless experimentation and study in Chinese food has caused readers to step into their own kitchens and once again, try the cooking they grew up with.

Every time I hear these things, I smile, because I believe that if I my passion for Chinese food can change the lives of just a couple of people, then my writing is accomplishing something good in the world. If by my words, pictures and instruction, I can interest others in exploring their own culinary traditions, then, I have served a greater purpose than just writing for the love of it.

I didn’t realize, however, that it was only white folks like myself who worry about cultural appropriation.

I am very sensitive to cultural appropriation because I am in part, of Native American descent (along with a lot of German, English, Irish and a touch of French and Dutch for good measure) , and have made study of Native American history and culture.

The story of the Native Peoples of North America is one of cultural and physical genocide, broken treaties, hostilities, and now, with the popularity of New Age philosophies and religions, shameless cultural appropriation. It is nearly impossible to make a serious study of Native history without becoming sensitized to the issue of cultural appropriation, which has to do with members of the dominant culture adopting aspects of Native culture, particularly in the realm of spirituality and religion, music and dress, without respect for the wishes or feelings of those people whose culture is being stolen or misrepresented. It is particularly bad in the New Age spiritual communities where white pretenders will sell their services, spiritual practices and crafts, which are often mishmashes of very twisted and confused bits and pieces of Native culture stolen and made shallow. These New Age practitioners make large amounts of money by selling to a gullible public stolen or fictitious practices that are supposedly Native American traditions handed down from “the ancestors.”

I generally do not look Native American; too many of the German and English genes were expressed to do much but give me very high cheekbones and eyes that have slight epicanthic folds. This complicates my involvement with Native American culture–I always worry that I am not “Indian” enough to lay claim to any feelings on issues regarding Native Americans, and so when I attend powwows or listen to white people talk about Native issues, I always feel as if I am not able to really speak with any authority regarding Native American experience.

You can imagine, then, how I sometimes feel when I teach Chinese or Thai cooking. For all that I am of Native descent, yet do not feel “Indian enough” to lay true claim to that experience, how dare I set myself to teach Chinese cooking when I am not Chinese at all?

Or Thai.

A post that I found on opened my eyes to members of the Chinese-American community who have similar feelings to my own in regards to cooking, culture and appropriation. The author of the post, who credits reading my blog to her learning how to cook Chinese food well, says she often doesn’t feel “Chinese enough,” as she, too, is of mixed descent. And, like my on again, off again inhibitions on teaching Asian cooking due to my own feelings of not being Asian at all, she felt hindered in her ability to learn to cook and enjoy Chinese food.

She says, “But if a hillbilly gal can cook Chinese food well and unapologetically, there is no need for me to be a shrinking violet either.”

Knowing that I had helped a kindred spirit stand up and own her own culture, and her own abilities in the kitchen made me very happy. I hadn’t really thought about Asian-Americans of mixed descent having the similar feelings that we of mixed Native blood had regarding participation in our cultural heritage, but now, I realize that I should have understood this. Whenever there is a cultural diaspora, as there has been with Chinese culture in the West, there will be people who are to differing degrees, of Chinese extraction. And thus, their relationship to Chinese culture will be complex.

Cultural appropriation is also a complex issue, and one that has no black or white rules. What is obviously culturally insensitive and inappropriate in one context is considered, if not perfectly proper, then, acceptable, in other contexts. When we live in a culture like the post-modern, primarily urban United States, where intermarriage between cultures is becoming a norm, blended families celebrating and passing on different cultural traditions are going to exist. This is bound to change not only the mainstream media-centered culture of the United States, but it is also going to go in the opposite direction and make changes to the minority cultures which come together to make up the larger culture.

When I look at it that way, and realize that I have been very careful in my research and kitchen experimentations with Chinese food to present what I have learned in as respectful and positive a light as possible, then I begin to let go of my fear that I am simply exoticizing Chinese cooking and culture and appropriating it.

In letting go of this fear, I hope that I can further my goal to help more people become aware of the beauty and complexity of Chinese food culture as it exists currently in the United States and elsewhere.

And, if, along the way, I help some folks reclaim their own food culture, well, then–my work has all been toward the good.


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  1. Dude, Barbara? You just made my month. You totally get it, down in the bones. Thank you.

    And yes, I am a Browncoat, too.

    Comment by persimmon — January 1, 2006 #

  2. I hadn’t really thought about Asian-Americans of mixed descent having the similar feelings that we of mixed Native blood had regarding participation in our cultural heritage, but now, I realize that I should have understood this.

    I would bet that this is common among most people of mixed-descent.

    I also have silimar feelings of ‘not being mexican enough’, especially when I’m trying to cook something from my childhood or go to a mercado, and I know that it’s pretty common within that group.

    Comment by Michelle — January 2, 2006 #

  3. Persimmon–we have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty. 😉

    And thank you–your blog entry made my New Year. It was a hell of a way to start out, let me tell you. Thank you ever so much.

    Michelle–I think you are right. All people of mixed heritage are going to have these feelings of being inadequately part of one group or another.

    In looking at it another way–look at Julia Child. She was American, to the bone–but she went to France, learned to cook French food (at a very late age, no less) and then brought what she learned there to the US and taught the rest of us. She certainly wasn’t “French enough” to do that, was she? Yet, I don’t think that French people saw her as uppity or disrespectful–for, she went out of her way to be respectful to French culture and traditions, while still including the latest technology in her teaching.

    It is a very complex issue, one that I will probably return to again and again in my writings, because I don’t think it will ever be completely resolved in my mind.

    But, I am glad to know that I am not the only one who feels this way–while I don’t wish discomfort on any one, it makes me feel better to know that I am not alone in these feelings.

    Comment by Barbara — January 2, 2006 #

  4. Thanks for that great post. It’s an issue that preoccupies me a lot, as you well know.

    The Julia Child issue is somewhat different in the US context, I think, and this is why: French culture is not one that has a particularly traumatic history within the White American context. Appropriating African, Asian, Native American, Latino cultures, are all sensitive issues because Americans are used to seeing everything through their own lens, and therefore do not feel like they are treading on eggshels where it comes to French culture, for example. Note that minorities that have blended into American culture through other, less victimized stereotypes – such as Italians – do not invoke the same politically correct caution when it comes to their cuisine. White Americans have gotten used to compartmentalize certain cultures with whom they had traumatic encounters, and have blind spots whenever other cultures are concerned… note the huge amount of Middle Eastern restaurants in the Bay Area who unabashedly serve hideous hummus and don’t apologize for their lack of authenticity.

    To the point, I think you are absolutely right. I understand the discomfort you feel, but since you are reviving these rich, traditional cuisines, through knowledge, respect and care, you are doing Chinese and Thai cultures a great service. Saying that someone’s skin must prevent them from taking part in something is understandable when the ethnic minority in question has suffered much to get to where it did, but still comes very close to ethnic essentialism, often too close for my taste.

    Comment by Hadar — January 2, 2006 #

  5. Barbara- These issues are, to my mind, some of the most complex of all. The pulls from all sides are enormously strong..the importance of the preservation of treasured and unique cultural arts and traditions, cultural dominance, the dangers of viewing ethnicity as more important than humanity, the natural forces of assimilation.

    I don’t claim to have figured any of it out, but it does seem, as you point out, as if respect, appreciation and attention are key. If we can somehow manage to be openhearted and clearheaded at the same time…

    So few Americans and Canadians have a single ethnicity. As the daughter of an American jew of eastern european and Spanish ancestry, and his English (and Scottish and French) war bride, who married an Irish American (me, not my mum-oh dear!)..I was more than a little amused when my daughter’s lovely husband turned out to have almost the exact same goofy ancestral blend that she does.

    People always asked my parents about having a “mixed” marriage. They thought this was funny, because their families were so alike. Never formally religious, politically lefty, artisitic and humorous-they were so much more similar than different.

    I consider myself lucky in all of my cultural baggage. I have sometimes been reminded that I can’t be considered “really Jewish”, because my mother isn’t a Jew.( She lives in a Jewish-affiliated assisted living apartment, and speaks more Yiddish than most of the people there. She picked it up from my grandmother, who in her old age, forgot that my mother wasn’t jewish.)

    It’s some strange stuff.

    Comment by lindy — January 2, 2006 #

  6. Hadar–you are right–in thinking about it, the example of Julia Child isn’t a good one. It is different when a “white” American is involved in learning about another “white” European culture. White Americans, of course, all having some sort of white European ancestry in our backgrounds.

    Interestingly, Hadar, the example that you mentioned–Italians, who are not now treated like an ethnic minority in the US, were once discriminated against horribly in the US, as were Irish immigrants, and in some places, Germans.

    These folks, even though they were “white” were considered by Americans born in the US to be different enough that it was allowable to discriminate against them. My Uncle Frank, for example, has pictures his father took in Chicago of signs that said, “No Irish.”

    Humans, I think, will pick up on differences and accentuate them in a negative manner just as a matter of course. I suppose it is just easier to maintain when skin color, body type and facial features are visibly different from the majority of a given culture.

    As for bad, inauthentic Middle Eastern food, I always feel like there is no excuse for that. The foods of that region tend to be simple, with pure, clear flavors that with some attention, are easily created. Good ingredients are key, and are not lacking in the Bay Area, so why serve crap? No excuse except for laziness….

    Lindy–your experience of being of Jewish descent, but not actually “Jewish,” is one that strikes me, too. The matrilinial nature of ethnic “Jewishness” is an issue I have bumped into personally. Zak is Jewish–when we were trying to have a baby, it was pointed out that it wouldn’t really be Jewish.

    What is really Jewish? Just because the mother isn’t Jewish that takes away the father’s identity as a Jew? What if the child is raised in Jewish culture and within the religion? Is it not Jewish? Does the mother have to convert to make the child Jewish?

    It is very complex.

    In my own family, the issue of Native American ancestry is complex, because while the “signs” of it are clear in my mother, her mother and some of her brothers, on myself that is not the case. Grandma’s youngest son, John, like me, also has pale skin and light colored eyes–but his eyes, like mine, are distinctly almond-shaped, so much so that one could take he and I for being part Asian. He passed this trait to his own children–they, too are pale, with light hair and eyes, but with the same distinctive eye shape. (And cheekbones.)

    In our family, several of the Native American ancestors–mostly women–whose lineage we can trace, married white men, and passed their children as white–on purpose, in order that their children could escape discrimination and maltreatment by the government and by their neighbors.

    So, while the ancestry is written plainly on my mother’s face and body, and not so plainly on my own and my uncle, it was traditionally “hidden,” in order to escape oppression.

    It is all complex and thorny indeed.

    Comment by Barbara — January 2, 2006 #

  7. Barbara,

    What a lovely post. You’ve truly hit the mark with this one.

    Being a product of a “mixed marriage” in America, I have my own issues with my cultures and history–food related and not.

    As to what it means to be jewish:

    Religiously speaking, the mother has to be jewish in order for the children to be jewish–that is jewish law–I am not a rabbi or scholar but I believe it is written somewhere in the Torah–but I’m not positive (I should have paid better attention in sunday school).

    My mother converted to judisam–I am jewish. The only other way a child is jewish (religiously) is if he/she converts.

    But judisam is a culture and ethnicity-not just a religion. And its a very distinct, strong culture at that. Therefore, a lot of people regard themselves as culturally jewish, even if they are not “jewish” by religious law themselves. I believe it was Karl Marx’s daughter who said (I am paraphrasing her) “I am but a jewess.” Although she was not jewish by religion, she felt it so strongly on a cultural level.

    That said, “What is to be Jewish” is a complex issue with no easy cut and dry definition (although more religiously observant jews would tell you otherwise). I believe with globalization and the world “becoming” a smaller place, these types of issues are going to become just more and more commonplace in societies. It’s inevitable.

    Therefore, I think it is extremely important to have a understanding and appreciation of our heritage, our cultural past–and to try to preserve elements like cuisine is just one part of a larger picture.

    A note about your experience with the first time teaching Chinese food. One of the first times I gave historic tours of Chinatown in NYC, I introduced myself to the audience and from a voice to my left I heard “But you’re not Chinese, how can you give this tour?”

    Comment by Rose — January 2, 2006 #

  8. Hello, Rose! Glad to hear from you.

    I understand the cultural/ethnic matrilineal nature of Jewishness, intellectually, but my gut reaction is that if a child is raised culturally Jewish, whether or not the mother is Jewish, the kid is Jewish. I know that technically, I am wrong, but that is just my feeling on the issue. More of a feeling, not a true thought.

    I suppose I am also happy to know that I am not the only one whose non-Chinese ethnicity causes questions and confusion!

    At any rate–you are correct, as our world shrinks and globalism becomes more prevalant in our cultures, these issues are only going to continue to crop up, and so it behooves us to think long and hard on them, and find ways of navigating the complexities of cultural interactions.

    Comment by Barbara — January 2, 2006 #

  9. Though I don’t have any mixed heritage, I still feel the same apprehension to approach other cuisines, particularly the western style bread and pasta recipes. I feel very uncomfortable to talk about their history, even write about the recipe in my blog. I bake whole wheat bread atleast once a month, but very hesitently I blogged about it in my blog. I always feel like it’s not going to be authentic enough for the locals and who am I talk about these recipes, like that.

    I didn’t know that you feel the same way too, Barbara. Well,reading the comments on your post, it seems, we all have one thing in common(the hesitation part.. 🙂

    Looking forward to reading your posts, filled with full of marvelous surprises and memorables tastes. Happy new year, Barbara! May I say you look very pretty!

    Comment by Indira — January 2, 2006 #

  10. In sunday school, a rabbi once discussed the subject of matrilineal aspect of judisam. It is thought that in biblical times children were “raised” primarily by their mothers. Fathers had little to do with the initially upbringing of children.

    Jewish cultural habits and traditions were passed down from mother to child and therefore if we didn’t have a jewish mother it would be much more difficult to transmit the culture for generation to generation.

    Of course, in our world now this is not necessarily the case. Many of my acquaintances with jewish dads and non-jewish mothers have inherited as much “jewishness” as those with the opposite mix of parents.

    I suppose the man was confused about why I (as he percieved me as being “non-chinese”) was leading the tour, but does it matter whether the person “looks” authentic?

    If you (who I think) are more than qualified to teach the nuances of Chinese cookery, then couldn’t someone who doesn’t look Chinese lead a historic tour of Chinatown (or even a tour of Chinese cities)?

    A very smart person once told me “perception is reality”. But as cultures continue to mix (here and abroad), what is that reality? Our world is no longer a clear delineation of cultures and ethnicities. Very complex indeed.

    Comment by Rose — January 2, 2006 #

  11. Hello, Indira!

    I think that whenever we step beyond our personal cultural boundaries, and learn that which we did not grow up with, it is natural for us to be tentative with anything we have learned, or later, with any expertise we have developed. I think it is natural.

    To be honest, as much as I love your posts on Indian foods and have learned a great deal from them, I value just as much your experimentations with Western foods and your insights into them. I swear, sometimes it takes someone who was not raised within the cultural milieu to really look objectively at bits of a culture from the outside. Sometimes, outsiders will think to question practices that insiders will simply accept as “that which is,” which makes for interesting writing, reading and cooking!

    I also value it when you take something very American–such as cornbread, and then add something Indian too it–like okra, and then write about that. I do not like fusions that are put together willy-nilly with no thought of flavor or texture or understanding of tradition, but that was an inspired choice you made. In Applachia, we fry our okra in a cornmeal breading, and so we are familiar with that flavor and texture combination. But you took it, and turned it around, and added some spices and made it new, exciting and different.

    And yet, very, very honest and real. Not a flashy fusion of the “new, in, ethnic ingredients,” but a dish that is homey, and true and good.

    Oh, and thank you for saying I look pretty! That picture was taken on Christmas morning with my new camera–the kitten had been naughty, and I was rescuing her from further attempts to steal bread and cheese. In my cuddling of her, Zak snapped a few pictures of us–something few people get to do–snap pictures of me–I am camera shy.

    I thought that it very much illustrated my eyes, which have caused much discussion among some of my Asian friends. One instructor in culinary school, Chef Lipa, who is of Chinese and Spanish descent from Filipino parents, in fact, swore up and down that I had a Chinese grandparent, as he grew up seeing many Filipino people with similarly pale eyes that were very almond-shaped. He teased me and said that was why I cooked Chinese so well–because it was in my blood. I explained about the Native American heritage (Native Americans, it is theorized, originated in Asia, and during the last ice age, walked across the Beiring strait near Alaska, and then filtered down through North and South America) probably leading to my odd-looking eyes, but he took to teasing me and saying that somewhere in my family tree there was a lonely Chinese laundryman. (He was a relentless tease anyway, and he picked on me incessantly for many reasons, most of which involved me giving as good as I got, which made teaching fun for him, I suppose.)

    Rose–I think that the rabbi’s explanation of Jewish matrilialism makes sense in every way, but it also shows how much the Jewish culture has changed in the diaspora, and how that which was traditionally true, is not always so useful today. Zak is culturally Jewish, but not religiously so, so I was prepared to help him teach the Jewish culture through various contexts, including cookery. Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that when it comes to many Eastern European Jewish foods, I love them, but he absolutely abhors them. (Someday, I will have to tell the gefelte fish story on him here….)

    So, it might still end up to be the mother who instilled more cultural knowledge than the father, even if the mother was not Jewish.

    But I do think it is essential that we should know and celebrate our own cultural backgrounds, and pass on the traditions of our families and ancestors, even as we learn about, celebrate and embrace aspects of other cultures.

    That is part of why I am so fascinated with Chinese cuisine in the diaspora–because there is such tension between cultures, and such a fertile cross-pollinization of culinary ingredients and techniques. There is a lot of energy there, and I love watching it develop and grow.

    Perception is indeed reality–and now that we are losing the clear deliniations of cultures and ethnicities, we are gaining the possibility for great strength in a unity of diversity.

    Comment by Barbara — January 2, 2006 #

  12. Heh. I love the expurgated story of Lipa. Actually, folks, his language was far less ‘culturally sensitive,’ but, then, we’re talking about a man who served in the Navy for many, many years, and delighted in frightening students by splitting coconuts with his bare hands and “testing” to see if hot oil was hot enough with his fingers (he had nerve damange, and knew exactly how long he could keep his finger in the oil without doing significant damange to himself.)

    But, I think, if Barbara used the actual dialogue, it would rather defeat the purpose of the discussion at hand… 😉

    Comment by Zak — January 2, 2006 #

  13. Yes, well, Zak, if I used the actual language that Lipa used vocally in writing–it wouldn’t have the same effect as it does when I tell the story face to face. When done in the manner of a stand-up routine, it is scandalous, but funny.

    When written, without the gesticulation and vocal mannerisms, it simply becomes offensive.

    Hector Lipa is an amazing chef, and a very, very funny and wonderful man, and I miss being harrassed by him very much.

    Comment by Barbara — January 2, 2006 #

  14. I’m glad you approve of cornbread-okra combination, Barbara. You don’t know how hesitant I felt to post that recipe on my blog.

    Chef Lipa looks like an entertaining, adorable kind of guy. laughed out loud reading about him.:)

    Comment by Indira — January 2, 2006 #

  15. Well, Indira, if it will help you to know this in the future–that is one of my favorites of your posts. So-keep bring brave and posting your experiments.

    Chef Lipa is a wonderful and adorable man who loves to make people laugh as much as he loves to cook and teach.

    Comment by Barbara — January 2, 2006 #

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