With all the upheaval in Ferguson lately, we’re seeing race once again emerge in the forefront. That even in 2014, race has the power to be a divider and a galvanizer. Race is an issue everywhere, even in food, where I consider it to be a universal language. But we actually have a long way to go in food/race relations.
Here’s an example. I was taking a walk to my neighborhood market, which is also next door to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants. On this particular day, it was jam-packed with diners — and from what I could see passing by the windows — they were all mostly Asian. From the outside, the owners had taped up photos of the dishes, lined up in rows to entice hungry patrons inside.
Many times I’ve seen “window shoppers” browse the pictures from the outside, before nodding to one another in approval and going in. But on this day, I noticed something different. Two black teenagers were standing in front of the photos; pointing and laughing. My internal prejudice alarm started going off, the one that sends off alerts like, “Warning: ignorance”, “Warning: bigotry”, “Warning: don’t overreact”. I wanted to say to them, “Hey, you know, the food here is really good. You should just go inside and try it.” But they had already walked away, probably convinced that there could be nothing in that restaurant worth eating. To be clear, I don’t know what they were actually laughing about, or if it had anything to do with the restaurant. But it got me thinking about all the prejudices we have against food, especially the dishes from different cultures. I see it all the time and I’m guilty of it myself; the squeamishness to try something that’s different from our palette; the scrunched up noses when we talk about the strange, the smelly, the texturally questionable.
I know so many people who have lived in the greater Sacramento area for all their lives and don’t know that Pho is not pronounced “foe”, have never had Boba tea, and question why you would put fish sauce on anything other than fish. And that’s just scratching the surface. Look around you, Sacramento is an incredibly diverse cultural landscape. There are Vietnamese and Boba restaurants popping up all over town, not just Stockton Blvd. What’s the excuse for not trying it? Do the bold flavors frighten your tastebuds? Are the exotic ingredients too hot to handle? Do the bright colors hurt your eyes? I feel like Asian food especially carries this stigma. Take for instance, this YouTube music video that went viral:
It flaunts the weird and wonderful about Asian cuisine. Do you notice how young these kids are? They love it because they’ve grown up eating it. The awesome part is that they’re embracing this food as part of their culture. I remember growing up and being embarrassed by what my family ate. I would have never invited my American friends over for dinner. And I was mortified the one time when my mom made Prahok http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prahok while a friend was visiting. I’m glad we’re starting to move past that now. I’m glad that we’re proud of our food culture, something that’s in in the very fabric of our being. I think that’s why Asian people, especially young Asians are leading the open-minded food revolution. Not only do we try everything, we Yelp about it too.
I’m not condemning those teens for laughing and pointing at the Chinese food pictures. I think they just needed someone to lead them in, sit them down, explain what the dishes are, and say, “eat this.”
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