Identities: Hesitation to try new cultural foods is disrespectful
Food is the connection between various cultures and should be treated with respect
“Food was an unspoken language between us, had come to symbolize our return to each other, our bonding, our common ground” – Michelle Zauner, “Crying in H Mart”
My friends and I have a running joke that I am obsessed with food. I wrote about it in my reporting class as my beat. I really only go out if there’s a food market or a new restaurant. My money is primarily spent on food. I even did my final presentation in an Asian American experiences class on food and identity.
I definitely am the foodie friend.
Some of it could be because I’m a Taurus — but the majority of it has to do with the way food brings me community and ties me to my Filipino American identity.
I am a second-generation Filipino American who grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the Midwest. While I was privileged in many ways, the loneliness of being one of the only people of color in my neighborhood contributed to many of the insecurities I now face. However, one of the things that always made me proud of my culture was food.
Food was the gateway that transported me into the crowded streets of Manila where my parents grew up. Food allows me to connect with my family when I struggle to learn and understand my mom’s native tongue. While I feel insecure about not knowing Tagalog, I am proud of knowing the smells, spices and flavors of all the Filipino dishes.
I also grew up surrounding myself with different foods. My parents loved going to different restaurants, such as Korean barbeque and Ethiopian food, which allowed me to have a refined palette where I can find commonalities with people in college.
However, the hesitation to represent my culture comes as no surprise to a lot of Asian Americans. There is a common experience for a lot of Asian kids growing up of bringing their ethnic food to the lunch table and then being on the receiving end of microaggressive comments. One time in second grade, a girl said my food tasted bad because it smelled bad. As a result of experiences like this, many Asian kids have grown to learn that their food, and therefore identity, wasn’t welcome in the lunchroom. This can contribute to why many Asian Americans are quick to stray away from their culture and follow whiteness. It often takes a lot of time for Asian Americans to embrace their culture and stand up for themselves.
As a sophomore in college, I am trying to bring a taste of home to D.C. through food. I crave the sourness of sinigang: a sour, savory Filipino stew composed of your choice of meat or seafood, tamarind and various vegetables.
While I’d like to share this passion with others, many of my peers grew up in different cultures and environments. They are quick to reject new foods from different cultures, and I can see the judgment in their eyes.
Trying people’s food is, in essence, respecting their culture. It’s allowing you to take a step into their home, their beliefs and their way of living. The trepidation and judgment of someone’s ethnic food is an extension of your reluctance to get to know someone’s culture.
Food, especially in Asian culture, is a unifying tool meant to serve as a sixth love language. Like the Zauner quote at the top of this piece, many Asian people never proclaim their love, but rather show it through acts of service such as preparing and feeding us food. It’s deeply embedded in our culture. However, when food is offered to someone and they display a slight hesitation or grimace at the sight of the food, it is extremely disrespectful. It reverts us back into that lunchroom. It hurts our love language.
Asian food is only consumed in Western society once Americans tokenize the product and colonize it into their culture. Foods such as sushi, ramen and even poké have slowly been stripped of their flavor to cater to the palettes of white people.
Our food is not an aesthetic that can fit your taste buds. It’s a lifestyle. It is its own breathing culture that does not and should not fit into white supremacy standards. Thus, your willingness to immerse yourself and try different foods that aren’t already shoved into the box of Western culture is one step closer to respecting my culture.
The only way that people are able to take away these judgmental behaviors and mindset is by being more receptive to trying different foods. After all, this is a learned behavior. It’s sitting in a restaurant and listening to people of color when they’re telling you to try their favorite dish as a kid growing up. It’s making them feel seen and validated. It’s making them feel heard. And if you don’t like the food, at least you can say you tried it.
Genesis Magpayo is a sophomore in the School of Communication and School of Public Affairs and a columnist for the Eagle. This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Nina Heller. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton, Natasha LaChac, Leta Lattin and Luna Jinks.