DC in OC: In Defense of Food: Gastronomical Cultural Othering

by ursavoice

By Denny Chan
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law    

    As a foodie, I take food personally. Recently I have been reminded about how food can be used as a means to “other.”

    Case one: One of the reasons I love living in Southern California is the accessibility of Asian food and ingredients. Growing up in Michigan, where the closest trek to anything authentically Asian involved a 45-minute drive, I have come to appreciate the 15-minute drive to Ranch 99. During my most recent trip to the Asian megastore, I ventured down the medicinal herb aisle in search of the right herbal ingredients for a soup to cure a scratchy throat. As I inspected the items carefully, a group of children pranced down the aisle. One of them pointed to one of the bags right next to me and exclaimed, giggling, “Dried poop!” They ran away.

    Case two: My travels to and from Washington, DC, have required me to stand through many Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lines. The combination of TSA scrutiny and a foodie family has produced some uncomfortable moments. During the last time I flew out of my home airport of Grand Rapids, Michigan, TSA officials stopped me and questioned me about a plastic Ziploc of dried wolfberries. It’s amusing but wasteful to witness them wiping down the wolfberries, swiping them with their special litmus paper, and rescanning the bag with the X-ray machine. Another time, TSA deemed my bag of frozen Chinese tamales as suspect, giving them the wipe down and additional litmus swipe. At this point, I can predict the series of questions: “Sir, is this your bag?” “Sir, we’re going to ask you to wait here while we can scan your bag again. Is that okay?” “What is in this bag?” “How do you use it, and what do you use it for?” “Sorry, sir, we just have to run your bag one more time.”

    Case three: This example hits closest to home. A conversation in the student lounge at UCI Law involves one classmate openly remarking that students should not bring offensive smelling food into the lounge. When asked whether such an “objective” stipulation would have a culturally disparate impact, the student quickly denied any cultural insensitivity or racism. The next day, as I pack my lunch pail, I can’t help but think about whether my scent of my food would offend someone else’s senses.

    These three incidents remind me of the power of food as a means of cultural othering. I suspect that Joe Smith’s grilled cheese sandwich and apple pie does not elicit “dried poop” comments from schoolchildren, does not receive heightened scrutiny from TSA officials, and would not be regarded as “offensive” to the sensitivities of my classmates. Perhaps I should take into consideration what my father told me at a young age: We’re in someone else’s country, so we have to play by their rules. Maybe I should just accept the national security concerns of our time and get over insensitive comments.

    However, I refuse to agree entirely with my father. Doing so would problematically legitimize the notion that my food—and by association, my identity and my existence—is somehow less American, less normal, and more threatening than Joe Smith’s. I unapologetically refuse to allow others’ sensitivities dictate my actions. While I might stop to think whether my lunch might offend my classmates or whether my parents’ home cooked food might hold me up in the security line, I will bring it to school or bring it on the airplane regardless. Unfortunately, the emotional toll of othering through insensitive comments and repeated TSA inquiries cannot be undone.