As a child, I would find myself upset and even embarrassed about the food I brought to school. There were the usual scrunched up faces and turning of heads as I opened my lunch box as though somehow shielding themselves from the blast. That look still upsets me every time I take friends to yum cha, am overseas with a group of people or am at any Chinese (or come to think about it any other Asian) restaurant. Part of me thinks that this is my problem that I need to get over, but how is it that a generation of people have no less matured despite the growing multiculturalism in our country?
Recently, someone mentioned MSG. In my head, I thought that the naturally occurring amino-acid hype about Chinese restaurants died in the early noughties. Apparently not. In case you were wondering, MSG is in tomatoes, walnuts, soy sauce, meat, whey protein, and parmesan cheese; all tasty foods which you may want to avoid if you are sensitive to it. However, I remember no fear about MSG when gym junkies started pumping themselves with whey protein. No one swore off it because of headaches, numbness or because it damages the brain. The real issue here isn’t the MSG that people claim is in the food but a deep-rooted history of racism which seems to have bound to Chinese restaurants like sweet and sour pork. Yet, the dishes themselves were adapted to cater to Western tastes. The sickly sweet, excessively salty sauces are not those that traditionally reside in the food of my ancestors. Yes, some of these tastes originated from parts of China but the western variation has left no room for subtlety or nuance. The flavour instead is an intense version of what once was.
The real issue here isn’t the MSG that people claim is in the food but a deep-rooted history of racism which seems to have bound to Chinese restaurants like sweet and sour pork.
The notion of Chinese food as something dirty continues to invade society’s notions of what Chinese food is. Historically, Chinatown has associations of vice and uncleanliness with police declaring war on Chinatown in the 1930s, and according to historian Nicole Cama, was seen as a place of mistrust. This stigma has not left our food. Chinese food can be light and healthy, not the westernised notions of it, but you will find if you go to the right Chinese restaurants catering to Chinese tastes from different parts of the country, that there is a lot more there than over sauced fried dishes. Just like the culture itself, there is more than one type of food and it cannot be homogenised into eight dishes that you see at a buffet.
Recently, on a trip to Bali with a group of newly made friends on a writers’ retreat, some Australians criticised the desserts given before even tasting them. The desserts were compared to wombat droppings and pigs’ balls and were called that for the rest of the conversation. Before you assume that these people are ignorant, these are some of the most intelligent, compassionate women I have ever had the privilege of meeting. I found these comments personally offensive because these were similar desserts to what I’d grown up with being Malaysian Chinese but there was also something deeper going on: a bunch of white people in a country that isn’t their own (much like the country that we reside in), given dessert which is representative of the culture we have forced ourselves onto, because we are taking advantage of a place which is significantly cheaper than where we are from. We go to places, are waited on hand and foot, and then feel superior because we don’t like the food. Because after all, it is this position of power that makes it possible to yuck someone’s yum. And yet, despite feeling this way, I did not have the confidence to speak up.
In a colonised country, it is the food from the invading power that is the most common and therefore eaten by most people.
In a colonised country, it is the food from the invading power that is the most common and therefore eaten by most people. However, when I take some westerners to restaurants, I often find myself almost apologising, ‘You may not like this,’ or ‘It’s an acquired taste.’ My desire to please outweighs my desire to be confident in who I am and my culture, partly because of the way people perceive me as an Asian woman, and each time I find myself seeking their approval on food I haven’t even made. It is this position of power that allows people to dislike food based on appearance or from the lack of trying the food of minorities in Australia.
So, when you yuck my yum and you scrunch up your face, you are doing more than upsetting me because of my personal feelings towards the foods, you are engaging in a colonial mindset and a prevailing otherness that roots itself in centuries of racism towards cultural minorities.
Samantha Lee is a freelance writer and teacher.