During this year’s Asian American studies month, as a class, we were instructed to attend at least one of the many events celebrating and discussing Asian American culture. As a food enthusiast, I decided to attend the “You are what you Eat” workshop. This workshop took place in a small room in the Stamp Student Union. The students attending the workshop nearly all identified as Asian Americans, those who did not identified as African American. The layout of this workshop consisted of several situational prompts followed by small group discussions where participants shared opinions on the given situation. Some of the situations included: a family from Shanghai moves to the United States and decides to open up a restaurant serving traditional Szechuan hot pot; an American chef studies in Vietnam under a Vietnamese master chef for 12 years and upon returning to the U.S. opens a Vietnamese restaurant; a Thai family moves to the U.S. and opens a restaurant, while it is popular among the larger community, local Thai people refuse to eat there due to lack of quality. Essentially these situations were designed to prompt the question of authenticity. What is authenticity?
To answer this question, I believe it needs to be extremely clear what is being judged; is it the food, the atmosphere, or the people? During this workshop the woman giving these prompts made it very clear that food was the main object of concern. Therefore, no matter who prepares it or where it is eaten, if the food is accurately labeled and represented, and is prepared according to culturally accurate standards then, it is authentic. So, lets look back on few of the situations offered. Beginning with the family opening up a hot pot restaurant. Interestingly enough, I was the only one who initially argued that this could be an authentic hot pot restaurant. I considered the notion that we do not know how extensively the person from Shanghai studied cooking hot pot; if he is an expert and prepares hot pot up to par than it is authentic, otherwise, perhaps not. An individual who identified as Chinese American confidently said this was not possible. She continued to further explain to me that there are different provinces in China and hot pot is not from Shanghai, its from the Szechuan Province; she informed me that China is an extremely huge country with different regions, cultures, and food. It is not just one homogenous land where everyone is the same. As an anthropology and Chinese double major, all of these are things that I am very aware of. Additionally, given the nature of my majors, I am very often one of the few Caucasian students in the classroom. This instance seemed remarkably similar to presumptuous encounters experienced Asian Americans, when their appearance is used to determine their knowledge of Asian culture. Often times I have heard the frustration of Asian Americans being approached as if they do not speak English, or that they were not born in American, regardless of their actual reality.
In attending this workshop I realized that assumptions made by all parties involved in interactions are the root of divides between people who look different from one another. I am a 5ft. tall, Caucasian female, my ability to speak Chinese and my knowledge of East Asia is surprising to most. The way in which someone identifies and the knowledge they may or may not possess cannot be definitively determined based on appearance. This is important in looking towards forming a more globally connected world. Assumptions cause tension, which often leads to a decreased desire to interact. Interaction, sharing, and learning are crucial for forming productive relationships among people from different cultures or backgrounds.