This personal submission is a part of the “No Longer Invisible: In Their Own Words” project, a story series established to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month at the UW.
Name: James Hong
Major: UW Alumni, B.S. in Psychology, B.A. in Sociology, M.Ed. in Educational Psychology
Identity: Vietnamese – American
Director of Operations, Vietnamese Friends Association
“You can’t just add soy sauce and some spices to something and call it “Asian food”. Our desire to experience diverse cultures, while well intentioned, should not end when we are full.”
“There’s a common misconception that diverse or ethnic cultures can be experienced through food alone. ‘Let us share this spring roll, and upon digestion, our two minds shall become one.’
Food should not relegate culture to an afterthought or keep communities invisible. It is impossible to experience something as rich as culture through food alone, no matter how delicious it may be. We need to appreciate that history and heritage actually give meaning and value to food. For example, a lot of people commonly mistake a banh mi sandwich as Vietnamese, but it was actually introduced by the French during Vietnam’s colonial period. While different cultures may interact with food differently, one common thread I’ve observed is that food acts as a catalyst to bring people together; it is a shared cultural and social experience. Food isn’t simply the gateway to culture, its the bridge.
Although food can be a rich experience in itself, it also has the potential to create barriers that prevent people from authentically engaging with diverse cultures and communities. What’s the point of taking time to experience Vietnamese history and culture if you think you can absorb it along with your beef broth and cream puff? These situations are far too common and ironically create distance between the people we’re trying to connect with.
The misunderstood relationship between food and culture may also perpetuate stereotypes that are harmful to the identity and dignity of minorities. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been called a Twinkie or banana (more than 10, less than 200). Though it may seem playful and trivial, these stereotypes continue to marginalize many immigrant communities. ‘Just because I like General Tso’s Chicken does not make me a Twinkie!’ is my usual response. ‘Unless by Twinkie, you mean I’m sweet on the inside, with stubbornly enduring shelf life.’ I do keep well for my age.”