HYBRID AMBASSADORS: a blog-ring project of Dialogue2010
You met our multinational cultural innovators this spring in a roundtable discussion of hybrid life at expat+HAREM. Now in these interconnected blog posts they share reactions to a recent polarizing book promotion at the writing network SheWrites. Join the discussion on Twitter using #HybridAmbassadors or #Dialogue2010
Last summer, my Chinese husband and I swept through central China on a whirlwind tour of the highlights, from Shaolin Temple to the Terracotta Warriors to Chengdu’s gardens. Everywhere we went, we sampled local culinary fare — all Chinese — with as much gusto as the tourist draws. But not every meal went smoothly, especially not with my husband.
A dinner in Xi’an, infused with the aromatic flavors of the silk road. had him running for the bathroom later that night. Another Xi’an lunch the following day — noodles stewed in an exotic spiced broth — left him desperate to leave the region for our next stop: Sichuan.
He described the problem like this: “The spices disagree with me.” This was Chinese food, yet he spoke of it like many of the Western foods he would push away, claiming them as too foreign for his palate.
Thing is, there’s nothing so extraordinary about that. “Chinese food” encompasses such a variety of flavors, cooking styles and signature dishes that, chances are, most Chinese people and Chinese food aficionados would probably dislike at least one, if not more, of the foods available. I sure do. In fact, as a vegan, I probably eat far less Chinese food than almost everyone entranced with this broad style of cooking.
So it’s no wonder that the term “Chinese food” has little meaning to me. I can’t avoid it when I speak of China’s style of cooking, yet it cheapens the richness hidden below the sauce. Even the more specific schools of cooking — Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western — and some of their sub-styles, from Sichuanese to Cantonese, only scratch the surface of the rice.
I’ve often surprised people — even Chinese — when I speak of the cuisine of Tonglu County, my husband’s home region. Tonglu belongs to the Hangzhou area — a city renowned for light, delicately flavored dishes such as water-shield soup or West Lake vinegar fish. Yet, Tonglu people love a little spice in their dishes. Granted, it’s not the tongue-busting Sichuanese pepper, yet I’ve left my mother-in-law’s table more than once in search of something to extinguish the burning sensation in my mouth.
My father, who used to begrudgingly wolf down a hamburger at Chinese restaurants while we ordered “real dishes,” became a fan of “Chinese food” after attending my wedding in Tonglu, declaring that the banquet delicacies were the finest he’d ever tasted. But he realized the limitations of his palette when, after savoring a breakfast of beef noodles in the suburbs of Hangzhou, couldn’t find anything exactly like it in Suzhou or Shanghai. You could never just promote “Chinese food” to my father — but you could bring him in if you promised the same food he enjoyed at our wedding, or at that little restaurant in Hangzhou.
At the same time, you cannot just promote a book to a broad, general category without providing meaningful reasons why they should have a taste. You have to provide the menu, share the flavors, give samples — find those people within that group who love your own style of “linguistic cooking.”
We’ll never divorce ourselves from the linguistic generality of something like “Chinese food” (or, worse, “Asian food” — but that’s another topic for another day) because so many things — restaurants, chefs, cookbooks, marketers — depend on this word. I’m grateful a few styles broke through to general understanding in the world, such as Sichuanese, Hunanese and Cantonese. But just think if people realized the diversity beyond that. Just think if they remembered that even a Chinese man would leave a restaurant with an upset stomach, because he didn’t like the spices.
This post is one of in the Hybrid Ambassador series, written in response to a post on SheWrites asking for ‘White Ambassadors’. You can read the other posts below:
Tara Lutman Agacayak’s Circles
Anastasia Ashman’s Great White People Book Club
Catherine Bayar’s Thicker Skin
Elmira Bayraslı’s The Color of Writing
Rose Deniz’s Voice Lessons from a Hybrid Ambassador
Sezin Koehler’s Whites Only?
Judith van Praag’s We Write History Today
Catherine Yiğit’s Special-ism