Feeds are flooded with videos of Japanese and Korean supermarkets, convenience stores, and 7/11s. What does it mean for Asians to be “next in line to disappear,” when they are now made so increasingly visible in contemporary media?
Hypervisible: An Asian Food Fetish
“When I hear the phrase “Asians are next in line to be white,” I replace the word “white” with “disappear.” Asians are next in line to disappear. We are reputed to be so accomplished, and so law-abiding, we will disappear into this country’s amnesiac fog. We will not be the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors.”
— Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning1
My feeds are flooded with videos of Japanese and Korean supermarkets, convenience stores, 7/11s. I am guided through “a day in the life” in these places, hands reaching out from behind the camera in a POV-style that reminds me of first person shooter video games, grasping at colorful drinks and snacks with foreign letters and logos, before they sit to enjoy their makeshift meal. Scrolling through the comments reveals an endless flow of yearning and voyeurism, of ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the aesthetics of East Asian food. What does it mean for Asians to be the “next in line to disappear,” as Hong writes, when they are now made so increasingly visible in contemporary media?
I believe that the contemporary aestheticization and fetishization of East Asian2 food only serves to further absorb Asian culture into Western consumption, one that works to make Asians both hyper-visible and invisible. Who gets lost when East Asia is defined by these aesthetics and this aestheticization is restricted to only certain cultures and countries? And what is lost in this representation itself? When all that is shown are these portrayals, these places become caricatures of themselves, and recognition becomes dependent on Western acceptance.
What is lost when our basis for cultural immersion is in what becomes palatable and acceptable to Western power?
“The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”
― Edward W. Said, Orientalism3
The history of Chinese food in America in particular is significant in its visibility and popularity. It begins with the initial wave of immigration from merchants of Canton in South China, who came to California during the Gold Rush4. The demand for Chinese food abroad was therefore high, and Chinese restaurants started popping up. While they did become popular, serving mostly Cantonese cuisine with variations to adapt to Western palates (for example, the popular dish of chop suey is actually unheard of in China, and elements such as broccoli and fortune cookies are not used traditionally in Chinese cuisine. These, and many other changes, were all adapted for the American palate), these restaurants also faced hate and criticism. Sinophobia rose alongside harsh legislation against Chinese immigrants, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, banning all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States5. In addition to the legal discrimination, however, were also scathing reviews and commentary on these restaurants. The Workingmen’s Party of San Francisco, for example, compiled a sixteen-page document titled “Chinatown Declared a Nuisance,” using descriptors such as “filthy,” “crime-ridden,” and “alien”6.
These sentiments, especially regarding food and health/sanitary conditions, are still prevalent today. This can be found in the humiliation of having the food you brought to lunch considered smelly, or even the regarding of Chinese food as unhealthy, especially when tied to the idea of fried foods (a change made to adapt to Western palates), and MSG. There even used to be a term called “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” which was thought to be a group of symptoms caused by people eating Chinese food heavily seasoned with MSG. This syndrome originated in a 1968 letter in the New England Journal Medicine after a doctor allegedly experienced it, but it was later disproved as a racist hoax7.
Yet nowhere has this connection to health and Chinese food been more visible in a contemporary setting than with the COVID-19 virus, which brought about increased anti-Asian hate fueled by Trump’s comments on the virus originating in Wuhan, China. In the United Kingdom, “research found a third of images of East and Southeast Asian people in British media outlets were used to illustrate coronavirus-related stories that had nothing to do with Asia between January to August 2020,”8 and even the New York Times used pictures of Asian people in Flushing to cover the first COVID-19 case. The discussions of bats and food reminded me of the own jokes people would make about my family eating dog, and it is these images and comments that I hold with me as I look through the current fetishization of East Asian convenience stores. Both of these representations aid in the othering of Asians, whether it be through their demonization or their fetishization (though my focus is mainly on East Asian food, this idea of “cleanliness” and “health” also extends to South Asian food. Krishnendu Ray, a Food Studies professor at New York University, states that “Indian food is basically where Chinese food was a generation ago”9. It’s interesting to see the relations between different countries, and what politics lead to the quicker acceptance of some foods than others, even though they may have emerged in the United States around similar times).
Overall, these different approaches to Asians and food harkens back to class—what or who is seen as filthy is dependent on America’s relations with these countries, and their perceived wealth. Chinese food in general, although it has made somewhat of a turn-around, is still to this day associated with “fast food,” “junk food,” or “take-out,” while Japanese and Korean food is seen as expensive and classy. In addition, Korea and Japan as capitalist countries can be consumable in a different way than China—and the United States’ relations to these countries ultimately shape their representations and their Western consumption. It’s in this light that I view these contemporary aesthetics of Japanese and Korean food within the Western perspective—and it shows just to what extent the Western perspective, and the “Western expert,” shapes the entire conception of Asia within contemporary media.
“We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves. We look for a taste of it in the food we order and the ingredients we buy. Then we separate. We bring the haul back to our dorm rooms or our suburban kitchens, and we re-create the dish that couldn’t be made without our journey. What we’re looking for isn’t available at a Trader Joe’s. H Mart is where your people gather under one odorous roof, full of faith that they’ll find something they can’t find anywhere else.”
— Michelle Zauner, Crying in H-Mart 10
I have eaten more tonkatsu than sinigang. I am more familiar with xiaolongbao and even sundubu-jjigae than adobo, pancit, sisig. It feels only recent that Asian food has entered the mainstream, yet, in the process, it has created a monolith. The disconnect from my own cultural background is not so much contemporary media’s fault, but also my family’s. There is value assigned to certain kinds of knowledge, and my dad did not find worth in teaching me Tagalog or Ilocano, or had the cultural means to even expose me to Filipino food.
Yet, there is greater difficulty in finding a way to “reconnect” with cultural backgrounds when your own food and culture is rarely presented as an option in the media, in the restaurants you visit. But do I yearn to find my food in these spaces, or am I also yearning for some kind of Western acceptance? The reclamation and “discovery” of Asian food within contemporary media spaces also erase the cultures they show through their fetishization, so there is also a fear of that happening to the food my own extended family makes.
Michelle Zauner writes “We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves.” This is a common, if not cheesy, sentiment expressed in immigrant narratives, and one I used to previously connect with. Now, I know my own history and connection with food and culture is fraught, as it is not something I can easily find in the Philippines either. Nativity and authenticity are commercialized and capitalized on, and the consequences of Americanization render the landscape into one that feels more American than my own home in Bed-Stuy. And can this connection to home, to a piece of ourselves, be bought with food? Is it inherent to me, passed down through generations, or is it not even a part of myself I can “find,” because I have never had a so-called “authentic” cultural experience?
Zauner’s book is also one I have never finished, nor cared to. It upset me for her to characterize H-Mart as a home for many Asian immigrants, because it never was to me. I can’t find Filipino foods there, and I’ve always regarded H-Mart as a more expensive, Westernized grocery store than my local Asian supermarket—it feels like the grocery store for white people. Similarly, Zauner’s book feels like one made for whiteness11. She pauses to describe every Korean dish in a way that makes it more approachable for all kinds of readers, but also makes her audience amorphous, a-cultural. Who are we writing to, who are we seeking approval from? Many similar books on the Asian-American experience have gained popularity, as shown by their increased presence in Booktok and Bookstagram spaces (examples include I Want To Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, Little Fires Everywhere, etc). In “Who Is This Writing For? On Elaine Castillo’s ‘How to Read Now,’” Kathy Chow describes this phenomenon of increasing visibility of race within literature as “the summer, if you recall, that White America discovered race.”12.
This summer refers back to the summer of 2020, amidst the murder of George Floyd as well as the anti-Asian hate I have described above in the wake of the pandemic. In this time of the “discovery of race,” Bookstagram and other platforms were then populated with “diverse” readings. And Chow points out the similar aestheticization of these readings within Bookstagram—where books by authors such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ibram X. Kendi, and Michelle Alexander (nevermind the fact that these authors, paired together, are so vastly different in their writing) would be “Nestled amidst clouds of baby’s breath and shot from an overhead perspective next to sandwiches.” These platforms therefore homogenize the Black, and in the case of books such as H-Mart, the Asian-American, experience as one that is meant for temporary “moral instruction as well as objects of consumption.”
Authors of color are also only brought up and compiled in various book lists during times that feel relevant and important to focus on authors of color—whether it be times of political upheaval or national history months. This is not to say these times aren’t important, or that authors of color’s identities should not be emphasized in reading their work. However, it limits our reading of them to times when we want to seek out an assuaging of our consciousnesses. We are staying aware of the subject, we are keeping these topics and people visible, this is all important, yes, but that visibility is quickly replaced when the movement dies down, or when the month is over. We then return to white authors for “regular” reading, and feeds are once again flooded with those beautiful overhead perspectives of books with beautiful covers.
Even with the Asian-American authors that get featured on these social media platforms, the books that gain popularity and are within influencer spaces, are often books that contribute to the hegemony of East Asian culture, much like the food videos we also consume. They focus on Japanese, Korean, and Chinese stories and authors—leaving behind South East Asian and South Asian stories, though these are also being told.
The increasing visibility of East Asian food in literature and the media and its consumption by the West bring up ideas of cultural appreciation versus fetishization. The fact that Asian American authors themselves contribute to the hegemony of their narratives (albeit maybe unintentionally) shows how ingrained this issue of food and Asian American identity is within even ourselves. It feels less like we are trying to reconnect with our own culture, but trying to prove to white people that we are connected, that we are attempting to connect. Our stories become parodies of ourselves, simplifications of identity struggles epitomized by food as connection. And for those making videos in Japanese and Korean convenience stores, whether white or not, it is a process of turning culture into something consumable, something manageable in itself for Western palates, much like what was done in the “fast-foodification” of Chinese food.
So now what are we left to do?
As someone whose family is relatively disconnected from their Filipino culture, it feels like a frenzied grasp to nothing when I attempt to reconnect, a process I see repeated over and over in popular Asian American immigrant narratives. Will eating Filipino food make me more Filipino?
Will seeing my stories accepted by Western media, even as told through food, soothe the disconnect, or only widen it? How can we begin telling our stories without an ingrained yearning for Western acceptance? I am still in the process of working through these questions, of working through means in which we can enable representation in a way that is liberating and not constricted by Western standards and thinking. However, books such as Minor Feelings, which directly addressed the white gaze and Hong’s own struggles with being Asian American in a publishing industry that is otherwise so white, felt like one of the first representations that was directed at me, for me, rather than a white audience. It directly opposes the neo-liberal identity politics that have since re-emerged after the rise of anti-Asian hate, and instead opts for a critical analysis of what it means to even be “Asian-American,” to hold such a broad identity that has its roots in activism. It does not invite me to completely relate to her in a hegemonic Asian American identity, to hold the experiences she has, but is instead critical of this urge to relate across gaps in identity, whether it be through sexuality, class, etc. It reinstills a sense of humanity that is otherwise lost in Western conceptions of Asian-Americans.
Maybe this is the future we need in Asian-American representation—one that doesn’t speak for you or to you, one that isn’t made for a Western audience, and one that allows for critical self-analysis on identity and the terms we use for ourselves or that are imposed on us. Essentially, stories that allows for gradations of experience.
- Cathy Park Hong. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. First edition. New York, One World, 2020.
- I use the term East Asian throughout this paper as it is used colloquially, and even as some people use the term “Asian” colloquially, to refer to the countries most visible in contemporary media, especially in the gaze of the West. This includes Japan, South Korea, and China. Each of these countries are vastly different in their histories and cultures, and many other countries can qualify for the term “East Asian.” My use of the term is not to conglomerate these countries as a single mass, but instead to highlight the absurdities of their combination, and how the term serves to advance a racist and Western vague, distanced, and stereotyped view of Asian countries.
- Edward W. Said. Orientalism. New York, Pantheon Books, 1978.
- Emelyn Rude, “A Very Brief History of Chinese Food in America.” Time, 8 February 2016, https://time.com/4211871/chinese-food-history/.
- Emelyn Rude, “A Very Brief History of Chinese Food in America.” Time.
- Workingmen’s Party of California. “Chinatown Declared a Nuisance!” San Francisco, 1880.
- Samantha Symonds. “Why Saying Chinese Food is ‘Unhealthy’ is a Recipe for Racism.” Well+Good, 24 March 2021, https://www.wellandgood.com/chinese-food-racism-pandemic/.
- Samantha Symonds. “Why Saying Chinese Food is ‘Unhealthy’ is a Recipe for Racism.” Well+Good.
- Ferdman, Roberto. “Why Delicious Indian Food Is Surprisingly Unpopular in the U.S.” The Washington Post, 4 March 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/03/04/why-delicious-indian-food-is-surprisingly-unpopular-in-the-u-s/.
- Michelle Zauner. Crying in H Mart. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.
- Whiteness is used not to describe only white people, but whiteness as a power structure. Whiteness, in this sense, can include people of color, so that people of color can be complicit in whiteness while not being or appearing white. As Hong describes, “We [Asian Americans] will not be the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors.”
- Kathy Chow. “Who Is This Writing For? On Elaine Castillo’s ‘How to Read Now.’” Los Angeles Review of Books, 9 August 2022, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/who-is-this-writing-for-on-elaine-castillos-how-to-read-now/.