Sunday, February 5, 2012

Cultural Diversity with a Side of Chicken Nan

Why is it so hard for Americans of non-Asian descent to have a conversation about any Asian country, culture, or figure (from Near, South, or Far East Asia) without in someway working in to the conversation just how much they love (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Persian, Arabic, Thai, etc.) food?

From living in a country that speaks more and more about becoming more culturally diverse, and from being enrolled in a campus that is constantly talking about pushing for diversity, I have seen lots of different ways in which as Americans we can learn about a culture that is in some way different than our own. However, with these constant pushes for cultural diversity, I often find that the same cliches seem to follow nearly every single event, particularly in student run organizations and RA programs, that although have the right ideas in mind, ultimately hinder both themselves and others from ever reaching a true level of cross-cultural understanding and diversity.

About a week ago, I was standing in front of the elevator doors of the seventh floor of my dorm when I happened to see a flier advertising for a scheduled RA event on learning more about Indian culture. Great! I thought. (Since I am culturally obliged to, I will now mention how much I love Indian food and how there is currently a half eaten take-out box of Chicken Saag sitting next to me as I write this.) My eyes continued scanning over the the flier to find out where and when this awesome event will take place when I discovered some further details of this learning event, that there would not only be free Indian food for the first 20 people to arrive, but there would also be henna tattoos drawn by "authentic Indian ladies." How authentic? They didn't say.

Now given, before going off and ranting about dumbfounded I was at reading this single statement alone, I should probably clarify that I did not in any way attend this event nor have I talked to anyone who has. So while I cannot focus on just how culturally and humanly degrading the event itself was from my perspective a white American male with a substantial group of friends from northeastern Africa and southwest Asia , I instead will just focus on how culturally and humanly degrading the advertising for this event was. This idea that we as a society have that through eating popular Americanized foods from other countries that we will some how gain a certain level of cultural understanding, as though ancient Sufi wisdom is some how ingrained into the breading of falafel, is a cliche that I have noticed time and time again. Now with this addition of another feature to the program, the mere mentioning of there being "authentic" Indian people present at the event, I feel as though any chance of reaching cross-cultural understanding as simply fallen into another pit of hopelessness.

I understand that, given my course of study in Arabic and through being involved in numerous programs that push for cross-cultural understanding, I may have had a little more exposure than most people to culturally sensitivity and therefore may have more developed ideas than some on how we as a campus should go about cross-culturally educating a student body that is by no means culturally informed. And while I do not expect the average student to be able to put together a successful program that has a goal of educating others about a particular culture (especially if they are not a member of that culture), I do however think that those RAs who do want to take that challenge should indeed do so in a respectful and appropriate manner.

Currently serving as the treasurer of UC's Arabic club, I understand that in order to get any type of group of students to come to an event, food is a quick and sure fire way to round up a bunch of poor and starving college students, however at the same time if all we (as an Arabic club) do is smoke hookah and eat falafal, then what are we really gaining and what is our real mission here? In a sense, for those of us involved in cross-cultural understanding, we are blessed to have a student body that is pretty unaware of so many aspects of other cultures, as there are tons of ways in which we can increase the level of understanding that students have. However, by only introducing them to the same old stereotypical aspects of culture that they are already familiar with, then we are enabling them to adhere to the same old belief systems and attitudes towards that culture. If all we do is offer up food, popular and westernized cultural practices that we've all already heard about, and the mentioning of a couple "authentic" people to represent their culture, then who are we really educating here?

Don't get me wrong, food is a great medium in which to have important conversations about culture. That being said, if we allow the cross-cultural understanding to stop at chicken saag and the 10th viewing of Slum Dog Millionaire, then are we not doing the complete opposite of what we're trying to do? Aren't we instead contributing to these stereotypes that hinder cross-cultural acceptance and understanding. I am not suggesting that we don't go out with a group of friends and support our local minority owned ethnic restaurants or that we abandon any ethnic program being set up by an RA. Rather I think it is important that we challenge our preconceived notions of other cultures and that we as a campus push towards gaining a fuller understanding of other cultures, one that goes beyond egg rolls and Phat thai.

Prompts to Discuss:

(1) How do you feel about cultural activities that you have attended at UC's Campus or other university campuses?

(2) In what areas do you think that we can improve cross-cultural education? What are things that you hope to gain through such activities?

(3) How would you want your own culture represented in events such as these?

(4) Why do you think that such cliched conversations exist around other cultures? Why do you think that they continue?

*(5) After writing this article I learned of the fact that the RA responsible for the specific event that I mentioned is Indian-American. How this does this tie into everything? How are our ethnic and cultural identities constructed for us?


  1. You raise some good points.

    I think the food discussion is interesting and made me think of several things. First, I've observed, over the last 2.5 years as I became a vegetarian, that people are extremely passionate about food. Some people almost seem to not be able to control their feeling toward foods they like. I almost feel that, for many people, it's a natural reaction to immediately equate conversation topics with food they love. I'm not saying it's good or bad but it just seems to be in some of our natures.

    That being said, I think the comments you make are valid. I think many groups use food to get people to show up. The food then becomes the center point of the conversation and doesn't move things on to bigger and better conversations. It does makes me want to ask the question back: do you think these on campus events are the right place to have deeper conversation about cultural diversity knowing that many of the attendees may not event have had exposure to other cultures other than food or have not yet realized that they have their own identities and cultures?

  2. While I am annoyed by the phrase "authentic indian ladies" the events usually are not meant to give deep understandings of cultures simply because that cannot be done in one single event. that being said perhaps the RAs/staff members in question should try to think beyond the obvious when presenting such a program, so as not to fall too much in line with cliches. with regards to the food, residents won't go to a program like that if there is no food, plain and simple. also, I have been to some of the events that the asian community at UC puts on such as the lunar new year events. they have an abundance of food at those events and I don't think they really provide a deep understanding of a certain culture either, (again, because you can't do that in one single event). maybe it would be best to advertise those programs/events just as (vey limited) inroductions to a certain culture to avoid any confusion for people expecting something else.

  3. Food is fascinating. I find that talking about food, the ingredients, and the history of the food and how it's changed over time can be effective ways of exploring culture.. That being said, I'm sure these conversations are not the norm. I think that a lot of people (in America especially) don't want to talk about or think about things that might ruin a pleasurable experience for them. We've developed a whole culture of denial and avoidance, and this shows up in so many ways. I know many meat eaters who won't eat meat with bones in it. Is this realistic? Only in a country where food privileges and preferences are undeniably out of control. We take for granted our ability to be "picky eaters". I wonder how many people would actually be able to kill their meat and butcher it themselves.
    Now, I'm not necessarily saying that all, or even most people should do this, but when you look at the farming industry and all of the misery and suffering and ecological damage that occurs because of it, it might be better if some of us did raise our own meat and other foods.
    I love food literacy- it is empowering to people, and can help them to feel connected to the processes of being human. I think that food literate experiences can lead to a greater cultural and human understanding. We all eat food, and what and how we eat has evolved in tandem with our environments, our cultures, and our bodies.