Monday, February 1, 2010

When Race, Culture, & Food Clash

I thought this exchange on the Myers + Chang website was very interesting.

Since I have some very smart and thoughtful readers, I was wondering about your take on it. The parties are a restaurant owner, Joanne Chang-Myers, and a commenter on Yelp. Here's an excerpt:

"I get it, do over-priced Asian fusion food, but why do it in a way that’s offensive? Not only is the “ancient chinese secret” thing messed up, but I also heard about the messed up commercials/ads for this place saying junk like “Confucius say ‘When man go through turnstile sideways, Bangkok!’” or something to that effect. Dude, how is that cool to make a joke out of Asian cultures when you call yourself Asian fusion? Also, shame on the Boston media for calling this a Chinese joint. Messed up!”

“I’m really sorry to read that you were offended by us! As a Taiwainese-American chef, I made my goal at M+C to create a fun restaurant of the calibar I was used to working at (I am a pastry chef by training having worked at several 4 star restaurants in Boston and NYC) that offered Taiwanese, Southeast Asian, and other Asian foods. In Boston if you want Chinese or other Asian food you’re almost exclusively limited to Chinatown.

The ads were meant to be tongue in cheek (and in fact my conservative parents find them hysterical) and the Ancient Chinese Secret mousse was our way of getting around calling it Chocolate Tofu Mousse (see? doesn’t really sound so good that way!)."
(via Universal Hub)

First, I know that I am biased towards Joanne Chang-Myers. I'm a huge fan of Flour Bakery + Cafe. I'm looking forward to her cookbook. And from what I've read about her in general and my interview with her, I think she's pretty cool.

However, I get that these four women were offended too. Each person deals with stereotypes about their own race or culture in a different way. These women may have been thinking, "Oh great. More perpetuation of the stereotype to deal with." But Joanne seems to have a different take and likes joking around more.

As an African-American woman, I've sometimes taken offense the way that other black women dealt with stereotypes about us. Some want to put it all out there all the time and joke around about it. Me? Well, not so much. For those who do,I guess we have to agree to disagree. This seems to happen a lot in life. Sometimes you just cannot agree with their postion, but you still have to try to respect them as a person.

I think that Joanne handled this situation well. She adressed it and explained her position. I don't think she can do much more than that. What do you think?


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11 comments:

Asha said...

I still remember one senator calling his loyal "American Indian" party worker who promoted the senator relentlessly all thru' the election was called as "that Macaca(?)" on stage thanking him,actually meant it as a appreciation for his hard work. I didn't even know what Macaca was at that time when they made a big deal and am still not sure what it means exactly. A monkey? I laughed when I found out the meaning later but realized that senator didn't really mean it, just being ignorant self and he later even apologized for being stupid. Good enough for me.

Same way. We can make fun of ourselves about our own food, culture etc but when somebody else does it unknowingly, it hurts us!! People need to lighten up and laugh a bit.
But then I do get angry and frustrated when women here call themselves or some call women "so and so's b...h!! Why do you want to demean yourself or others like that even if it's for a joke! I don't get that at all.

I am all confused now!! ;D

willow said...

Well, I think the ads are tasteless. (no pun intended) She did explain her take on the issue. If she wants to stand behind her ads, she's welcome to. The offended parties can choose not to eat there.

josephine said...

I love a good sense of humor, but I can see why the Yelp reviewer would be offended. Depending on the medium, sometimes sarcasm doesn't translate well enough and therefore will seem to reinforce stereotypes. It's a very tricky balancing act, for sure.

gfe--gluten free easily said...

I never find this kind of humor funny. I just don't get who laughs at such stuff. But, I'm also one who winces every time I hear the word "pimp" used (prostitution is no joke), "wifebeater" (those tank t-shirts for those who don't know--again, abuse is not funny), and even "food porn" (ugh). I know it sounds somewhat ridiculous, especially with the food porn label and myself being a food blogger, but some words just have a meaning that doesn't go away when you start using them to convey something else. And, to go back to stereotypical and racist remarks that are often followed by "I was just kidding" and "can't you take a joke?" Well, as the saying goes "there's truth in jest." Joking around is really just another way to say something offensive and pretend you aren't.

Great discussion post, Anali.

Shirley

Nance said...

I think when it's a written usage, it makes it too difficult to gauge a person's reaction, and using it as advertisement is even trickier. Best to avoid it in all written cases in that respect, I think. Sort of like the issues that arise when using email: the writer has no idea how the recipient will "take" certain things in the message without benefit of voice emphasis, facial expressions,etc. Written language, for that reason, has to be much more precise.

Since this sort of edge-walking "humor" can be deemed offensive to certain groups, especially since the context is open to interpretation, why risk it? I don't see any benefit, really.

Suldog said...

My belief is that many people should lighten up (and I don't mean that as a racial crack in regards to skin tone.) Sure, we could easily go around being offended by half the things we hear and see, but (IMHO) the intent to hurt is NOT there more often than it is. If someone is obviously trying to make a joke, their intent is to bring you joy. Why hand them tears in return? Of course, if it is obviously not a joke, then whatever response you wish to give is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the hateful delivery.

If you find some speech offensive, that's certainly your right, but it is also someone else's right to say it, at least in this country. I'd prefer that both parts of the above stay that way.

T. said...

Whenever I talk to other Filipinos about this issue, we all end up saying that in general it seems (as others have mentioned above) that there are some people who could really use a little lightening up, especially in American culture.

I don't know enough about other Latin / Asian cultures to generalize, but it seems it's much easier for Filipinos to make fun of ourselves and laugh at ourselves than it is for many Americans who are acutely sensitive to anything that might be thought of as "politically incorrect" (a phrase I despise with my whole heart - just call it nice/not nice, rude/not rude, what your mom should have taught you/what your mom didn't teach you).

Our attitude is if you can't laugh at your misfortunes, faults, foibles, and failings, then you REALLY have a problem and you'll be crying or angry for much of your life - and life's too short for that! I have video clips of people swimming through their front yard after the flooding caused by Typhoon Ondoy, and you know they cried and grieved at first, but at this point they were LAUGHING that they were having to swim through what used to be their garden. My kids and I found this to be VERY Filipino. Maybe Chinese and Taiwanese culture allows for this kind of sense of humor too. We can tease ourselves. We're the first to make fun of our own accents and grammar errors. Let's face it: they're funny. Maybe we feel that way because we're accepting of the fact that we're nowhere close to perfect.

If her "conservative" parents found the ads hilarious, perhaps it's worth considering that way of seeing the situation/ads. Not everything HAS to be a civil rights issue or a federal case or a scandal - especially if the people supposedly being laughed at are laughing the loudest.

Anali said...

asha - I do remember that incident, because I had never heard the word before. When I think about the English language and all the words to be learned and used to convey something beautiful, it's such a shame that so many words that only cause pain get so much use.

willow - Well said. That's what it comes down to.

josephine - Good point about the medium! It's like when you send an email and hope that words come across the same as if they were spoken. It's hard to know!

gfe - I agree about the truth in jest! That's often the case and unless you really know the person who said it and can guage the intent behind it, there can be a lot of hurt feelings.

Anali said...

nance - I agree that this humor might be too risky to be worth it. Maybe when there's business involved especially, a little market research might be worthwhile to see how a good cross-section of people will react.

suldog - I agree about taking the words in the spirit that they are delivered. If you can tell that the intent is good, then I think most people, even if offended somewhat, can let it go and move on. But nobody needs to laugh at something that they don't think is funny.

t - I agree that it's a great strength to be able to laugh in times of distress and sorrow. Often, I think that's how we can go on in spite of the hardships of life. Also, I believe in the idea of "choosing your battles" where not everything needs to be a federal case. Nobody has the time or energy to fight everything.

But I guess the woman who wrote the comment decided that this was a battle to fight. Maybe this was the last straw type of thing, where her feelings had been building and she just couldn't let this one go without giving a piece of her mind.

Can-Can said...

I like honesty and authenticity and humor. Given that Chang is Asian I would give her the benefit of the doubt. Really. I used to get riled up about everything, now I just don't. There are degrees - I won't let words get me riled up too much. I'm more into actions rather than reactions.

Anali said...

can-can - You have a very healthy outlook!

 
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