The Barre Bro Gets (Slightly) Serious Talkin ‘Bout Cultural Appropriation

Callie is away this weekend, which makes the barre bro sad. But, no Callie means there’s no one to stop me from cooking/eating whatever I want! Especially because last weekend, I did the tuck University City double (barre followed by barre bounce), and I have yet to “spend” the calories I burned that day on any extra meals this week. Doing back to backs isn’t normally a barre bro thing, but I did my best (ended up quitting with 10 minutes left in the barre class).

It was a fun pair of classes with lots of regulars, and this jerk of a teacher showing off for the camera.

On the other side of me was Nadia, from whom I learned a very important barre lesson. I was, as usual, grunting and grimacing my way through all the terrible muscle-burning barre exercises as usual, but when I looked over at Nadia, I noticed she had one of those calm, perfectly serene barre faces that some of our clients have. And then, just for a second, I softened my own face… and realized, holy crap! Grimacing takes energy too! I should redirect that energy to the legs/working muscles that need it! And for the rest of class, I did my best to not make effort faces, and instead send that energy to the muscle doing the work. And it actually helped!

Up to a point. By the end, we were all like this, defeated, on our knees, praying the crazy possessed woman leading the class would finally pass out or something.

Later that weekend, I started meal prepping some Mexican-style chicken thighs. We were having some friends over for dinner so I got a little busier in the kitchen and forgot to take pictures, but I’ll update with photo evidence next time I make them.

Which brings me to the topic on my mind today – cultural appropriation, especially in the food context.

In case you haven’t heard, a white woman in NYC recently opened a Chinese restaurant and advertised it as “clean” Chinese food, and it set off a firestorm of controversy about cultural appropriation, sensitivity, and all of that other noise. No one asked for it, but here’s my personal opinion as someone who loves food.

First, a little context. I completely understand why the Chinese-American community was outraged. There’s an ugly history of stereotypes here that Westerners may not be aware of. I’m a Korean that was born in Korea, and as a child I distinctly remember my parents teaching me about a “hierarchy” of cleanliness among the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. The Japanese were at the top of the hierarchy, generally believed to be the “cleanest” of the three nationalities in both food and hygiene. The Chinese were at the bottom, considered the “dirtiest” and the Koreans were somewhere in the middle. This would have been in the mid-1980s. My parents told me that, when financially feasible, it was best to buy Japanese brands at the grocery store because they had the highest standards for quality and cleanliness. Also, Chinese products were to be a last resort. Korean products were fine, but certainly not as good as Japanese brands. I suspect these were commonly held beliefs at the time – even a decade later when we were in America, I remember we went to the Korean grocery store that had recently started stocking a lot of new brands of rice. When my mom asked the grocer what brand was best, the grocer (a Korean lady) replied, “Well, the Japanese brands of rice are still the highest quality.” In the car driving home, my mom mentioned how sad it was that proud Korean grocers still had to admit, truthfully, that Japanese products were still better than “ours.” Are these fair stereotypes? Of course not, to the extent that stereotypes are ever fair, but were they based in reality? Well, the Japanese were certainly the richest nation of the three at the time, which makes things like good hygiene available to more people. China also has a particularly troublesome history of tainted products (which they certainly take seriously – I think they executed a CEO in charge of a company that produced bad baby formula). Meanwhile, the Japanese are so fixated on good hygiene that their toilet culture is world-famous. 

All of this to say, when a white woman opens a Chinese restaurant and claims that what makes it special is that it’s “clean” Chinese food – yeah, Chinese people aren’t going to take very kindly to that. Now I doubt the woman knew all of this history, and to be fair, there’s been a recent food trend called “clean” eating, to which I’m pretty certain she was referring. It doesn’t make the pain caused to the Chinese community any less justified, but I tend to believe this was mostly an honest mistake.

That being said, the point I want to make, or rather the personal belief I’d like to offer, is that cultural appropriation in the context of food should be one of the very last things we’re concerned with at the moment. We now live in a globalized, interconnected world. Diversity makes almost everything better, and if you truly believe that, why wouldn’t you want a more diverse group of people cooking Chinese food, or playing classical music, or break-dancing? Yo-Yo Ma mastered European classical music to a degree never before achieved by anyone. Koreans fell in love with break-dancing and regularly dominate international break dancing competitions. Eminem may be the best rapper ever, and Jimi Hendrix is the undisputed god of guitar. And the greatest Karate practitioner of all time? A white man of German descent by the name of Dwight K. Schrute.

Diversity doesn’t just mean accepting all cultures, it’s the idea that anyone and everyone should be able to choose and adopt whatever identity they think fits them best. I love authentic Korean food, but I was absolutely ecstatic when I found out that Bing Bing Dim Sum, a “Chinese” dim sum restaurant opened by two white guys from Philly, was experimenting and augmenting dukbokki, one of my all-time favorite Korean dishes, and the one dish closest to my heart. The Bing Bing guys get it right on their website – they’re not claiming or trying to be authentic, they’re just cooking what they like.

The idea that any one nation or ethnicity can “own” a cuisine to the exclusion of other people participating is, I believe, fundamentally flawed. Of course there’s value in authenticity – if something has been done the same way for hundreds of years, maybe they got something right. But people have done some very stupid things the same way for centuries as well.

All that being said… don’t ever get the pizza at 7-11. Italy should be allowed to kick its country-sized boot right up 7-11’s ass for this failure.

 

 

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