I came to school on Tuesday, March 11 with my expectations set fairly low. I teach first year composition at Miami University in Ohio. Needless to say, as a woman of color, it’s not always very fruitful when the classroom topic of the day is going to be race and ethnicity. I had assigned Soleil Ho’s short essay, “Craving the Other” from Bitch Magazine’s food issue and I arrive that morning ready for their resistance and their hesitation. I started our class with a writing activity which I have been calling the food-nationality quiz. This consisted of me presenting eight nationalities to the students and their task was to name five foods that they associate with each. They struggled most with Ethiopian and Thai. Some are not very sure that there is a difference between Greek and Italian cuisine. They proudly declare that pizza, hot dogs, and hamburgers are the three most ubiquitous American foods around. Most concerning to me was that so many of them are convinced that “shrimp,” “chicken,” and “pork,” unmodified ingredients in their own right all belong to specific nationalities.
The next step, was the student led discussion on the essay. CC and PC were the students in charge today. The average student led discussion consists of a 15-minute block of class time where getting responses out of their peers is like pulling teeth. This day, something changed. Was it the 60-something degree dawning of Spring? Was it the email I had sent with the scary chart of the participation rates from the semester so far with the friendly reminder that midterm grades were due at Spring Break? Maybe any and all of these things, but I was floored by the way this discussion proceeded.
CC and PC’s questions:
1. Was [Ho] going too far in her accusations [against Americans]? Student 1 responded that he wasn’t sure. There is a level authenticity of expected when we [by which he means White Americans] eat ethnic foods. His example, in a Mexican restaurant, he expects the food to be prepared and served by Mexican people. Otherwise, he thinks it is a chain restaurant. This was quickly followed up by Student 2’s response: that he disagreed upon first reading since he was of the persuasion that food is a medium for connecting with people who are not like us and that sometimes food is the only connection.
2. What, in general, is the point [Ho] is trying to make? Student 3 responded that we shouldn’t be associating entire cultures with a very limited number of foods. Student 4 agreed and added that we don’t know as much as we think we do about specific cultures just because we have eaten some foods ascribed to them. Student 5 went on to say that our focus on foods as markers of cultures implies that food is the only thing we are willing to know about other people and places. A sixth student chimed in, referring to the point of the essay when Ho writes that her own consumption of Vietnamese foods did not help her better understand Vietnamese culture or history. He noted that if that is the case for Ho, it is even more true for someone like himself, who is much further removed from knowing anything about Vietnamese history or experience.
3. How are the situation’s [Ho] describes similar to the ways we treat St. Patrick’s Day and Green Beer Day? Student 7: we do the same things, pretending we know so much about Ireland, telling people we are “Irish” even if we don’t know anything about it, just as an excuse to spend the day[s] “drinking like the Irish do.”
4. Why does Ho use the examples from popular media like “Asian Girlz” and Bizarre Foods? Student 8: She is trying to point out that mass media is guilty of this as much as we as individuals are. Since we look to mass media as an authority and source of credibility, we learn these stereotypes from the media.
5. What do you think of [Ho’s] perspective of wanting to be like White Americans when she gives the examples such as the rice and cold cut meats? Student 9 responded: we never think about it, but it’s the same situation for us. We get tired of those things we eat all the time and we want to try something else.