Two years ago, a friend and I made a documentary for a film class about multiracial students and their experiences at Stanford. One, who was half Chinese, mentioned in her interview how she had never felt attracted to the Asian-American community at Stanford, saying, “I feel like at times they do become very stereotyped, just to be very honest. They become about getting boba, or about eating Asian food, or about other things like that, which to me are cultural elements, but that’s not what it’s really about.”
As someone who thinks that food is an incredibly important part of our lives, I’ve always found this statement really interesting. Certainly, food isn’t all there is to a culture, but isn’t it at least a part of it? Are things like music, art and history really more what a culture is “about” than cuisine?
There’s a quote floating around out there that goes, “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” Now, I don’t know that the love of the food you eat as a child is the equivalent of patriotism, but food is certainly an important part of a cultural identity. Take, for instance, the country of my parents, South Korea. If I asked you to name a Korean food, kimchi would surely be one of the first to come to mind, and not without reason; Koreans are crazy about kimchi. During the Vietnam War, canned kimchi was delivered to Korean soldiers after South Korea’s president wrote a letter to President Johnson saying that the soldiers were miserable without kimchi, and the prime minister, delivering the letter, told Johnson that when abroad, he missed kimchi more than his wife. In 2008, Yi So-Yeon, the first South Korean in space, brought along a specially engineered space-friendly version that South Korean scientists spent years of research and millions of dollars to develop. And last year, South Korea was hit with the Great Cabbage Shortage of 2010, leading to a spike in the prices of Napa cabbage, a key ingredient of kimchi, and forcing the government to suspend import duties on cabbages in an attempt to cope with the situation. Koreans and kimchi might be a bit of an extreme example, but in cases like this, food is more than just what people like to eat, it’s an important element of identity, of national pride.
Cultural groups at Stanford provide both opportunities for students of a particular culture or students interested in that culture to meet and interact as well as opportunities to share that culture with the greater Stanford community. How well they do at providing these opportunities is up for debate and varies from group to group, but for the most part, I would contest the characterization of these groups as being “about getting boba or about eating Asian food,” as most groups seem to make an effort to also explore those elements of culture that it is “really about.” At least, that’s what it seems like based on all the emails I get.
See, I can’t remember the last time that I went to a cultural event that didn’t involve food. As a bona fide “twinkie,” so to speak, I’ve never been particularly attracted to the Asian-American community here either, and flyers advertising culture nights and Asian-American speakers talking about Asian-American issues just haven’t piqued my interest. But if a flyer promises a delicious respite from normal dining hall food? I’m there.
And a lot of people seem to feel this way, as the food events I’ve been to are generally well attended. Maybe this was the source of my interviewee’s discontent with cultural groups, that the food events can be superficial in that they attract people who might not be particularly interested in that culture and are only there for the dumplings.
And maybe that’s true. Maybe most of these people will eat their plate of mandu that they think are gyoza and leave, but maybe some will ask why it’s called mandu and learn a little something. And even if they don’t, they’ve still been exposed to a little piece of that culture, just the same as if they’d seen a dance or heard a pop song. Food is just as important a part of culture as anything else, and by holding events where people can be exposed to the food of a culture (speaking of which, many kudos to Stanford Dining for last week’s Spring Faire), cultural groups can reach a greater audience.
After saying the word “kimchi” so many times, Tim is really craving some. Tell him where to get the best at [email protected].