Cultural taboos

After a long time with this book on my reading list, I finally finished reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. I think to this date, it’s probably one of the best and most interesting memoirs I’ve read primarily because a) it’s so authentic in discussing the cultural clashes of Asian food in general vs. Western foods, b) her perspective on being a foreigner in China and being an “outsider” actually mirrors how I sometimes feel when trying to understand Chinese culture, though I am three-quarters ethnically Chinese, and c) she very vividly illustrates how she transformed from a (relatively speaking) closed-minded Westerner who wasn’t open to eating a lot of “exotic” ingredients to someone who embraced eating scorpion to dog to caterpillars, and even began thinking like a native Chinese person. And none of it felt disingenuous at all. In fact, she became a bit like Chris is when it comes to embracing both her native culture (she’s originally from England) and her pseudo adopted culture of Chinese: she’s fiercely loyal to both her mother country and her adopted country and will relentlessly defend it when the situation or conversation arises that tries to jab at either one. That’s the way Chris is when someone either criticizes the U.S. or Australia. That’s my baby.

Living in China, formally being trained as a chef in Sichuan, and immersing herself into Chinese culture made her question why Westerners think it’s okay or “civilized” to eat certain animals such as chickens or cow, but not okay and even barbarian-like to eat animals like dog, cat, or insects. It’s a valid question to ask because when people speak down at the idea of eating insects or cat or scorpion, what they are actually and indirectly saying is that they think people who do choose to eat those things are lesser than they are or lower on a totem pole in terms of status. The other assumption this brings up is that we actually have a choice in what we have to eat, and so many people in the world die of starvation every day. Why do we need to be so judgmental of cultures different than our own? Instead, shouldn’t we be questioning why we have such strong reactions to these ideas? Part of understanding other cultures is letting go of our own learned cultural taboos and making ourselves vulnerable. Fuchsia Dunlop has clearly done that to a very applaudable level. I still am in shock that not only did she learn to speak Mandarin fluently, but even picked up Sichuan dialect (she had to, as people in cooking school would try to tease and make fun of her in that dialect), and learned to understand Hunanese dialect, among others, during her travels throughout the country.

While reading this book, I recalled my former white male colleague who recently flew to Beijing from New York City for just four full days to attend his best friend’s wedding. He left his wife and baby daughter at home in New Jersey. Being a token Chinese person in our office, I must have seemed like a good person to discuss China with, and he of course came to me and asked for travel advice (I was useless, though, since I still haven’t been to Beijing). And when he came back, he came to chat with me about his experience. He said it was far more crowded and more chaotic than he’d ever imagined. He said the wedding was massive with endless food, and he did a few touristy activities like the Great Wall. But he’d never recommend Beijing as a destination to visit to anyone. He said it was too crowded, too busy, too much sensory overload.

And that made me sad to hear. It further fulfilled the Western/white stereotype of ignoring China, this great and massive country, as a place that didn’t really need much regard from the Western world. He didn’t want to immerse himself and went in with a closed mindset. So of course, he wasn’t going to leave China with a total 180-change in perception. He’s the kind of person who Fuchsia Dunlop would get angry at and probably sit him down and tell him he didn’t like China because he didn’t properly give China a chance to be liked.

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