17 Jan 2018

Asian fusion, with a side of racism

4:38 pm on 17 January 2018

By Anny Ma *

Opinion - It pains me greatly that in 2018 this even needs to be said, but mocking another culture (or group) for your own amusement is not funny - it's degrading.

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Fried rice may seem an exotic addition to a menu, but for many in China - and New Zealand - it's as fundamental as eggs on toast. Photo: ildipapp/123RF

My parents are Chinese immigrants, and I was born in Christchurch, a place I'm constantly told "isn't that bad" in regards to racism.

I've never once heard a person of colour utter this phrase. In fact, the people who have told me my entire life that something isn't racist, and that it's not really a big deal, have been predominantly Pākehā.

But I am constantly reminded that my heritage is actually just a punchline, despite descending from one of the oldest civilisations of the world with an incredibly rich history and culture.

Bamboozle restaurant in my 'not that racist' hometown of Christchurch has further proved this, by creating a menu where Asian Fusion dishes are named by childishly butchering words through phonetically writing them out "how an Asian would speak".

This far too common trope is based on degrading stereotypes, and while some Asians may have thicker accents as they (very admirably) learn another language to help them assimilate into Western culture, making fun of them for this is completely unnecessary.

The small-minded may be amused by this for three seconds, but the people on the receiving end of this 'joke' will remember the incredible discomfort, embarrassment, and self-loathing you made them feel for much, much longer.

Asian Fusion cuisine has become a trend as of late, where 'restaurateurs' cherry-pick their favourite flavours and cooking styles from the largest and most-populated continent to create a disjointed menu that seems ethnic and exciting for patrons. Typically, the menu and decor will feature bamboo, exotic fonts, and symbols more commonly seen as tattoos on people who go to Thailand for full moon parties.

The food I was mocked for eating through my childhood is now an Instagram trend, and completely gentrified to the point that I'll routinely be asked if I've tried dishes as basic as fried rice: while you ate eggs on toast for breakfast growing up, I ate egg fried rice.

Since the menu was posted online, there's been a lot of commentary provided by those with zero authority on the topic. If you are not Asian, this is not the time to tell us we can't be offended, or to "lighten up" as 59 percent of voters in a Stuff poll thought.

There have also been comments by people like Professor James Liu of Massey University, who found the menu insensitive but said he believed there was no malicious intent so didn't go as far as labelling it racist.

Unfortunately, 'Racism' is a word that causes more shock than the behaviour itself. Being a minority, I completely understand being in a situation where you don't want to upset the status quo for fear of negative consequences.

I am a firm believer that if your behaviour is not problematic, you shouldn't have to defend it. This behaviour is not something anybody should be seen to support or agree with.

The next time you've got a craving for pork and chive dumplings or egg fried rice, think twice about where you satisfy it - will you engage in a cultural exchange with people proud of their heritage and cuisine, or with a colonised and diluted stereotype of it?

Food for both your belly and thoughts.

* Anny Ma is a freelance writer and communications specialist who lives in Tāmaki Makaurau. She recently read 'Looptail' by Bruce Poon Tip and won't stop recommending it to people.

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