Asian Food with Asian Friends: How to Avoid Microaggressions and General Awkwardness

From utensil usage, biases about MSG, and obsession over health code cleanliness, these are six tips for dining out and enjoying delicious food with your Asian friend.

By May Cat

photo source: dreamstime

Do you eat Asian food to identify as edgy, adventurous, or multicultural? From sticky rice to roti to ddukkboki to lumpias—though a cheap and exotic option for many non-Asians—for us folks of Asian descent, Asian foods are rather our source of comfort, memories, natural diet, core identity, and a symbol of resistance.

It’s no surprise that with the Western gaze, when we share meals with our friends, socialized microaggressions and biases can occur, othering us with subversive Orientalism. The Western gaze uses the presence of “the Other,” as argued by Edward Said, to confirm the superiority of “the Western powers” and the inferiority of “the Orient,” rather than considering the original perspective to document what the culture actually is.

I want to start a conversation about our cultural differences, and dispel common misconceptions during meal time. Noting that the Asian American identity is created by globalization, usually monopolizing East Asian cultures and erasing Southeast and South Asian culture, the representation of our food can lack nuances about utensil usage, heat sources, etiquettes, and classism. Our food, out of economic survival, can be diluted and hybridized for the western tongue, while at the same time, be restructured and trendily resold by the dominant culture as “Fusion,” “Pan-Asian” or “Asian Inspired.”

Though these contexts may be hard to swallow, some are no-brainers. Whether you are invited to a home cooked meal, a new restaurant, or a mom and pop immigrant-owned food cart down the street, here are six tips to peacefully dining and enjoying delicious Asian food with your Asian friend.

photo: jim.choate59 via photopin

1. Do taste the food before adding condiments

This should be common sense, but before splattering soy sauce, sriracha, or chili sauce, do taste the dish. Taste the seasoning, smell the aroma, and feel the texture of what’s in front of you!

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2. Do use correct utensils

Contrary to popular beliefs, chopsticks are not the “Asian” utensil and you are not an honorary Asian for showing off with it. Some cultures, for example, use a spoon and fork as their dominant utensils, and sometimes their hands. It does not default them as primitive or “less Asian.”

And please note: those who cut sushi with a fork or play with chopsticks by sticking them in rice should forever be banned.

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3. Do dispel the irrationally racist and xenophobic fear of MSG

In a 2010 experiment by BBC, a reporter invited four MSG-intolerant guests to eat Italian food with MSG and Chinese food without MSG. The guests reportedly felt “sick,” bloated by the Chinese food but not Italian.

Throughout history, the “Chinese restaurant syndrome” is an expression of prejudice through blaming monosodium glutamate, a substance found naturally in foods including cheese and tomatoes, and injected in many foods such as Doritos. The idea that food is unsanitary also reflects in customers’ Health Code suspicions, obsessing over the cleanliness of Asian restaurants.

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4. Don’t project your discomfort as facts

Jellyfish? Frog legs? Dry squids? Shrimp paste? Kimchi? We all have that one friend scrunching up their nose when being introduced to Asian food, scanning the menu devoid of casserole, mouthing “Eww.”

Lisa Heldke, author of Exotic Appetites noted a historical pattern permissing folks to display disgust: “Nineteenth-century European colonials living in Asia and Africa often pointed to the foods of the colonized as yet more evidence of their heathenish and subhuman ways.” This is how people other Asian food as “foreign” and ultimately inferior to European foods. My suggestion? Do take a bite, and try it before casting judgements.

photo source: dreamstime

5. Do shut up with the fetishism and questions

We are not the Asia Ambassador. We do not have one “Asian culture” or one “Asian language.” Likewise, this isn’t a time to ask for insider tips or appoint a random Auntie to be a tour guide for your next Asia trip. Don’t corner the waitress for unpaid linguistic lessons (“How do you pronounce this?”).

As for the other side of this issue: boasting your multicultural authority by whitesplaining Asian food or the naan you last ate to your friend is painstakingly boring, especially if they cook it at home from inherited family recipes. Be mindful!

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6. Do pay up

When Langbaan, an upscale Portland Thai restaurant opened with 3 months-advance reservations, people were in disbelief at a possible $555 dinner tab for a table of four. What sucker would pay that much for Thai food, right? Wrong.

A study done in 1986 and 2014 by NYU professor of Food Studies, Krishnendu Ray showed that consumers are willing to pay the most for continental and American food (white food), and the least for “ethnic” food. French food ranked the most expensive, while Thai is ranked at the bottom for over 20 years. And while Japanese food relocated to second place because of our perception of it being foreign and prestigious, Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines are demoted to the bottom, reflecting our perception of their importance, worth and power.

Ray also points out in his 2016 interview, How Americans pretend to love ‘ethnic food:’ “If you’re going to pay $8.99 for sushi, which is the bottom of the market, there’s no way you’re going to get a Japanese chef to do it. That price cannot pay the opportunity costs for this chef to leave Japan.”

Because of that, we hire vulnerable and poor immigrants to work in the kitchen. With cheap prices comes justification for cheap tipping, and the belief that Thai food cannot be worth as much as French food. To combat these biases, do pay and tip as much for mom and pop restaurants as you do for overpriced columbus’ed restaurants.

Are you hungry yet? Just remember these tips, and go out and enjoy some delicious food!