Note: The following post contains mild profanity. Read and enjoy!here
Vietnamese people are obsessed with food.
I say so only because I love food, and, presumably, I’m the standard for all things Vietnamese.
But, to indulge the whims of those who – *gasp* – question my representative Vietnameseness, I’ll recall for you a brief foray into the mysterious world of the Berkeley DeCal.
Years ago I was suckered into attending a DeCal on Vietnamese culture by my longtime college roommates. I forget the circumstances of the kidnapping, but suffice it to say, they have yet to be forgiven. In spite of everything, I did find myself pondering the trite, yet controversial, question of the day: are interracial relationships more challenging (than what it was never made clear – perhaps space exploration, or nuclear fission)? However well intentioned the topic may have been (though I even doubt the wellness of the intention), the discussion quickly devolved into a mind-numbing argument over—you guessed it—food!
Or, at least, that quintessential Vietnamese ambrosia: Pho.
Simplified to the extreme (which isn’t actually that far from how it was posited), the argument went something like this:
I am Vietnamese.
I eat Pho.
Non-Vietnamese people are not Vietnamese.
Thus they must not eat Pho.
And so, any inter-racial relationship would be more challenging (than nuclear fission) because there is absolutely no possibility that a Vietnamese/Non-Vietnamese couple would be able to share a bowl of Pho.
Did I just blow your mind? Because I distinctly remember wanting to blow mine. For well over an hour, that damned Pho bowl kept resurfacing despite my most valiant (if I do say so myself) attempts to quash it.
What was this obsession with food? Of all the issues I imagined having in an inter-racial relationship, this was by far the least of them. What about familial tension? Or the language barrier? Or societal pressure? Or, you know, actually getting a girlfriend to begin with?
I’m being disingenuous, of course. Despite a failure to distinguish between race and culture (this itself is problematic), the class raised intriguing questions about what it means to identify oneself as Vietnamese. Their obsession with Pho is emblematic of larger social assumptions about food and race. Some of these, however, are not as innocuous or entertaining.
With this in mind, you have a choice:
You stop reading, the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe.
You keep reading and you stay in Wonderland.
Walking in a Racial Wonderland
Recently, I was confronted with a much more insidious and harmful representation of food and race.
It was an hour after twilight, two weeks before finals. The campus resonated with activity as students – in dire need of a study break – took to the streets to enjoy the last vestiges of their freedom. I was walking along the patchy grass with Danielle, playfully arguing with her about performativity (look it up) as a band of Asian men and women passed us.
“Boyfriend?” one asked another, speculating on what kind of relationship Danielle and I might share.
“Of course,” replied his friend, “everyone wants a piece of white bread.”
After overcoming my immediate desire to throttle them, I couldn’t help but marvel at their complex configurations of food and sex (those two go together in so many knotty ways). In those ten short words, the duo produced an ideological matrix so complicated even Neo would have trouble decoding it. But let’s jack into their minds and have a look-see.
Their comments envision whiteness as an object for consumption and construct a community oriented around some imagined collective form of Asianness (much like the DeCal’s obsessive orientation around Pho as Vietnameseness). As a white object, Danielle is relegated to an inanimate object for consumption, “a piece of white bread,” without agency or blame.
That role rests solely on my shoulders. I’m the Vietnamese guy, who, unimaginably, doesn’t prefer Pho (that’s rhetorical, please don’t be mad at me Pho; I love you!). My desire for “white bread,” they accuse, is white bred – that is, it stems from an adherence to mainstream white society. Their words tell me that such desire makes me complicit in the social reproduction of whiteness (aka being whitewashed). In addition, the “boyfriend” question genders and sexualizes my body, marking me as in collusion with whiteness’s biological reproduction (beware of white babies!).
In their formulation, my sexuality is at once heterosexual and queer; the former because I represent a real biological threat, and the latter because “white bread” or “wonder bread” often refers to white men. My consumption of “white bread,” then, produces me as bisexual. But that’s not all. Danielle’s position of “white bread” also contains the possibility of my feminization. In the heterosexual framework, if she occupies the masculine position, my desire feminizes me – and the Asian masculinity I superficially represent. I am thus, in that logic, at once man and woman.
That’s right. I am a bisexual hermaphrodite.
In these complicated and contradictory possibilities one thing remains clear: I am raced, gendered, and sexualized as queer and ridiculed for it.
The ridicule functions as a kind of social pressure, to embarrass me into compliance with standard narratives of raced sexuality. It is an attempt at policing me and making me follow their rules. The Duo hail me in those ten short words, “Stop! In the Name of Race!” All this seems like overkill. Why bother policing complete strangers when, in a moment, they could be a distant memory? What does my relationship have anything to do with them?
Are you ready? Do you want to see how deep the rabbit-hole goes?
Follow the white rabbit: the students’ racial anxieties stem more from the possibilities I represent than my own racio-sexual transgression. They’re not so much interested in policing my activities, but rather policing the women in their merry little band. In my perceived social and biological reproduction of whiteness, I represent an alternative to default racial homogeneity, a challenge to their masculinist supremacy over “their” women. Thus calling me a queer bisexual hermaphrodite (foul-mouthed little bastards!) serves a more insidious purpose: it warns “their” women against such deviancy. The women are forced to either align themselves with Asianness or be subjected to ridicule by association.
The encounter, then, is not a moment of crisis for them as it is for us (Danielle cried that night. I can only assume the two young men slept perfectly fine). Rather, it offers an opportunity for policing racial and gendered boundaries that may not be so readily available otherwise. It is precisely because Danielle and I are strangers that the hail can be made and quickly forgotten without directly confronting “their” women.
Simplified to the extreme (again), they say: “Bad women. No consuming Whiteness. You must eat us.” Subtle, I know. The knottiness of food and sex. In some far off fantasyland, I wish I could be one of those women and reply, “The two of you can go suck yourselves off.