Guest columnist Xiaoping (Eric) Yu: Why you should try some chicken feet

Thursday, June 16, 2022

‘Oh god, this reminded me of that Asian lady on TikTok who just ripped the turtle apart and ate it.” After I showed her a turtle-like cake being cut, my friend casually said that to me.

To most white Americans, there’s almost nothing that could stand out from this sentence; it just felt like a normal conversation. However, as a Chinese American, I felt nauseous almost immediately. The first thing I noticed was “Asian lady.” I asked why her race mattered. My friend failed to give me a response. I argued that just “that lady” or even “that person” would’ve been enough of a descriptor in this context.

I’m always baffled by this kind of microaggression and dog whistle behind Asian cultural foods. These microaggressions are born of cultural insensitivity, white supremacy and classism.

Late-night talk show host James Corden also had a segment called “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts.” He invites celebrities to join him and tell secrets or have to eat “disgusting” food. Most of the dishes present are delicacies from Asian countries, but it was merely reduced to “disgusting” food to make celebrities tell secrets on this show.

Food in Asian countries is just like yours. There are stories behind each dish, just like yours. The chicken noodle soup your mother would make when you were sick had the same emotional meaning as my mother’s catfish stew when I wasn’t well. No one would tell you that your grandmother’s recipes from the Great Depression are weird and disgusting. Instead, most people will awe and exclaim how cute it is that you kept those fantastic family recipes. So why are we pointing fingers at cultural foods passed down from one generation to another?

Besides the general lack of understanding, microaggressions targeting food also perpetuate white supremacy and classism. There are only a few acceptable meat, vegetables and meals to eat in American society. Anything that falls out of the narrowly defined categories is seen as exotic at best and disgusting at worst.

However, these categories are even flexible depending on your ethnicity. For example, if a French cook prepares snails, frogs and liver, these foods are seen as a delicacy; given the same set of foods but cooked by a Chinese person, they are seen as uncivilized, unnatural, weird and disgusting. The acceptable category is almost baseless and changes from one trend to another.

In recent years, diet culture has taken on carbohydrates instead of sugar or fat as the primary villain for Americans’ obesity. There are numerous articles by health gurus on why rice is a useless carb, and to stay healthy and fit, people should stay away from rice. These health trends are just another form of American consumerism popularizing and villainizing cultural foods.

These trends are often unhelpful, contradicting, and lack replicable scientific evidence. I recall my first few years in America, my mother and I would cook chicken feet and eat it as a snack. I would often get weird looks when mentioning it to my friends. Thanks to American health gurus discovering the amazing collagen present in chicken feet, chicken feet went from that weird-thing-that-Chinese-kid-ate to a prestigious health and skincare item within months.

One of the main reasons we were so fond of chicken feet is that it’s cheap and available. When we first moved to the States, with newly immigrant bank savings, the meat prices were way too high. My mother found out that she could ask for the scraps from the butcher for a lower price. This became our only source of protein at times. I know for sure that I’m not the only one that couldn’t afford the organic, grass-fed, gluten-free, spiritual chicken.

Deeming all these foods as “weird” foods targets immigrants, low-income families, or farmers who just don’t want to let everything go to waste. By saying, “oh, of course, they would eat that. They’re Asian,” we put groups into the other category and alienate ourselves from each other. This lack of understanding promotes a dehumanizing gaze when the last thing we need right now is creating tension between each other.

This simple physical description went beyond just a physical description. It was a manifestation of stereotypes and colonialist efforts to villainize cultural foods to eliminate our cultural differences and enforce American homogeneity. For a culture that values individual differences, we don’t see the irony in our efforts to assimilate everyone to have a middle-class life, living in a cookie-cutter house in the suburbs, and eating the same ol’ spaghetti and meatballs for every meal (nothing wrong with that, if that’s your liking).

So next time when your only “ethnic” friend offers you some food from their culture, be nice, try some. Maybe you’ll like it.

Xiaoping (Eric) Yu of Amherst is studying political science and psychology at Macalester College. This article is part of a final project.