Identity and Community

In the field of Asian American Studies, more often than not, one will run across the word, “intersectionality”.  This word refers to the connection and overlap of the different facets of an individual’s identity.  This can include (but is not limited to): ethnic grouping, racial identification, religious beliefs, orientation, physical attributes, gender, abilities, family history and as we will discover in the course of this post: food.

For those of us who identify as Asian American, the idea of “ethnic food” influences our diets, serve as a barometer of our connection to the homeland (You’re Japanese?  Then you must love sushi!), and is a stage for the acting out of our respective communities and our role within these groupings.

It’s within the context of intersectionality that we begin to imagine the fusing of culture, family, history and food to create a process called “foodways.”  In her essay, “Ethnic Foodways in America: Symbol and the Performance of Identity,” Susan Kalčik defines foodways as “the whole pattern of what is eaten, when, how and what it means.”

A good portion of Asian American Studies can be summed up in three questions:
1) Who are you?
2) Where do you come from?
3) How does your existence impact the present and ultimately, the future?

So the question remains…why study food?  Why do we have to “academi-cize” it?  We find that the intersectionality of identity, community and foodways leads to two questions:

1) In a transnational society, if there are indeed distinct ethnic groups and ethnic foods, where are the “lines” that are being crossed and blurred?  What does this say about the society we exist in and influence our identity?
2) How are different cultural food methodologies are “not just strategies of distinctiveness but a channel for communication?” (Kalčik, 46)

Professor Valerie Matsumoto explores these questions (and many more) in her seminar on “Asian American Culture, Cuisine & Economy” at UCLA.  “Eating is so nutritionally essential to our existence that the meanings, histories and enterprise embedded in food often escape notice,” Matsumoto states in an article written for the Amerasia Journal.  (Matsumoto, 2006)  Essentially, we tend to see food commonly accepted as a physiological and perhaps psychological area of study, but often neglects the cultural implications of a day-to-day activity that speak to larger forces at work within society, history and culture.  “When we talk about food,” Matsumoto continues, “We not only discuss our ideas of budget, taste and health, we also reveal our upbringing, family dynamics, and notions of ethnicity, comfort and home.”

For AAS187B, our group chose to focus specifically on Roy Choi.  Many people may praise “Papi Chulo” for his unique foods, but if seen through an intersectional, comparative lens, one gathers a different perspective on the dining experience (not just the food).  If one compares and contrasts each of the hearts and missions of his restaurants, Roy displays a heart for the communion of his visitors.  The food is an essential, part of this experience.  Dishes are meant to be shared, tables are meant to squish large groups into spaces that can provide effective stages for performances of identity, and the sharing of memories, and one is to leave his restaurants feeling like they experienced a different side of “Papi Chulo’s” identity.

In an interview about Kogi Truck (“Roy Choi – Flavor of Los Angeles”) Roy states, “I opened up everything I went through in my life.  Being an immigrant from Korea and then living in America.  Growing up in a Latino neighborhood, eating different at home than I did at school.  The food became a flavor for the city that I can’t describe…”

The food is not filling to the stomach, it becomes true soul food – fulfilling and expressing the history of the cook himself.  In an interview with LA Weekly, Roy states “Yeah, I don’t really care about job security. Everything I do is like tough love, everything I put out there in the universe is me trying to feed you. I really care. One thing you can see with all the food that’s been created the last few years, whether you like it or not, is that there hasn’t been a problem with consistency. Our No. 1 philosophy is to make sure we’re thinking of you as we cook.”

“Food conveys love,” Matsumoto states towards the end of her article.  She suggests that food is a “vehicle” for family to communicate across linguistic, generational and cultural barriers.  She finishes with the notion that “studying the ideas and practices surrounding food offers insights into family, history and community…”

Just some food for thought.  🙂

– Kalčik, Susan “Ethnic Foodways in America: Symbol and the Performance of Of Identity,” Ethnic and Regional Foodways, eds. Linda Brown and Kay Mussell (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984), pp.37-65.
– Matsumoto, Valerie J. “Teaching Asian American History and Foodways.”Amerasia Journal 32.2 (2006): 75-78. Print.
– Scattergood, Amy. “Q & A With Roy Choi: Slinging Tacos at Midnight, Calling Out Jamie Oliver Choi’s Vegetable Moment.” Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining. LA Weekly, 16 May 2012. Web. 26 May 2012. <http://blogs.laweekly.com/squidink/2012/05/roy_choi_vegetarian_kogi.php&gt;.

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