During graduate school, I spent summers doing inner city urban ministry with a multi-racial bunch of students in the African-American community of Austin on the West Side of Chicago. When you live in multi-racial community with several folks of each color and stripe, quickly the simplest issues have racial overtones.
One night TC, a Chinese from Malaysia, made stir fry for dinner. Two African-American women, Shunelle and Niecy, promptly drowned their dinner with gobs of Louisiana hot sauce. As I watched them pour hot sauce over their stir-fry and eat their food, I became increasingly angry.
So of course, like any good Chinese-American, I stuffed my feelings. But like most feeling-stuffed Asians, my anger came out in passive-aggressive ways. By bedtime, they accused me of picking on them.
I had to ‘fess up.
I told them I was mad at them that they poured hot sauce on their food.
They were flabbergasted. You’re probably flabbergasted too (unless you’re Chinese and you know exactly what I’m talking about here).
As we talked, I realized I was offended because I had come to their community, was trying to understand and serve their culture, but when my food (stir-fry made by a Chinese-Malaysian) came to them, they weren’t willing to taste it the way it was supposed to be made, but wanted to make it over to fit their preferences.
On top of that, Chinese chefs make their food exactly the way it’s supposed to be eaten. When they bring it to the table, they say all sorts of terrible things about their creation “It’s too salty, the vegetables were old, I overcooked the beef.”
You, as guest, ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO AGREE! You say, “No, it’s delicious. What a wonderful meal you’ve made. I’m so grateful you worked your fingers to the bone and almost chopped off three fingers in the 5 day preparation of this meal.”
In other words, putting extra salt, soy sauce, or Louisiana hot sauce over the food is just about the hugest insult you can give to a Chinese chef.
In Shunelle and Niecy’s culture on the other hand, food comes and you can do whatever you want to it to make it taste better. The chef doesn’t take it personally. Everyone just enjoys their food with whatever condiments are available.
Hot sauce on stir fry became a parable for our summer project. We realized that when faced with a different ethnic group, too often our desire is to pour hot sauce all over their experiences or culture, so they’re more palatable to us. We noticed how small misunderstandings easily arise from cultural biases that then can get blown into huge racial wars.
Thank God for 2 friends who were brave enough to tell me I was being a jerk and then to ask why.
When are you tempted to put hot sauce on someone else’s stir fry?
What makes it difficult to just receive someone and their experiences without trying to “doctor” it up or recast it?
What’s your favorite brand of hot sauce?