Tuesday, August 16, 2011

That's So Racist! Isn't It?

David Sedaris has a new article out in the Guardian; naturally, someone is offended.

In his article, Sedaris recounts a recent trip to China, a trip he admits he did not look forward to as China, and all its wonders, never held much appeal for him. This applies especially to the food, which even Americanized Chinese restaurants barely managed to raise above the level of disgust. Fair enough - it is only necessary to love, or love experimenting with, a cuisine if you are a chef and/or food writer. David Sedaris is neither, yet Jeff Yang over at originalspin takes particular offense at the article's criticisms. How dare Sedaris criticize authentic Chinese cuisine when American Southerners (Sedaris is from North Carolina) eat things like muskrat and chitlins (emphasis from original)? And sure, there may be a saying that "Chinese will eat anything with its back to the sky", but these are Chinese sayings. It is unnecessary and venomous for a Westerner to come over and point out the obvious.

Which makes me wonder if Jeff actually read Sedaris' article. Yes, he was grossed out by much of the food merely because it was different, but at the same time questioned why he reacted the way he did. For instance, when offered a soup made of rooster intestines it was not the intestines that put him off but rather the addition of the cock's comb. Why, he asked himself, am I comfortable eating "the thing that filters out toxins but not the thing that sits on top of the head, doing nothing?" Sedaris also notes his boyfriend, Hugh, and his visceral objection to eating seahorses in China because "they are friendly and never did anyone any harm," as opposed to the vicious and ornery lamb they regularly eat back home. From here Sedaris also delves lightly in to the meat choices of Americans (and the English, I suppose), noting the preference for grazing herbivores such as cattle and sheep, yet drawing the line at horse which is eaten in some parts of Europe and, apparently, is delicious.  I admit there is little depth given to these musings on the arbitrary nature of cuisine. However, I also recognize that I am reading an article for a paper and not an essay in a book.

The food is not what really puts Sedaris off about China: it is the lack of hygiene that pushes him over the edge and these descriptions are what particularly offend Jeff Yang. As soon as he arrives in China Sedaris is overwhelmed by the number of people hawking loogies and soon notices that these glistening globs of human phlegm are everywhere in China. At one dinner he loses his appetite not because of the course of duck's tongues but because a gentleman at a nearby table coughs up and a spits a loogie onto the restaurant floor. And then there's the shit, which is everywhere, be it babies shitting on the curbs outside or ignored, unclean bathrooms. The ubiquitous nature of poop made Sedaris question the cleanliness of everything, including restaurants, though he does admit the connection came unbidden. Nevertheless, it is this connection that caused Jeff Yang to write that Sedaris thinks Chinese people are filthy and repulsive.

Ultimately, however, all this talk of food and poop overshadows the real meat of the matter: Jeff Yang is offended by David Sedaris' article because he is of Chinese decent and takes Sedaris' criticisms personally. Sedaris went to China, did not like it and then wrote about it - that dirty underhanded motherfucker. Yang is upset that Sedaris would criticize people who are only beginning to lift themselves out of poverty, who have not yet had the time to focus on perfecting social moors - such as not shitting in public - because the country is experiencing such social and economic growth that heads are spinning, and who, by the way, Mr. Sedaris, are learning English and traveling more and more, so you better watch out next time you eat in one of those fancy New York restaurants because someone from Shanghai might be sitting at the table next to you and decide to slip something into your Coke as revenge for your hateful words in the Guardian!

No - stop taking an opinion personally. Oh, and one more thing: there people who do not like France. There are others who do not like Mexico. I am sure there are many who, like Sedaris, do not like China for any number of reasons, but this does not make them racist. The national tourist bureau of any country would prefer each visitor to leave with a newfound respect and admiration for the host country. This does not always happen and you know what? That is okay and it does not make you racist. If you visit another country and are critical of certain aspects of life there, be it cleanliness or the way animals are butchered, that is also okay and does not make you racist. The beauty of freedom is that you are free to choose what you like. So if you enjoyed reading David Sedaris when he made fun of American Southerners and the French and the Japanese but have become offended now that his attention has focused on you and yours, you are free to stop reading him, Mr. Yang, and that would not make you racist. It might, however, make you guilty of the same close-minded hypocrisy you leveled at Sedaris.

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