No, cultural appropriation doesn’t mean you can’t eat tacos.
I really wanted to keep this personal blog for my personal life updates and pretty photos, but that’s not happening anymore, so you can thank Lucky Lee’s for that.
Backstory: Arielle Haspel and Lucky Lee’s
Lucky Lee’s, a restaurant that’s newly opened in New York, recently got a lot of backlash about cultural appropriation. Specifically, the owner, Arielle Haspel, is marketing her food as “healthified” Chinese food. It pissed a lot of people off. One question that some of Arielle’s defenders is asking is, “Do they have a right to be? It’s just food.” Well, has anyone ever asked if gun owners in America “have a right” to be pissed about gun laws? No, because only certain people’s feelings are allowed to be policed. But I digress. (Fair warning: I do that.)
Here’s one way that Arielle describes her food and why it’s better than Chinese food.
‘An Instagram post that was removed after Eater questioned Haspel about it read, “We heard you’re obsessed with lo mein but rarely eat it. You said it makes you feel bloated and icky the next day? Well, wait until you slurp up our HIGH lo mein. Not too oily. Or salty.”’
Arielle, who is Jewish-American, was also quoted saying this: “I love love love American Chinese food… I am by all means never ever looking to put down a culture at all. I am very inclusive, and we’re here to celebrate the culture.”
This is the Instagram post that Lucky Lee’s posted after the backlash happened. I won’t call it an apology, because that’s not what it is. (I’ll break this response down line by line further below.)
Context: history of Chinese food
This TIME article goes through a brief history of Chinese food in America. Lol yes, there’s racism involved.
And yes, this was written back when Lucky Lee’s was but a twinkle in Arielle’s eye, but it’s still relevant today. Because these attitudes from “a long time ago” still exist. The belief that Chinese food is full of MSG and unhealthy and needs to be “healthified” (Arielle’s word, not mine) exists because Chinese food was made to be “sweeter, boneless, and more heavily deep-fried”—to suit the American palate. White Americans thought Chinese food had a “stench?” Fine, we’ll change it for you. You wrinkle your noses because we leave our bones in our meat? Fine, we’ll change it for you. Hey, it’s hard to make a living in a new country where you don’t speak the language. So fine, we’ll change.
I don’t think that it’s possible to have a productive conversation about appropriation and Chinese food without addressing the negative perceptions that Chinese people absorb from white people about their own culture. In school, I was embarrassed to bring my mom’s Chinese food to school—the food she lovingly cooked, fresh, every night and every morning. I hated the way the food smelled, I hated the dorky Thermos that it had to be stored in to keep it hot, I hated it all and I just wanted to bring a goddamn sandwich for lunch.
And then I realized I didn’t hate it. I hated bringing the food because white kids would make fun of the smell. I hated the way they looked at me like an animal because I had to spit out the chicken bones. I still can’t hear my own name, Ming Wai (usually at the airport), without cringing because even after a decade of adulthood, I still can’t shake the feeling of being six and having the white kids in my class guffaw, “Hahahah who’s Ming?” (Josue didn’t have it much better, but oddly enough no one ever made fun of Maurizio.) But I digress. Arielle didn’t do any of this to me.
Point is, if Arielle had done any reading on this food which she claims to love this much, if she had bothered to speak with a Chinese person—any Chinese person who grew up with Chinese food), then she would know that there are plenty of options for Chinese food that’s healthy, not greasy, and *gasp* vegetarian even! (Hello congee and Buddhist food.)
So what’s “cultural appropriation” anyway?
Some people say that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist. One of the many common defenses of cultural appropriation is that humans “borrow” from different cultures all the time. “Well you wear green on St. Patrick’s Day don’t you? Why are you appropriating Irish culture? Don’t wear Levi’s then—you’re appropriating American culture.”
And my personal favourite: “So you’re saying we can’t eat tacos then?” Bitch, what? Go to your local Mexican restaurant right now and eat as many delicious tacos as you can.
The “borrowing” isn’t the problem. What people are expressing displeasure about is not the fact that Jewish Americans are opening a Chinese restaurant. The problem is in the way she is marketing and talking about the food. Chinese food. Food which she claims to “love” and want to “celebrate.” Food that she is making generalizations about and insulting in order to profit from. (Because I bet you that “High Lo Mein” is going to be marked the fuck up.)
“Outrage” tends to be a word that gets thrown around a lot, disparagingly—you may have also heard of “SJWs,” “snowflakes,” and “leftists.” All of which are quite useless—at least if you’re trying to critique/defend/have any kind of productive conversation about cultural appropriation.
And to be clear, this goes way beyond white people doing this. Asians (K-pop stars, most recently) appropriate Black culture. White and Asian North Americans appropriate Native culture. Hell, I see Chinese and Black and Latinx people defending Lucky Lee’s too. I guess the moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are—you have a chance of fucking up on cultural appropriation, every day. Lol.
@ithayla breaks down the nuances of cultural appropriation really well:
Breaking down Lucky Lee’s response to being accused of cultural appropriation
Let’s look at that Instagram post.
“We promise you to always listen and reflect accordingly.”
Great start. We appreciate a business that listens to the audience whose culture it is borrowing from and reflects based on that feedback.
“A number of comments have stated that by saying our Chinese food is made with 'clean' cooking techniques and it makes you feel [not?] great that we are commenting negatively on all Chinese food. When we talk about our food, we are not talking about other restaurants, we are only talking about Lucky Lee's.”
This is where it starts to fall apart. Because this is the comparison that Lucky Lee’s is drawing. Obviously Arielle didn’t say “all Chinese food is unhealthy af.” But she’s implying it. If you’re positioning your option as the healthy option, then what are you saying about Chinese food in general? You cannot say that you love and celebrate a culture’s food while also saying that it’s icky (part of the post she deleted after being called out on it) and that you’re here to make it better by “healthifying” it. You can’t have it both ways. Just say that you’re making gluten-free Chinese food or something.
“We plan to continue communicating that our food is made with high quality ingredients and techniques that are intended to make you feel great."
If she had led with the “high-quality ingredients” angle, that would’ve saved her and her PR team a lot of headaches. But she changed up her angles halfway. Also, “techniques that are intended to make you feel great” makes me want to gag.
“Chef/owner, Arielle's husband's name is Lee and his life-long love of Chinese food was inspiration for the restaurant. The name Lucky Lee's reflects the story of how the recipes were conceived."
Oh boy. Someone on IG had already posted this, but if her husband’s name was “Chad,” would she have named this restaurant Lucky Chad’s? Just a fun thought experiment—I don’t personally have a problem with the name thing as much as I do with the other mental gymnastics Arielle and her team have done. After this incident, I’m guessing there will be fewer people who will see “Lucky Lee’s” and think that there’s actually a Chinese person behind this restaurant—which honestly is what I’d be worried about as a Chinese person: that someone would think a Chinese person could be responsible for such unrecognizably bland food that doesn’t reflect our culture.
"We also received negative comments related to being owners of a Chinese restaurant but not being Chinese. Owners Arielle and Lee are both Jewish-American New Yorkers... New York is the ultimate melting pot and Lucky Lee's is another example of two cultures coming together."
First off, I don’t believe that you must be Chinese to open a Chinese restaurant. I do think that if you’re planning to profit off of our culture and claiming to celebrate Chinese food, you should do your basic research and talk to Chinese people and make sure you have your facts straight—but that’s just me. When I “love love love” something, like music or food, I want to learn about it. I’d want to read as much as I can on how it came to be, and how it exists today, and why... But again, that’s just me.
But Arielle could have literally talked to so many Chinese people in New York’s “ultimate melting pot.” (Does she know what Flushing is??) They don’t even have to be chefs—anyone who grew up with an auntie, a dad, a mom, a grandmother, or any relative who cooked Chinese food would’ve been able to tell her amazing stories about the diversity of Chinese food.
This is also not really “two cultures coming together.” From what Arielle has revealed so far, no Chinese person was involved in the making of this Lucky Lee’s. This is a one-way street: Arielle picking what she likes from Chinese culture. and slapping a cringe-worthy pun on top of it. (Seriously, who came up with “Wok in, take out?” All the puns make the restaurant look like a ridiculous caricature.)
“We love American Chinese food and at Lucky Lee's it is our intention to celebrate it everyday and serve great food."
I think she means “Chinese-American?” In any case, as a Chinese person, I don’t recognize this food that she is celebrating, but it looks like she has plenty of far-right peeps and racists who will celebrate it with her, so… yeah. Cool. Hope they’ll defend me just as ardently one day when I open a “Jewish-inspired bagel shop,” mark up the prices 10x, and absolutely butcher the dough to make it “healthier!”
The way we talk about cultural appropriation
It’s not an easy topic to talk about. It’s uncomfortable to be told over the Internet that you’re doing something that hurts other people. I’ve lost friendships over discussions about cultural appropriation—when it wasn’t even my culture being appropriated. Would it have been different if we were talking about Chinese culture instead? Who knows. That’s what being an SJW gets ya!
But I do think it’s necessary to go beyond just vague blanket statements, especially when it comes to a topic with so many layers and so many nuances.
Wearing box braids has to involve a discussion about how Black people are denied jobs because their hair is viewed as being “less professional.” Even today.
When we see half of the NFL and NHL with team names that use Native culture, we have to be open to talking about how we treat indigenous communities today and how we can balance the ledger of the past. It may not be possible.
And “healthifying” Asian food has to involve a discussion about the origins of the food and how an entire culture’s food, that has supported generations upon generations of poor immigrants, could be sooooooooooooooooooo oily and greasy. Frankly, if Chinese food were as unhealthy as Lucky Lee’s implies, we’d all be dead.
TL;DR: It’s time we start talking about this shit properly.