As kids, every night was family dinner. My sister and I would take turns setting the table. In respectful Korean tradition, we would anxiously wait until the adults at the table (seniority first!) ate their first bite before my sister and I dug into our meal. Kimchi, bone marrow soup, pine nut porridge and hokkaidon (sashimi over rice) is what I grew up eating.
I have memories up until middle school where I was utterly embarrassed to eat my packed lunches with friends. I’d open up neatly packed rows of gimbap (Korean sushi) while my classmates’ white faces would mimic disgust. There were countless days that I would eat secretly in the washroom stall or throw out my lunch and go hungry. At the age of seven, being hungry was better than facing the unwarranted racism of my peers. I begged my mother to stop packing me healthy, delicious, costly Korean food for lunch. Instead of foods like japchae (sweet potato noodles), I begged my mom for peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I wanted white people food. I wanted to fit in.
Our relationship and interaction with food is political. From a single mother of four stretching a $250 monthly food budget in rural PEI to a restaurant culture where Michelin-starred chefs (overwhelmingly white and male) have been accused of throwing plates and knives, sexual assault, and underpaying employees, food is racist, classist and gendered. For immigrants of colour in Canada, our social and economic relationships are centred around restaurants. Since often immigrant labour conditions are so degraded (as seen in Canada’s temporary foreign worker program in Ontario’s fruit farms and the Alberta tar sands) we look towards our own knowledge of food to survive. In light of all the systemic barriers of job transition for migrants, working at or opening an ethnic restaurant feels like it is the only type of work that’s acceptable for immigrants to do.
While the experiences of food for people of colour are heartbreaking at times, it has and will always be a reliable source of comfort in light of all the trauma that we face. Food reminds us of home and the diasporas of which we are part. It reminds us that there is a larger community to rely on. Our pride for our food comes at the expense of immense embarrassment, disgust, internalized racism, stereotypes and suffering. In a movement to end systemic oppression and racism, we can look towards the lessons of food. It begins by considering the realities of what colour hands grow our vegetables, the monopolies of mega-corporate farms, the barriers of access to healthy foods, how food trends and sudden demands affect the market, the question of authority on “ethnic food,” and re-naming the goddamn “oriental aisle” in the grocery store.