By Jeff Yang
Sunday, July 15, 2007
The French delight in preparing food; the Italians adore eating it. But no people on Earth are so engrossed in food as the Chinese, for whom it is not just craft, pleasure and sustenance but the fundamental building block of society. In the West, acquaintances greet one another with "How are you?" The Chinese ask, "Have you eaten?" So for the Chinese, tainted food is more than a health hazard -- it's a kind of sacrilege. As one Chinese shopper told National Public Radio, "People here think food is as important as the sky. If there's something wrong with the food, it's as if the sky is falling."
Nevertheless, China has been portrayed as a nation blind to hygiene and blissfully unconcerned about recent reports of food contamination. That's troubling, because it reinforces the notion that befouled food is the consequence of a foul culture. Chef and gustatory adventurer Anthony Bourdain may have said it best in a 2006 Salon interview in which he noted that there's "something kind of racist" about culinary xenophobia: "Fear of dirt is often indistinguishable from the fear of unnamed dirty people."
And this, in turn, spells danger. What one might call "food libel" has long been an aspect of a larger fear of China. The association of Chinese with dubious edibles has insinuated itself into our cultural consciousness in small and seemingly trivial ways -- in schoolyard taunting, in sitcom gags about takeout food, in standup monologues about puppy chow mein.
But when the stakes are raised, as they have been by recent scandals, such jokes turn deadly serious. The fringes of the pundit set have already been intimating that these tainted-food incidents are deliberate. In May, the conservative news organ WorldNetDaily.com asked, "Is China Trying to Poison Americans and Their Pets?" The nativist drumbeat has only pounded louder ever since, suggesting that China has been waging a secret biowarfare campaign to destroy the United States from deep, deep within -- planting WMDs in the Wal-Mart cart, if you will.
More troubling still, yellow-peril imagery has been oozing from the extreme margins into the mainstream. Recently, the Utah-based health food company Food for Health International even became the first to take this "China equals menace" meme to market, instituting a new label and ad campaign promoting its products as "China-Free." There's talk about calling the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing the B.Y.O. Olympics. The leading customer-advocacy blog Consumerist.com came up with a catchy nickname for the fiendish assault on American shoppers: "The Chinese Poison Train is still out there, lurking on a container ship headed our way," editor Carey Greenberg-Berger warns in one May post. "Nobody knows when it will strike again." Add some ominous music, and you can imagine the silent-movie tableau: the fiendish juggernaut of the Chinese Poison Train bearing down on the hapless American consumer, tied to the tracks by a nefarious evildoer with a Fu Manchu mustache.
Of course, serious problems exist in China's massive food-export complex, which is the source of the vast bulk of additives such as xanthan gum and ascorbic acid, as well as 12 percent of the world's fruit and vegetables and about half of the global supply of farm-raised fish. But many of these problems have stemmed from China's embrace of capitalist ethics, unrestrained by the government oversight present in more established industrial economies.
Ultimately, the reasons why Chinese goods make up such an enormous part of the U.S. shopping basket are the same as those behind our undocumented-immigration quandary: Companies want higher profits, and consumers want lower prices. If Chinese sources were stripped from the food-industry supply chain, corporations would simply turn to other low-cost exporters, with comparably poor safety records.
As it is, Food and Drug Administration records show that China isn't even the leading source of contaminated imports to the United States. India and Mexico have exceeded China in "refused food shipments" over the past year, and the leader in rejected candy imports was a country with an otherwise antiseptic image: Denmark. Domestic food sources also aren't exempt from scandal: Remember the California spinach scare last year? And last month, another California-based company recalled more than 75,000 pounds of hamburger distributed in the western United States, the latest in a lengthy series of tainted-meat incidents -- all from American suppliers.
But the media's obsessive focus on China is an easy one -- as easy as the old playground singsong slur that starts "Me Chinese, me make joke" and ends with a tainted Coke. Pointing the finger at Asian imports was the default PR strategy for U.S. auto manufacturers in the 1970s because it was easier to blame faceless, nameless hordes of foreigners than to address the industry's real problems. Asian Americans have already seen the fruit that grows from such toxic soil: Twenty-five years ago last month, Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American man in Detroit, was killed by two disgruntled autoworkers who accused him of being part of a conspiracy to "take away American jobs" before beating him with a baseball bat. Bitter fruit indeed, and a dish we'd rather not see served up again.
Jeff Yang is the "Asian Pop" columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle's Web site, SFGate.com, and a global strategist for Iconoculture.