“We fed that to the pigs!”: Asian immigrants and Western nutrition

Pork belly stewed with preserved mustard greens (梅菜扣肉), something my grandmother might make once a year. It's not terribly photogenic but it is heart-stoppingly good. Photo: Alpha (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Over the weekend I went to the warehouse store with my mother to pick up some groceries. She doesn’t read English very well, and pointed to a tub of sour cream, thinking it was Greek yogurt. “Your aunt tells me this stuff is really good for you and will help you lose weight. She says it tastes awful but you can mix some stuff in it and you won’t even notice!”

Thankfully, she didn’t show any further interest in sour cream or Greek yogurt. My family’s attempts at trying yogurt over the years have always ended after the first few spoonfuls. “Yuck, how do white people eat this stuff?” I’d usually have to finish off the rest of the tub.

American health foods and nutrition advice seem foreign and often downright wacky to my parents. I was a health nut in college and often came back for the holidays with ideas about how to change the family diet. The transition from 2% cow’s milk to American-style soy milk went pretty smoothly, since dairy was foreign anyway, but attempts to change entrenched Chinese or Vietnamese eating patterns were met with befuddlement or hostility. It didn’t help that many Western “health foods” were “poor people food” back in Vietnam:

  • Brown rice and pea sprouts? “We fed that to the pigs!”
  • Sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes? “You know how expensive regular potatoes were over there?”
  • Not taking all-you-can-eat buffets literally? “We didn’t come here to starve!”

When I read this article about giving nutrition advice to immigrants in The Globe and Mail this morning, I couldn’t help but smile:

Even the widely accepted recommendation among dietitians to divide a plate into one-quarter protein, one-quarter grains and one-quarter vegetables exposes a blind spot in our thinking, said Ms. Chung-Hui, who is of Chinese descent herself. ‘When you work with Chinese people, it doesn’t work that way. They’re eating from a bowl.’

Duh! Why didn’t anyone think about that? This idea of eating rice from a bowl and having dishes to accompany that is so ingrained into me that only recently have I begun to put rice in a smaller partition in my bento box. Who said that rice had to be the primary component of lunch? Thousands of years of tradition!

Some nutritionists have tried to make food pyramids specific to certain racial groups, such as this one for Asians from Oldways:

I guess this is supposed to reflect some sort of pan-Asian/American diet, but it seems very contrived and generic to me. What Asian culture eats like this? The only time my family ever consumes legumes is in dessert or when my mom tries to follow her coworkers’ pinto bean recipes!

On a tangentially related note, some UC Berkeley researchers have found that subtle identity threats could bias Asian Americans towards choosing quintessentially American foods like burgers and fries. Perhaps the key to getting Asian Americans to eat more healthily is to make them think they’re Mediterranean, Japanese, or cave people?

  1. Random Reader

    By similar measure, I daresay there are white people for whom may find chicken feet, frog legs, tofu, and fish and meat (served complete with head, snout, beak, pupils, bones, and/or fins still firmly attached) quite repulsive.

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