why are white ppl obsessed with being able to eat spicy food??
December 2, 2020
Dad eats green chilies with dinner like carrots, crunching off the tip with a satisfied "mmMm! Mantap! (Delicious!)". My sister and I used to compete to see who could eat more chilies. After a bite or two, we'd shrug with nonchalance: "It's not that spicy." Dad chuckles, finishing what we leave untouched. "You're so American."
At the stall selling ayam geprek — fried chicken smashed with chilies, served atop a mound of rice — my cousin orders 5 chilies in her chicken. I ask for a measly half chili. While she's polished off her food, I'm barely halfway through mine; it feels like my tastebuds have been singed off with fire.
The white guy I semi-dated when I was 19 used to proudly tell me how much spice he could eat, like he deserved a gold star for being a white guy that could eat spicy food. "You know, siracha really isn't that spicy; it's more for the flavor," he tells me as he dumps siracha and sambal into his pho. "The chili oil is the actual spicy stuff," he adds before dumping that in too. I'd never thought about it that way, but I know he wouldn't sound so lofty if it were Dad's chilis he were putting into his soup. I don't say anything as I squirt a bit of extra siracha into mine.
Aside from the mansplaining, I'm not exactly sure why I'm so irritated by his and other white people's proclamations of their magnificent spice tolerances. They seem to recognize that spiciness is alien to their cultural foods unlike ours, so they try to prove that they're not like the those white people who cook flavorless, dry chicken. No no no, they're "in" with us and our food. Although I never say it out loud, I want to retort, "Isn't your ancestors' colonization of our land and people enough? Stop trying to get clout by eating our spicy food!"
But I think what really bothers me about their comments is how it forces me to confront my own inability to eat spicy food and how that reflects the alienation I feel from my Indonesian and Chinese roots*. Dad immigrated to the States from Jogja over 25 years ago; Grandpa (Mom's dad) left China when he was 13 to escape the Sino-Japanese war. Elements of their cultures filter into my life like flecks of dust hovering in a strip of sun, never quite noticeable unless I look hard enough for it; remnants of old skins they'd shed when they created a life in America.
I grew up oblivious and perhaps disregarding of the manifestations of my parents' and grandparents' cultures. "I'm like a twinkie; yellow on the outside, white on the inside," I'd joke to my friends, who were mostly white. I could claim stereotypical facets of my Asian-ness, like taking your shoes off inside and being expected to get good grades, but beyond that, I felt isolated from the food, language, and customs of my family.
Anecdotes are easy; they pour out of me after years of suppressing the discomfort I'd feel in those moments. Reflections and conclusions are much harder; high school English taught me that conclusions need a So What?. What is my mine? It feels like the next logical paragraph should describe how I've transcended my sense of floating displacement and have come to terms with my in-betweenness; the conclusion would be a neatly wrapped and bite-sized morsel, infused with a wise and pithy lesson that readers would nod their head to and be able to say that that is what this essay is about if they ever bother to tell their friends about it (now I'm just flattering myself).
The truth is, I'm not anywhere close to being able to sum up my search for cultural belonging in a single paragraph, let alone a single essay. Every attempt at a witty moral of the story reeks of inauthenticity and every hopeful closing anecdote leaves a taste of prickly guilt in my mouth. As much as I have come to terms with my cultural identity in recent years, I still feel like I've lost something of my legacy. I think of my future children and how I may never be able to teach them about the places and people and cultures from which they come. I can cook all the Indonesian food I want, but I'm learning from recipes online rather than Eyang Putri (Dad's Mom). I can listen to all the Gamelan and Fariz RM I want, but I still have to use Google Translate to decipher the lyrics. I can claim to be Indonesian all I want, but in the end, I'm still an outsider looking in; a bule. (And Chinese? pfft — I couldn't even tell you where in China Grandpa's from, let alone claim to be that). I don't know if I'll ever be able to honestly say, "Saya orang Indonesia."
One day, I'll cook Dad an Indonesian feast that reminds him of home (if he hasn't moved back there already) complete with bakso, satay, opor ayam, sayur gori, rendang, ayam goreng...In the meantime, I'll carefully add a bit more chili to my food, but not to prove a point. And you certainly won't catch me munching on green chilis like a casual vegetable anytime soon.
*I'm also 1/4 white — Pennsylvania Dutch (in terms of ancestry; I know nothing about the culture) — which muddles my relationship to cultural identity. My whiteness adds another dimension to how I am learning to navigate whiteness, white supremacy, and colonialism. But that's a subject for an entire essay of its own.