Could I really not keep anything from the unbearable whiteness of being?
“Set the table!” my parents would call. Out came the familiar duo of the spoon and the fork, four sets for my parents, my older sister, and me. Sure, my family went to Western restaurants, where I used only the fork. We sidestepped the knives that, with the exception of fish or steak, sat unacknowledged and untouched on the far side of the faux-fancy paper napkin. In our weekend visits to East Asian restaurants, I eventually learned to use chopsticks, learning an association between different materials and cuisines: melamine (Chinese), wooden (Japanese), and hardest of all to master dexterity-wise, stainless steel (Korean). Before all that came the trusty spoon and fork: Everything else came after, outside of the family kitchen.
In my childhood, table manners mattered only inasmuch as they helped my immigrant parents avoid judgmental stares and public embarrassment while eating out. But like most people of color, even mundane aspects of my day-to-day eventually cast me into the role of the Other against the default whiteness of American life.
At the age of sixteen, I found my idea of respectable dining rudely upended by a bicoastal white guy from Vermont. We were on a date, dining al fresco at a crowded bistro on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, hordes of tourists swirling around us. Speaking in slow, halting sentences, he explained to me the “proper” way to eat with a fork and knife. “My family is Danish,” he said proudly, literally invoking his European heritage as a measure of his authority as he scraped the ahi tuna onto his fork with a knife.
Across Southeast Asia, the widespread practice of using a spoon and fork together is a product of centuries of European colonization: the French in Vietnam, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Spanish in the Philippines, and so on. If you adapt European silverware to fit Southeast Asian cuisine, which typically features smaller pieces of meat and vegetables, a table knife is largely out of place. Consider a plate of Vietnamese com tam: broken white rice, a fried egg, grilled pork, slices of fresh cucumber and carrot. Without a spoon to scoop it all together, it can get messy very fast.
I could write a long email tirade on colonialism and white saviorism to Vermont Guy (which I did). I could double-down on Fiipino table manners in defiance of white respectability (which I also did). But no single act or conscious behavioral intention could unwrite the history of white supremacy across the globe and its incontestable legacy of subjugating the racial and ethnic Other.
Remembering my parents’ shame at the restaurants of my childhood took on a racial sheen. I could again never be a toddler at the kitchen table, my world defined by the house I lived in, the relatives I visited nearby, and the occasional adventures to the outside world. The cozy pluralistic world I lived in only really existed in Los Angeles, and even then long-standing problems had become self-evident in adolescence. WordPress and Tumblr blogs teaching Baby’s First Critical Race Theory had already started to supplement my high school history classes. The subtle ways whiteness permeated my life, my culture, and even the inner workings of my mind, continued to gnaw at me. Could I really not keep anything from the unbearable whiteness of being?
As a product of Southern California, I have never really been held to the expectation of Emily Post-style prudish manners. For nearly eighteen years, I was blissfully unaware of the Northeast’s cultural tyranny. Bourgeois WASP standards of comportment were something other people in other places had to fixate and fuss over: abstract concepts and a hidden curriculum that held little water in Los Angeles. According to the Emily Post Institute, the etiquette expert herself viewed general ideas of etiquette as more of a guideline, not a rule.
Remembering my parents’ shame at the restaurants of my childhood took on a racial sheen.
“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others,” Post once wrote. “If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” Using one’s dining habits to uphold cultural white supremacy probably isn’t considered “sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.”
Today, America’s dining etiquette feels more like an anything-goes approach, a likely product of both increased cultural diversity as well as practical-minded adaptations to late capitalism. How you eat and the utensils you use seem immaterial. Chopsticks? Fork? Spoon? Who cares, as long as it gets down one’s throat, fast enough to get back to work. There’s a reason fast-casual shovel-into-mouth bowls have become part and parcel of the American diet nationwide.
For all the talk in food media of food as a means of transformative justice, the literal act of eating can seem apolitical. It has never really been from the European bread plates eaten by peasants while royalty dined on gold and silver plates. There is the harried serviceworker’s lunch, scarfed down in the blink of an eye; the sad desk salad of white-collar womanhood fame, picked at listlessly with a fork; the utensil-less act of a tech bro consuming Soylent.
One of its most powerful, subtler forms manifests in rules around “good” manners and respectable behavior—the hidden curriculum all BIPOC are exposed to, eventually, as they grow older. But in an America that still turns a Black child away for dress code violations while a similarly-dressed white child is allowed inside, as one Baltimore restaurant recently did, there is no end to racism, branching like the thin, nearly invisible filaments of an underground fungal mycelium. He didn’t talk right. He didn’t dress right–not our type of clientele. Lighter-skinned people get a pass and darker-skinned people don’t. Although the term “hidden curriculum” describes the ways people of color have stereotypes and Otherness reinforced in school settings, it extends, in my eyes, to all aspects of life in a country steeped in whiteness.
For all of this century’s forays into embracing multiculturalism and a non-white perspective, white middle-class respectability still looms large in every cultural conversation. From the New Yorker, in 2018: “I have long admired the way utensils are used in parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand.” The writer invokes the implied foreignness of literally eating with a spoon through passive voice, when it is also a way utensils are used in parts of the United States, including California, by immigrant Americans.
A spoon and a fork are not mystical Oriental tools. They are right there, in your kitchen drawer. Together, they are a trusty duo that make sense for some meals and not others, useless against a thick steak, but perfect for a grain bowl or some chicken adobo, heaped atop white rice. Given the practice’s near-universality across Southeast Asia, I don’t even see it as emblematic of my own loosely Filipino cultural identity. Instead, I see the way I eat as another example of the multitude of ways BIPOC simply move differently through the world.
When Filipinos eat with their hands, kamayan-style—like my mother used to do growing up in Cebu—or when using a spoon and fork to cut a piece of fatty pork away from the bone, they consume cuisine that has come into its own despite centuries of Spanish colonization and subsequent American occupation in the 20th century. “Hoy! Eating like a barbarian!” my father would say, admonishing my mother whenever she let us eat something only with our hands: saucy spareribs eaten between fingerfuls of white rice.
As Filipino food hit the American mainstream, kamayan-style dinners have popped up from coast to coast, like San Francisco’s Republika Kamayan in 2019 and New York chef Wolde Reyes’s dinner series earlier this year.
At the end of the day, many of these cooking and dining habits are also just practical. I remember the elegant form-meets-function of Ethiopian injera at Messob in Los Angeles. Using a small piece of the sour-tasting bread, I scooped up a bit of dorowot, a red pepper chicken stew, sitting in front of a large platter with a friend. Large wooden chopsticks make a fine whisk for eggs, a Chinese-American friend showed me. Before the pandemic, I loved the way servers in Koreatown’s various barbecue restaurants hovered around me like guardian angels, cutting meat into servable pieces right on the grill using kitchen scissors.
By asserting the normalcy, even the mundanity, of what and how we eat, we carve a path towards true diversity and inclusion, not only in media discourse but in the actual way everyday Americans of any race or ethnicity perceive the unfamiliar. The Other becomes just another. White-dominated prestige media cooing over eating food with a spoon will feel as hopelessly ignorant to everyone else as it does to me.
Though the pandemic has paused communal dining for now in restaurants, I hold onto the eventual day they will return, indoors and finally stripped of the shame of possible viral contagion. In continuing to cook our own way, eat our own way, and thus—at least at the table and in the kitchen—refuse total assimilation into white American culture as the “default,” BIPOC ultimately resist the internalization of whiteness. My own relationship to whiteness feels subdued for the first time in my life, the product of years of unlearning and relearning to see things through my own eyes. Every bit matters, even at the dinner table.
Patricia Kelly Yeo is a Los Angeles-based freelance food, culture and health writer, with bylines in outlets including the New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Eater. Her first-person work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Sine Theta Magazine. Find her full portfolio at patriciakellyyeo.com, and follow her for mini-essays and poetry on Instagram @patkyeo.