Why We are NOT what We Eat: Coronavirus in China

As a learner of Mandarin Chinese, it has been quite a meditative process to understand Chinese culture. This is not to sing praises of China’s atrocities on Tibet, but a good slice of the country’s eating habit helps us test how what we eat is a matter of privilege. Let’s not ignore that there are people who are still in the oblivion about the food they can eat or cannot afford it.

Quoting LiveScience, “Despite emerging in humans only recently, the virus has already infected about 6,000 people and caused 132 deaths in China, while spreading to 15 other countries, according to the World Health Organization.” According to the NewYork Post, authorities at LAX, San Francisco International Airport and John F. Kennedy International have reportedly quarantined a passenger for displaying such symptoms. Will you still argue that “coronavirus” is only a Chinese offence?

It is not the time to admonish or dismiss China on account of the deadly coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan. Well, it is a truth that many educated Chinese nationals also acknowledge animals to be the potential source of this virus and that consumption of such meat has resulted in this contamination to the level of an international crisis.

It is the time to acknowledge that we are not what we eat; we are what our stories are. People should stop accusing Chinese people for eating rodents. Sidenote: I can take a jibe at this situation given the perception of many educated Chinese people who hate to see us eating with our hands. Step forward: It won’t solve the problem at hand.

We all have to acknowledge that the food that we eat or seem to know to be suitable for consumption is a matter of privilege. If we wag our tails of privilege, it will undermine the human values that bind us, the rust on our compassion. Stop saying that the Chinese are responsible for the coronavirus epidemic. No one willingly signs up for anything life-threatening. 

In India, in the North East, people eat dog meat. As a little child, I knew that my Santali friend and her family eat snakes and bats. It was not easy for me to digest, but I had a context that evened me out. We, at home, used coal ash to brush our teeth, and the ritha fruit to wash our hair while our neighbours ate gastropods sourced from our village ponds. After all, there is no conclusive finding that supports your libellous remarks on the rodent eaters of China.

Contemporary Society: Concept of Tribal Society edited by George Pfeffer & Deepak Kumar Behera

China is a rising economy now, but it continues to have its fair share of hardships that rural Chinese from the North go through. Let’s not judge people by what they eat. I say this as a foodie, by being a food-loving Bangali. Don’t wage your food racism against the Chinese or those who eat from the wet markets. Remember, Indians do eat all the animals on the coronavirus suspect list.

It is time to stop judging people for their food habits. A fat percentage of this population is not even aware of the “good food chain.” Being cynical about the Chinese at this hour of coronavirus attack is not at all acceptable, not only for “privileged” Indians but for the “privileged” around the world. How can you comment on a poor person’s access to good food?

I conclude by saying that “we are not what we eat.” Eating can be a significant part of our survival system, but not the defining element. You may have a weak stomach or scaly skin for the food you eat, but your food habits do not enslave your intellectual faculty. Please note that the great Charlie Chaplin ate his shoes (and you don’t know which animal was the leather sourced from) during the great depression of the US.

And if you are still unable to contain your food racism, stop devouring those delicious pork ribs or as simple as the daily chicken.

4 thoughts on “Why We are NOT what We Eat: Coronavirus in China”

  1. very beautifully assembled thoughts, i thought. i used to eat everything, chicken, beef and so on, whatever came my way, when i was young. nowadays, past the age of 60, i am more comfortable with rice and curd and coconut chammanthi than biryani with pepper chicken. just to say, Linda, i think we eat what we have appetite for, which is decided by our cultural food conditioning, exposure and, of course, physical need and accessibility.

    1. Firstly, Thank you so much for visiting my virtual home. Secondly, Thank you for giving me the gift of your time and thoughts. Thirdly, yes, I agree with you, “we eat what we have an appetite for.” Indeed. And therefore if any person on earth looks down on someone’s else’s dietary needs, it is a shame and does tantamount to #foodracism. Fourthly, Thank you once again.

  2. We eat what we have an appetite for and what we are conditioned to. Recently travelling to India with a set of clients and colleagues, I was an observer to a range of response to ‘food’ – some relished and enjoyed the newness of culinary options and were food tourists, some played the connoisseurs, some stayed in their backpack supply of granola bars and before we jump to judgement – an eye-opening conversation taught me it was not for lack of wanting to try, or because there was a superiority complex, or fear of Delhi belly or preconceived conclusions about hygiene. None of the above – it was simply because this persons background to food in growing years was that of a family of lower working-class parents who brought food to the table paycheck to paycheck in the form of spare, sparse and sometimes unpalatable tinned supplies. Their food definition knew no better, no different and therefore they were not trained to explore the gastronomic adventures like the rest of their peer group in an exotic new country. That did not make them better or worse people than the rest of us in any way whatsoever!

    1. Absolutely Kashiana Singh.

      I was talking to Lin Peiyu, a surgeon in Guangzhou. He stated something quite interesting. He asked if I think bat-soup is the food of the underprivileged in China, which is not true and hence doesn’t qualify for empathy. Bat soup is a delicacy savoured by the rich who are well educated and well aware of the pathogens bats carry.

      In response to him, I had to ask if bat-soup is pre-eminently a dish for the rich historically? How do we know that “the rich today” didn’t evolve from poorer classes where they only knew “bat-soup.” Financially, they may have turned the wheels now, but the taste is very much what you grow up eating.

      So, if these people grew up eating “bat-soup,” it is a family to their dietary requirements. At this point, we are back to the main argument; they were poor, and they didn’t have the privilege to discern the good and the bad of the food system.

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