If you’ve spent any time on social media, I can bet that you might have come across a BuzzFeed piece or two. Originator of the iconic listicle, with over 200 million audience members worldwide, BuzzFeed continues to dominate media in the millennial era. I happen to know first-hand how pervasive this content is to my generation, as BuzzFeed was as much a staple of my undergrad experience as all-nighters, boxed wine, and Cup-o-Noodles.
As I matured into my 20’s, I continued to find a variety of BuzzFeed content to be refreshingly progressive and aware. BuzzFeed evolved with me. Beyond Nyan Cat gifs and listicles of buns on dogs, BuzzFeed addressed privilege, BuzzFeed uncovered truths, and BuzzFeed developed journalistic integrity that even became recognized by mainstream media outlets. I loved this. As a young millennial trying to build my own legitimacy in the mainstream world, I felt like we were all BuzzFeed. My point is, BuzzFeed does a lot of things, clearly does them well, and I’m a fan. So when I realized why one of the most popular series produced by BuzzFeed was incredibly problematic, I felt compelled to raise awareness on a practice of xenophobia and racism.
The series People Try ______ (For The First Time) consists of a variety of BuzzFeed staff members, mostly white Americans, who are given tastes of various cuisines and are solicited for responses. The reactions can range from astounded delight to disgust and ridicule. In the years since its inception, these videos have racked up tens of millions of views. It has spurned numerous spin off series where people from other countries try American foods for the first time.
The People Try Durian (The Smelliest Fruit in The World) (2015) video has over 2 million views since its release and an earlier video of the series, Americans Taste Exotic Asian Food (2014), has over 13 million views. These two videos can arguably be considered the most popular installments of this series. These videos’ employment of ridiculing and trivializing the cultural practices and experiences of many Asian Americans on a mainstream platform is greatly problematic. As a Vietnamese American who has endured many years of shame for my food, I continue to find it deeply offensive.
Growing up, for many years, one of my family’s favorite shows was Fear Factor (2011). Our favorite component was the eating challenge, where contestants are required to consume ‘disgusting’ oddities such as donkey semen. My parents, being second-language English speakers, particularly enjoyed it because it was the sort of thing that transcended language barriers. But I remember during one week’s episode, we were surprised to see that the disgusting food challenge was balut i.e. fertilized duck eggs. Balut is native to the Philippines and are a delicacy common to many Southeast Asian countries. It was unsettling for me to see it considered a ‘disgusting eating challenge’ because my family and I eat these regularly. I was probably 11 or 12 and for the first time, I saw myself enjoying these eggs from the eyes of mainstream America and realized that I would be considered disgusting by their standards.
Without the tools of critical-engagement in my arsenal, what I took away from it was a negative stigma of the food my family and I enjoy. As an adult with a better understanding of western privilege, I look back and resent Fear Factor for their lack of accountability when they decided on this eating challenge. I think about the producers who are in charge of selecting the item to be consumed, their exposure to balut, and the thoughts that led them to display it as a food to be considered disgusting. This is a case example of western media privilege: a food that has never been shown and never been seen in the mainstream media now makes its debut as something to be mocked.
During one of my early college days, a roommate asked me if I could eat my dinners in the common room from now on because she could not stand the smell of my food. The feeling of shame was immediate and obvious. I couldn’t have understood at the time how this was a manifestation of xenophobia, racism, and white supremacy–first telling me that my practices are unacceptable and then shaming me into accommodating a white person who was offended. I obliged and ate dinner in the common room and all throughout, experiencing overwhelming identity conflicts as a result of my ostracization. I finally asked my parents to stop packing meals for me, a request that was heartbreaking for the both of us. Through this experience, I subconsciously found a haven amongst other Asian Americans on the overwhelmingly white campus. Even if our experiences weren’t homogenous, I felt comfort in knowing there was something we could collectively share.
These various instances of microaggressions and shame in relation to food strongly impacted the way I perceived and carried myself in the world. The mention of food smells, especially distaste for it, continues to trigger me well into adulthood. There are days now, during work, in which I am uncomfortable eating in front of my co-workers because I don’t want to answer questions about what I’m eating, becoming an office spectacle, or worse, a burden.
Before I began to consume media critically (aka deconstructing subtle oppression), I used to watch BuzzFeed’s People Try ______ (For The First Time) feeling unsettled but without understanding fully why. It wasn’t until I watched the People Try Durian video that it I came to dissect what was so problematic about this series. The concept of people trying things is not offensive. The offensive part of this series is its exploitations of foreign cultures, particularly of Asian foods.
- Cultural Appropriation Alert!
Having Anglo-Americans reacting this way to my culture’s food is something that I’ve unfortunately become accustomed to enduring. Hearing the reactions from the video “it smells like farts” or “it smells like wet garbage,” I’m triggered back to a time when I’d been ostracized for my food. I recognized early in life that there was an identity and preference I would have to portray in public that contradicted my life in private and I was careful to keep these spheres separate. This resulted in a scenario where my POC friends were welcomed to my house but my white friends were often not.
The thought of inviting a BuzzFeed staff member over to my home, for them to eat any food in my house and to have them react like the way the people acted in that video, I would not only kick you out of my house but friendship fucking over, and if I ever see you in the streets, you better run. In reality, the BuzzFeed staff members probably wouldn’t have reacted that way if a Southeast Asian person was present, but does this make it any less wrong?
From a platform that brands itself as liberal, progressive, and inclusive, BuzzFeed produces these videos that broadcast the trauma of Asian Americans to millions. And it’s fucked up BuzzFeed, because no one from Southeast Asia asked you to try and criticize their food: you took it, stripped it of its context, turned it into a spectacle, and monetized it. This is textbook cultural appropriation. The fact that BuzzFeed doesn’t recognize this as such or seem to care is another reminder of how experiences like mine continue to be invisible.
2. Under- and Misrepresentation GALORE.
In all of the videos that I’ve watched, not once was there representation of the people from where these foods originate or have experiences with the food. By omitting those who can contextualize the food, BuzzFeed fails to fill in a crucial void that says, ‘hey, you know what, people actually eat and enjoy this AND they are not foreign savages with underdeveloped taste-buds.’
Where BuzzFeed fails, I was able to find a video from the Guardian that approached the same topic very well. In the video, you see the main person on screen as a Southeast Asian Australian woman who mentions the very same common opinions of durian as a strong-smelling fruit, but counters that with her own opinion, that she loves it. She attends a festival, celebrating durian, where people from all backgrounds (including Westerners) are shown taking part in a durian eating contest. She raises awareness and educate people on what this food is, even mentioning the smell, without dismissing the people who enjoy it. The Guardian wins in that it educates and celebrates where BuzzFeed trivializes.
In Western media, Southeast Asian American voices and stories are rarely given a meaningful platform. Therefore, any media representation of us, our culture, including the food we enjoy, becomes massively more important because Asian Americans are still fucking fighting in 2016 to just be represented with integrity.
3. Hey, Guess What? The Southeast Asian Experience is also American.
In both the People Try Durian and Americans Taste Exotic Asian Food video, the people of color who appeared in the video are tokenized by the production. ‘We’re not racist because, look, a couple of Asians and one Black person,’ check, check, right? Wrong, because POC can also practice and perpetuate racism. Where media outlets consider diversity of backgrounds sufficient, they neglect to represent a diversity of experiences because eating durian is an American experience for many Americans of Southeast Asian households.
In the two videos that I’ve cited, I’ve noticed that it’s the Asian Americans in the videos that have the most exacerbated and theatrical reactions, as if they needed to distance themselves. And I get where instilled patterns of internalized racism, while not diminishing how nuanced and complex as they are, lead to the desire to be affirmed as ‘American’ by exhibiting less ‘Asian’ behaviors come from. But these foods that BuzzFeed have taken to exploit, were a staple at my home in the suburbs of Virginia, where I was born and raised. As a Vietnamese American, I unfortunately still face being seen as foreign and othered in mainstream society and it is disheartening to see those I might actually identify with, disowning my culture. I’m familiar with the tendency to overcompensate and prove my American-ness, but when will this stop being at the expense of my Vietnamese-ness? I’m sick of those being contradictory.
In the final video that was presented, BuzzFeed ends up tokenizing the Asian Americans and other POC who exhibit their own racist reactions for the sake of supporting the “story” that this food is truly disgusting. This is tokenization because we see few POC on screen, there is almost exactly one representative of each ethnic background (except whites because there’s always more whites…) and since the one Black person, one East Asian American person, and one South Asian American person have voiced their opinion in support of the story, the audience can take that opinion to be representative enough of all POC America as a whole.
In a Culture Vulture article by Eddie Huang, famed restaurateur, on whose memoir the television sitcom Fresh Off the Boat is loosely based, he discusses an important food scene from his childhood:
“Throughout the book tour, it was my favorite scene to read because it exemplified how foreign white culture was to me. I remember the first time I saw macaroni and cheese, as a guest in my friend Jeff’s home, thinking it was pig intestines cut into half-moons hanging out in an orange sauce. Jeff found it incredulous that I didn’t know what macaroni and cheese was, but it was formative; he got a taste of macaroni and cheese from my eyes, discovering how it felt to be gazed on and seen as exotic instead of being the one gazing.”
The scene didn’t make it into the show and it’s a damn shame because Americans need to understand exactly that. But I get it; Anglo-American culture isn’t supposed to be the butt of a joke in mainstream media. That space is reserved for Indian taxi drivers with accents, Long Duk Dong’s, and ‘smelly’ food (sarcasm).
I could get into what food means to immigrant communities, but in short, food is synonymous with love, comfort, and home and I’m tired of apologizing for this integral aspect of my identity. Balut is my American experience. Pig intestine is my American experience. Durian is my American experience and my American experiences need to be represented in a video of my food. I did not ask you, BuzzFeed, to try my food or any other part of my culture for that matter, and then impose on me this feeling of shame. As a major mainstream media outlet, striving to raise awareness for acceptance and social progressiveness, I’m calling this racist shit out.
A special thank you to the best ladies in my life Thuy Tran and Linh Tran who helped immensely in the development of this piece, through feedback on too many re-writes to count.
Edited: The video had two people of Asian-descent. We apologize for the erasure of marginalized Asian populations and are grateful that this was brought to our attention.
Edited: The third argument in piece has been edited to further clarify the problematic structures of internalized racism and tokenization of POC.
Edited: We have edited instances where “Southeast Asian” or “Asian” was used interchangeably with “Southeast Asian American” or “Southeast Asian Australian” in order to cite the appropriate western experiences. It has come to our attention that Southeast Asians do not face the same discrimination in their home countries and we have corrected our language to clarify.
Please note that comments on this post will be monitored. While valid criticisms and critical engagement is welcome, the author nor any other member of our team will educate on racism, xenophobia, or oppression.