ABC Radio National’s video stood out among all the news items on my Facebook last weekend because of its timely caption: ‘Happy Lunar New Year! Welcome to the Year of the Rooster!’ I clicked on the video, thinking that it was neat that the ABC was marking an important occasion for so many people around the world and in Australia.
That initial enthusiasm gave way to apprehension and dismay as the video played. Styled on the Buzzfeed genre of Hip and Young Staff Trying New Things (think Guys Experience Periods For the First Time or Regular People Get Tricked Into Olympic High Diving), ABC RN’s video showcases a group of people trying chicken feet for the first time. The presenter, a young white man, tells the viewer that since it’s the year of the rooster and it’s traditional to celebrate the Lunar New Year with food, ‘we thought we’d get some CHICKEN FEET!’ That witty segue also marks the end of the informational part of the video, which lasted all of ten seconds.
Watching the video felt like rubbernecking: I couldn’t stop watching when the white male presenter butchered the Cantonese pronunciation of ‘yum cha’, not even when another white man gave his sharp and incisive commentary – ‘It looks a bit like a baby’s hand. If the baby’s dad was a lizard’ – nor when one of the white women made strangled ‘ugh’ noises. I guess it was a nod to diversity that the group included a mix of gender and ethnic backgrounds, but the ABC Radio National team either couldn’t or didn’t want to find even one person of Chinese heritage to explain to viewers what phoenix talons are and how to eat them. Instead, they went with the cheap way of generating social media engagement by creating a sensationalist video about Chinese culture for an audience that markedly excluded the very community it was talking about.
The video follows with spliced shots of food tasters and their initial shock when they take the lid off the steamers and clumsily grapple with their chopsticks, with soft reggae music underscoring their adventurous foray into real ethnic food. What I see playing out is the embodiment of white privilege by a powerful media institution in having the ability to pass judgements on the palatability of other people’s cuisines and culture, to define what is ‘normal,’ and to have a national platform to broadcast these pronouncements. Being able to pick and choose which parts of other cultures are acceptable is a distinct exercise of white privilege in Australia. Specifically for Chinese Australians, whose experience has long been characterised by racist and discriminatory treatment dating back to the gold rush days, it reinforces the idea that it’s okay for white Australia to say ‘we’ll take your fried rice, sweet and sour pork, and lemon chicken, but we don’t want you nor your cultural complexities here.’
As you might expect, the taste-testers either like the chicken feet or don’t, and the video leaves no room for context or alternative narratives that facilitate a meaningful understanding of cultural difference. Radio National producers may protest that they’ve largely included only positive judgements, like the ‘five out of five’ at the end of the video. A pat on the back for them then, but exposing what you know to be a polarising element of a minority group’s culture to simplistic judgement on social media doesn’t make you edgy or cool, it just highlights a profound lack of cultural awareness.
For those of us who have ever been mocked for eating ‘weird’ or ‘smelly’ foods, the implications of such a palatability test by a majority group have some real and unexpected consequences. A few years ago, my family and I decided to go to yum cha in the Chinatown in Melbourne to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The restaurant we chose was an old favourite, but when we were seated, none of the usual plates that we liked to eat were being carted around. All that was on offer were the easy-on-the-eye, easy-to-eat, Yum Cha 101 dishes that perhaps the management thought would be popular with the large number of non-Chinese patrons that day. We still managed to eat what we wanted to by waving down a waiter to order a la carte, and then waited and waited for dishes that would usually have been in every second or third cart. It was largely an inconvenience, something you can only really laugh off, but the irony was not lost on us – that during the most important time of the year in Chinese culture, in a Chinese restaurant in one of the world’s oldest Chinatowns, what we could eat was subject to the delicate palates of white Australians.
The lack of ethnic representation in the Australian media, politics – public life in general – has long been a sore spot, and this video feels like yet another act of microaggression in a long list of indignations for Chinese Australians. I can tell the video is meant to be fun and quirky, but it’s also clear that there wasn’t much critical thinking involved. Such content doesn’t count as diverse programming when its content reinforces old tropes and stereotypes about minority communities being weird or alien, even when you’ve roped in brown people to be complicit with you. If anything, the video serves as a good argument for why institutions like the ABC urgently need to implement robust diversity hiring policies.
Image: ‘Hong Kong: Chicken Feet’ / Yi Chen