Dude, what’s that smell? The Sriracha shutdown and immigrant excess

—Anita Mannur and Martin Manalansan

All across America, bottles with a green cap, rooster and fiery chili sauce that were once exclusively the mainstay of fast food style Asian restaurants, have been slowly making their mark on mainstream palates. In 2011, the popular television show The Simpsons featured an episode—described by executive producer Matt Selman as a “love letter to food culture”—in which Bart Simpson’s usually pedestrian palate becomes attuned to the finer possibilities of sriracha.

In 2012, as part of a national campaign to introduce a new flavor, the Lay’s potato chip company announced Sriracha as one of the three finalist flavors, along with Cheesy Garlic Bread and Chicken & Waffles. Cheesy Garlic Bread Lay’s eventually went on to win the contest; some claim it was because the signature piquant taste of sriracha could barely be detected in the chip’s flavor. In 2013 the national bagel sandwich chain restaurant Brueggers introduced the Sriracha Egg Sandwich. Not to be outdone, Subway followed suit with their version of a chicken sriracha melt.

By the end of 2013, sriracha popularity seemed to be at an all time high. From January to December of 2012, some 20 million bottles of sriracha sauce had sold, and on October 27, 2013, the first Sriracha festival was held in downtown Los Angeles. Americans, it seemed, could not get enough of the hot sauce. That is, until it came into their own backyards.

On October 28, Huy Fong Foods, the purveyor of sriracha, was sued by the small town of Irwindale, California for causing “burning eyes, irritated throats, and headaches” to its residents. An initial report published by the Associated Press tellingly described the odors produced by the Huy Fong plant as “a nuisance.”

Huy Fong’s owner and creator David Tran’s mistake was in assuming that the sriracha boom meant that the town of Irwindale would accept the changes that came with the presence of Asianness. In many ways, his story was that of the consummate Asian American model minority who had made his mark through hard work and perseverance in America. From origins in Vietnam to “making it” as an ethnic entrepreneur in the US, the story of sriracha, and in particular that of Huy Fong, can be understood as a quintessentially Asian American story.

David Tran, a Vietnamese refugee of Chinese origin, was among the first wave of refugees to leave Vietnam in 1979. Fleeing Vietnam aboard the Panamanian freighter “Huy Fong,” for which he later named his company, Tran started his fledgling company in the town of Rosemead, California in the mid-1980s with an initial investment of a meager $50,000. Over the next two decades, the company, which exclusively harvests jalapeños grown in Piru, California, grew dramatically, largely by word of mouth, and has become one of the most popular condiments with something of a cult-like following.

Food historian John T. Edge notes that part of sriracha’s success is in its ability to position itself as malleable to many palates: “Multicultural appeal was engineered into the product: the ingredient list on the back of the bottle is written in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, French and Spanish. And serving suggestions include pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers and, for French speakers, pâtés.” Despite sriracha’s obvious connection to Thainess—the sauce, according to a recent documentary, Sriracha (Dir. Griffin Hammond, 2013), has its origins in the town of Si Racha—Tran disavows the necessary connection to one particular national lineage, noting, “I know it’s not a Thai sriracha…It’s my sriracha.”

As the company expanded, it moved from its more modest location in Rosemead to a larger factory in Irwindale. And with the growth of the factory, resentment of the presence of Asianness has been more acutely expressed through a refusal of the visceral and purported offensiveness of Asian odors. Ultimately it is the inability of odors to remain in place, the toxicity and the purported public health danger of Asian coded comestibles that has come to characterize this stage in the sriracha story as a story of racial exclusion in an Asian American context.

As Martin Manalansan has written elsewhere, “smell in America…is a code for class, racial and ethnic differences.” Yet cities are expected to function as odorless zones, both literally and psychically. Traces of immigrant excess must always be kept at bay and where food is concerned, difference must be managed to ensure that the kind of food one finds at the table is synchronous with the mandates of a multiculturalist ethos of eating. It must not appear “too foreign,” “too different”, “too oily” or too aberrant. In other words it must not be too offensive, lest it upset a carefully calibrated balance of acceptable multiculturalism.

Sriracha seemed poised to become America’s next favorite condiment. But condiments have to be manufactured somewhere, and when Asianness comes to roost in the town of Irwindale, population 1,422 (2% Asian American, 47% white), the cultural odor of the town also changes. And taste for difference, as history has suggested, can often only go so far. The winds in the California city of Irwindale not only transport the sharp smell of chilies in the sriracha sauce, they also convey the heavy weight of Western history’s fraught encounters with olfactory experiences.

Throughout the ages, smell has been used to mark things and bodies that are sinister, sinful, dangerous, foreign, diseased, and decaying. Modern cities were planned under the idealized schemes of de-odorized landscapes. Accoutrements to contemporary living include room deodorizers and air fresheners that aim to eliminate unwanted odors and showcase social uplift and class distinction. The Sriracha incident in California reeks of all these historical antecedents and cultural symptoms. The very fact that sriracha has been called a “public nuisance” and a potential health threat is part of a longer tradition that views Asianness as a public health menace. The SARS epidemic of 2002, with its concomitant xenophobic links to the fear of Asian bodies, is not far removed from the panic about Asianness discursively inherent in the charges being levied against Huy Fong Foods.

In the midst of all the accusations and counter-accusations of state overreach, cultural insensitivity and xenophobia, smell should not be seen as merely a potential health hazard but rather as a crucial signpost of where we are as a society and as a nation in the 21st century. Indeed, to consider sriracha’s odors a public nuisance is not far removed from the kinds of radicalizing language that is used to put immigrants in their place. We may like our sriracha bottles on our tables, but we don’t want it too close, lest it contaminate our spaces of living. Like the Asian American bodies with which we associate the bottles of hot sauce, we prefer to limit the spread of Asianness.

On November 29, 2013, three days after the Los Angeles court ruled in favor of a partial shutdown of the company, Huy Fong Foods released a simple statement to the public with a banner reading, “No tear gas made here,” placed outside its Irwindale factory. Those simple words summed up what is perhaps really at stake here. The underlying issues which have led to the fracas about sriracha are very much about toxicity, but the banner is as much about dispelling the notion that the product they are making is toxic as it is about pointing out that underlying racism and charges against Huy Fong are mired in a more dangerous form of toxicity—one that seeks to vigilantly remind immigrants about where they do and do not belong.

Anita Mannur is Associate Professor of English and Asian /Asian American Studies at Miami University. Martin F. Manalansan, IV is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Mannur and Manalansan are co-editors (with Robert Ji-Song Ku) of Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader (NYU Press, 2013).

Race and gay pride

—Martin Joseph Ponce

Broadly speaking, my book Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading provides a history of Filipino literature in the United States from the onset of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century through the contemporary moment. Framing the literature in a transnational context shaped by U.S. (neo)colonialism and migration, it focuses in particular on the ways that gender and sexuality are integral to Filipino racializations, social formations, and state and cultural nationalisms as well as to manifestations of U.S. empire and terms of assimilation at specific historical junctures.

Although I discuss the work of several writers who self-identify as gay or queer and consider the depictions of queer characters in various literary texts, the book as a whole doesn’t seek to document a history of non-normative Filipino sexualities or desires in literature. Rather, it attempts to theorize and enact a queer reading practice that attends to the constitutive articulations of gender, sexuality, and eroticism to race, nation, and diaspora. As such, it would seem to bear a tangential relation, at best, to Gay Pride.

Indeed, insofar as the book seeks to contribute to the growing, diverse bodies of scholarship associated with queer of color and queer diasporic critique, it is less concerned with the development and consolidation of sexual identities than with the gendering and sexualization of race (Filipinos/as as savage, effeminate, hypersexual, hyperfeminine) and with the freighted political meanings that gender and sexuality assume when placed in comparative international contexts (liberation vs. repression, modern equality vs. patriarchal hierarchy). Both of these historically shifting but persistent conditions—the production of racial difference in part through gender and sexual deviance from white colonial norms, the production of U.S. exceptionalist discourses in part through (illusory) ideals of gender equality and sexual freedom—place diasporic Filipino writers in vexed positions. Namely, they must contend simultaneously with imperialist denigrations of colonial bodies and aptitudes as well as with nationalist recuperations of normative bodies and aspirations.

However distant they may seem, these ideas come to mind when I think of Gay Pride. While I imagine that for many LGBTQ folks the revelries represent a unique time of the year when all manner of things queer are welcomed, encouraged, and (dare I say it) rendered normal, I tend to see and experience the event as a discomfiting moment when the racialization of non-normative sexualities comes to the surface. Or put conversely, it is when every Pride participants’ sexuality is up for grabs and the default straightness of everyday life is suspended that racial differences and the ambiguous, deviant sexualities they signify become all the more apparent.

Moreover, the specific circumstances that enabled the emergence of Gay Pride in the first place and that we’re supposedly (supposed to be?) commemorating—Stonewall, the Village, New York, the Sixties, and so on—leave me wondering if these particularities are being strategically forgotten or rewritten by the Gay Prides taking place throughout the country and around the world. To avoid further entrenching the association of “modern” gayness with white U.S. sexceptionalism, metronormativity, and capitalist entertainment spectacles, I can only hope that this annual event is being remade dozens of times over, cross-cutting global gay and lesbian imaginaries and practices with local histories and politics, demographics and desires, fabulosities and festivities.

Martin Joseph Ponce is Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University.

»»  Happy Pride from NYU Press! Save 25% on a selection of our new and classic LGBT Studies titles, when you order via our website. Sale ends on July 1, 2013.

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball of Asian-Jewish Relationships

—Helen K. Kim and Noah S. Leavitt

A quick search through the internet uncovers many comments about romantic attachments between Asian-Americans and Jews, ranging from the serious to the silly. One of the most famous examples of this is a series of discussions on Jewlicious, a site for all things Jewish, about whether Asian-American women are among the most frequent visitors to Jewish dating websites like JDate.com. No matter what their tone or perspective, though, these stories demonstrate the strong emotional reactions that such couples evoke.

No recent Asian-Jewish couple besides, perhaps, Soon-Yi Previn and Woody Allen has gotten as much media scrutiny than Dr. Priscilla Chan and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Gazing into the crystal ball of the Chan-Zuckerberg marriage, one might wonder how these two—and other Asian-Jewish couples—incorporate their backgrounds into their shared daily domestic life. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to ignore the question, “What is going to happen with their kids?”

Intrigued by these kinds of questions, we recently spent a year and a half travelling the country to interview Asian American and Jewish American couples to understand how they describe their relationships. And, in the forthcoming Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation, we spend a chapter focusing on the worldviews and reflections of the second generation Asian-American spouses or partners in sixteen of the Asian-Jewish couples we talked to.

While all couples are unique in many ways, based on what our interviewees shared with us, we’ve made a few predictions about the Chan-Zuckerberg relationship:

  1. Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg will share a fundamental value system focused on high educational achievement, close-knit families, and hard work, which is a version of what scholar Will Herberg called, in 1955, a type of common faith that he defined as “the American way of life.”
  2. Dr. Chan will not incorporate her religion of origin into the household religious or spiritual practice to create a dual-religious, or a syncretic, practice.
  3. If there comes a time when Chan-Zuckerberg kids appear (we think this highly likely, even with Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg’s very full professional lives—a characteristic they share with many of our interviewees), they will be raised Jewish, and Dr. Chan—regardless of any religious affiliation she grew up with or claimed—will be an equal, if not the, catalyst for this being the primary identity of the kids.
  4. Their kids might have trouble seeing themselves as tracing their identity through Dr. Chan’s family.
  5. In the end, the couples’ differences will be harmonized and the family will endure.

While critics of Jewish intermarriage often fret about the loss of a Jewish identity in a mixed household, we found that Asian-Jewish households often wind up, surprisingly, becoming Jewish.

Are the Asian-American members of these households losing their religion? Maybe.  Are they trying to acquire status in a still-white dominated nation? Perhaps. Or maybe they are trading their own spiritual practices for a harmonious household. To paraphrase one of our interviewees, a Chinese-American physician on the West Coast, “There are only a few million of my wife’s people but there are a billion of mine. Is one more really needed?”

Helen K. Kim is Associate Professor of Sociology at Whitman College, and Noah S. Leavitt is Assistant Dean of Students and a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at Whitman College. Both are contributing writers to the forthcoming edition of Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion Among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation (NYU Press, 2012).

The Long-Term Costs of Amy Chua’s Crazy Parenting Essay

The Huffington Post runs a piece by erin Khue Ninh, author of the forthcoming book “Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature”, who argues that immigrant parents will still be reading the inflammatory article, which chronicles the success of extreme parenting without discussing the dangers, after the furor has passed.

Despite the frenzy of responses both in and now outside the Asian American community, however, I’ve not seen anyone name my deepest dismay about this essay. And as the piece continues to circulate — through the delayed but ever-widening network of emails forwarded — that neglected point becomes only more salient: Long after we have tired (as we have already begun to tire) of Facebook-posting or retweeting rebuttals and responses to Chua’s piece, it will still be finding its way to Asian parents like my own.

In light of this, to the extent that the book and essay do not align, the essay is more reprehensible, not less.

Because you see, the WSJ essay will reach these immigrant parents without context. It will not be accompanied by the outpouring of blogs and comments, testifying that parenting methods like those the article champions have driven their writers (or siblings) to therapy (or suicide). Neither will it be accompanied by Yang’s article nor Chua’s book, in which latter the author says she has beat a partial retreat from these methods — finding their destructive costs too high.

Interview: Asian-Americans in the Segregated South

Author Leslie Bow sat down with Wisconsin World to discuss her new book, Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South.

WW: In the book, you mention the story of a woman who was in Arkansas, a Japanese-American on furlough from an internment camp and seemingly surprised that she was being waved to sit at the front of the bus as opposed to the back of the bus.

LB: Yet you couldn’t say here’s an example in which Asians were being treated as white people, because then the question would be, “What does ‘whiteness’ mean if you are put in an internment camp?” So one of the parallels to that is a Japanese-American man, Nobu Honda, who gave testimony about what it means to be on furlough from the Army in World War II and traveling around the segregated south. He, too, had that experience of being invited to sit in the white person’s section of the bus at the same time he was serving in a segregated military unit.

New “Karate Kid” Filled with Old Stereotypes

That’s the argument made by Leslie Bow, author of Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South, at The Progressive.

The new “Karate Kid” with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith has supposedly learned from the past, setting out to poke holes in some stereotypes about Asians. That’s good news for any Asian middle-schooler tormented by the “Wax on, wax off” catchphrase of the original.  The film parodies the idea that all Asians are foreigners (“Dude, I’m from Detroit”) and can grab flies out of the air with chopsticks.

It also preserves some of the positives from the original. The heart-warming, cross-racial coalition is still there, as is the theme of reciprocal redemption, to say nothing of the obligatory training montage.

But what’s also still there is a tired image that always surrounds Hollywood fantasies about Asians: We respect our elders; we obey authority; we are preternaturally focused and preternaturally cruel; we have bad hair.

Favorite Poem: Mark Chiang

HOW TO GET THERE
by Shessu Foster

HOW TO GET THERE: downhill from the jail where deputies in training formation, stragglers staggering up past the school where we played football on the lawn, down the avenue behind Plaza Market, “The Wall That Cracked Open”-Willie Herron painted faces of the afflicted breaking through the walls of oppression after Johnny (his brother, in my class) was beaten by gangbangers-to the intersection where, years later, I crashed Priscilla’s car into a truck that ran the red light, the little Honda jumping into the air like a poodle, spraying out an arc of glass, rubber stripping, and chrome fittings; there, years before the library was turned into a laundromat, years earlier, past the gas station (burnt down, bulldozed), apartments & dusty narrow shops, in the old days when people went to the “Farmer’s Market” (replaced by St. Lucy’s), then across the freeway overpass where the motorcycle cop hides out in the morning; a right past the on-ramp, down into the factory district where I walked the railroad tracks with my bloody hand wrapped up in my t-shirt, 12 years old and I wanted revenge for everything they were doing to us, smashing out all the windows I could in the envelope factory, smashing out every window I could until my fist was lacerated to the bone, and I wrapped it up and walked, 12 years old, bleeding through my shirt through the heat waves on the railroad tracks in the flat hot smoggy sun of all those years: AND WHERE ARE YOU?

[Selected by Mark Chiang, author of The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies: Autonomy and Representation in the University. "It only gives a small indication of the extraordinary range and astonishing juxtapositions of Foster's language, not to mention that it incites some intense LA nostalgia for me." From City Terrace: Field Manual.]