Take this egregious example of sloppy journalism:
For most Westerners, however, salsa remains an unacquired taste. It can offend not only with its taste but also with its odor, which can linger on a person for hours. And for those unused to its fire and fury, even a small dish of salsa can appear less as a delicacy than as a kind of incendiary device. To a Western palate, with all the other options out there, salsa won’t rank very high,” Mr. Chinn said. (in this NYT article)Oh, and if the above paragraph strikes you as unbelievably weird, the original article said "kimchi" not "salsa." Either way, it is a preposterous and idiotic piece of journalistic poopoo not fit to be printed in the New York Times.
First, I contest the very existence of a so-called unified "Western palate." Even my father, famous for his finicky eating habits, gladly consumes Indian, Chinese, and Mexican foods. Is the Western palate limited only to white bread and cold cereal? Even the very suggestion of the word "Westerners" does for me what every good matador does for his bull. Does the word "Westerners" mean everyone living in the Americas and Europe and Australia and New Zealand and so on? If so, it must include millions of people of African and Hispanic ethnicity. Or does the word "Westerners" just mean white people?
Second, I contest the fact that most Westerners, whoever they are, don't like kimchi. Certainly, people who have never had the opportunity to try it at all can't be said to like it or not. Those who have tried it generally like it. For crying out loud, my diminutive Italian grandma likes kimchi. When I was in the US, I managed to procure some kimchi from my Korean friends from time to time and it always made me a very popular person.
Third, most kimchi is no more spicy than a bottle of Pace Picanta medium. The most spicy kimchi I have ever had barely even ranks as a 3 on a spiciness scale of 1-10.* For people who can't even eat black pepper, kimchi may prove a challenge. For those who like extreme spiciness, however, kimchi will just not deliver. To call kimchi an "incendiary device" is tantamount to calling ice cream a "cryogenic tool."
Forth, the scent of kimchi is no more sticky than the scent of Indian curry or even the scent of real espresso coffee. Eating raw onions on a hamburger or sandwich produces far more stinky results than a side of kimchi. Kimchi is not fresh per se; it's fermented. The taste it leaves on ones tongue is not the odious scent of raw onions or raw garlic, but a subtle aftertaste more akin to Sriracha.
So why I am so rankled by this? There are two options but we'll discount the first one.** The second option is that the propensity of certain white men to exaggerate the foreignness of Asians is so odious that I have finally gone bonkers.
The impeccable Bruce Cumings is a white man with a brain. Certain other white men, however, are individuals of less than admirable intellectual prowess. I've met a number of them who boast greatly of their knowledge of Korea and Korean things, yet speak Korean at barely an elementary level--if even that. Their boundless insights seems to consists of subtly or not so subtly belittling or degrading Korean things. The worst of them are outright racist. The best of them succeed by "other-izing" the object of their statement
For lack of a better word, "other-izing" is the process of exaggerating and caricaturizing the foreign qualities of an object in order to delegitimize it. In less formal language, it's known at bull shitting. By exaggerating the foreign quality of the object, they relieve themselves of the responsibility to understand it. The premise that "These people--they just don't conform to our rules. They don't think like we do" is always followed by the conclusion "We don't need to treat them by our rules of fairness."
Recently, I had dinner with an individual who kept denigrating Korea people for their so-called lack of sophistication. He mentioned a particular geographical location in Asia and claimed that he was sure that if he asked any Korean person they would have no idea where it is. Because, you know, Korean people are just so ignorant. So, I asked him sweetly if he knew the name in Korean. He didn't. I did know, of course (or why would I be writing about this?) and I informed him that when I had visited that place, the guide had told me that the majority of visitors there were Korean. Hard to believe that those ignorant Koreans were able to swarm to a place that they had supposedly never heard of.
Having traveled to several places on this earth that might be considered exotic (Egypt, Israel, China, Philippines), I believe that no place is beyond the reach of rational analysis. People and cultures can be understood, if one makes the effort to do so. And in the end, there is no "other."
Now, pass me the kimchi.
*Granted, this statement is coming from a person that used to chop up fresh habanero peppers and eat them in hot sauce, smiling through my tears.
**The first option is that I am easily rankled by nearly everything I read and exist in a state of constant outrage over something. Of course, that's not true.