What We Eat and How We Speak: What it Means to be Authentic


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In a world connected by social media and globalised airways, it seems that traditional and minority cultures are at risk of being lost to history. Languages are going extinct at a rapid pace, and traditional crafts and trades risk dying out with each successive generation. Culture may be invisible and intangible, but it holds us together through representations of language, food, actions, values, and attitudes. To lose these symbols would mean the heartbreaking loss of our world cultures.

For organisational bodies, conserving these can be easy with sufficient funds and an effective marketing campaign. But for individuals, especially those with a personal stake in protecting and propagating their own culture, it is food and language which is usually most accessible for us to share and experience with others. Preserving our culture is important—it forms our identity, ensures we remember history, and connects us to others in our community. It only makes sense that some people would get so riled up about protecting it… right?

“That’s not real Italian food!”

Food videos are a massive genre on social media, and the novel dishes and flavours shown in them often receive praise and amazement from viewers. Other times, viewers turn their noses up at the ingredients used or complain about eatery prices, but a certain type of food video draws ire more than most: videos sharing self-made recipes of beloved cuisines using unconventional ingredients or cooking methods.

The offended community makes their displeasure clear in the comments of these heretical videos. Cries of “stop bastardising our food” and “don’t call this (insert culture’s) food” are often made, and these reactions might seem excessive to outsiders. After all, people often make food simply for sustenance (though the joy of creation is a bonus, too). It’s understandable why they react this way, however, as to them, food might go beyond a basic survival need to carry symbolic value for their community’s cultural history.

Assimilating into unfamiliar cultures is often intimidating, but food lowers the barrier of entry towards cross-cultural understanding. It makes abstract culture into a tangible and accessible material good which we can consume with ease. Each bite represents the geographical and religious histories that these communities have experienced across time and space: bison is a reminder of the Native Americans’ savage expulsion from their homelands, sushi reflects Japan’s archipelagic status, and the widespread use of dairy in Indian cuisine serves to purify them in the eyes of Hindu gods.

So, when newfangled recipes arise claiming to be these cultural symbols, it can be interpreted as a way for someone to disregard the history of the dish and the community which it arises from. It is true that many of these videos are developed by those not belonging to the community who created the food, so their acts of generalisation, misrepresentation, or even erasure of a community risks broadcasting misinformation to audiences with no prior knowledge of these foods and cultures. Should viewers be unable or unbothered to do further research on this, cultural differences might become exaggerated and exoticised, and the dish’s cultural meaning may easily be forgotten.

In a way, we risk backtracking to the colonial racism of the past, where only the voices of the dominant social class are heard. The onus of heritage conservation thus falls onto viewers who happen to belong to, or know enough about the community shown in the video. To prevent history from repeating itself, they write comments in righteous anger to amplify their voices in retaliation against these imperialist thoughts and behaviours. They are the white knights resisting external cultural influences or changes posing threats to their culture’s authenticity.

Except… these criticisms lose their validity if the creators of these culturally non-authentic videos belong to the communities they’re talking about.

“The Africans are ruining French!”

Recently, I came across a New York Times news article about how Africans are changing the French language on Instagram. As a linguistics nerd, I clicked on the comments section in excitement, only to be greeted with many outraged comments about this linguistic development.

The anger of these users fascinated me: based on their profiles and names, I assumed they were non-French, yet they defended the language as though they had an emotional attachment to it. The arguments posed were baffling too, as these users seemed to deem non-Parisian dialects of French invalid and African use of the French as “cultural appropriation” even when many African nations were once French colonies.

Perhaps, I think, behind desires to defend tradition, readers also react out of anxiety and fear. It is after all, a natural human response to view changing cultures as threats towards the “traditional” values or material items you grew up with your entire life. Change is uncertain, and that’s what makes it scary. It leaves us feeling insecure knowing that these basic identity markers tethering us to the world could be just as mutable to external pressures as our environments are. Instead of addressing our feelings, it’s easier to resist these cultural changes and discredit the identities of those less “authentic” than us to affirm our own cultural identities. So we hold on to the past, gatekeep and police the way people act, speak, and prepare food, shaking our heads when they don’t meet the standards of belonging to a culture as we might expect.

But who sets the standards?

We may commonly perceive culture as a fixed, unchanging constant which must fend off threats of globalisation and cultural domination to preserve its traditional integrity. After all, our pre-university education (especially our mother tongue classes) tends to assume changes to a culture means irrevocably altering it for the worse. Yet, in reality, culture is far more fluid than we think.

Because of the human interactions we experience from globalisation (whose wheels have turned since even before the invention of horse-carts and ships), one culture can easily intersperse itself with another and permeate into the lifestyles of people from location to location. Although the culture of a community impacts the attitudes, values, and behaviours of its members, it is similarly produced and performed by these very qualities of its members. This is to say, our culture forms us, but any personal experience we have alters the culture we belong to in a never-ending feedback loop. So, as we move around and talk to people of different backgrounds to us, our own culture shifts in constant flux, evolving and splintering into variations of itself every day, even by the tiniest measures.

For the Africans, this meant adapting pre-existing African cultures to meld with the preferences of French colonial powers and to adopt and speak their language as if it was their own—which, in a sense, it is. The centuries of incorporating French culture into their lifestyles have left them with a new African Francophone culture and language drawing from both African roots and French influences which makes it near impossible to divorce the two. It would be disingenuous of us to deny African Francophones their right to a French culture of their own.

What does it mean to be Singaporean?

The march of cultural evolution has continued since the beginnings of civilisation. We are part of it today, and we will continue to be a part of it in the future. The efficiency and extent of globalisation has only grown with the invention of planes and the Internet, allowing us to travel thousands of miles to interact with unfamiliar peoples in hours and spread cultural ideas and information within seconds. There has never been a greater need for us to recognise the value and beauty in how others think, feel, and express themselves. And with greater intermingling between communities come opportunities to birth new, mixed communities.

I think Singapore knows this best.

If we rewind a few centuries, we see the birth of Chinese Perenakans from the amalgamation of indigenous Nusantaran culture and overseas Chinese culture. Without globalisation, immigration, and the openness to immersing yourself in a different way of living and thinking, we wouldn’t have the great range of Perenakan cuisine (among other things) we adore today, like laksa, buah keluak, and Nyonya bak zhang. But replicating this authenticity in the kitchen is impossible, for Perenakan recipes differ from person to person—what makes your mother’s recipe more authentic than another’s?

Food is a representation of culture, and culture is in constant flux. When we talk about culture, food, and authenticity, we talk about a specific culture at a specific point in time and history which may no longer be the case today. Culinary changes and substitutions have to be made in accordance to modern means and needs anyway, so… why police it?

Even Singaporean Chinese culture is distinct from mainland China. Linguistic differences show in the way we speak, and our locals are often mocked for our poor Chinese-speaking skills. Granted, some of these criticisms hold water, but it is not necessarily wrong or inauthentic for me to say “巴刹” (bāshā, a loanword from Malay’s pasar) instead of “市场” when I talk about visiting the wet market. Similarly, it might seem grammatically wrong to a Mainlander for me to reply “我不懂” (I don’t understand) when asked about what I’ll be eating for lunch rather than “我不知道” (I don’t know), but these words are used interchangeably in Singaporean Chinese communities. Our local Hokkien dialect also differs from the more well-known Taiwanese dialect, but our usage of words like “diam” and “ngoh kuun” (originating from Malay’s dukun) meaning “silence” and “doctor” respectively doesn’t negate the “authenticity” of our Hokkien language.

How do we progress traditions?

We use words for communication, and if my peers can understand me, then has any wrong really been done in my use of language? Language is descriptive, not prescriptive. We adopt new terminology into our lexicons constantly, as clearly exhibited by the ebbs and flows of trending slang words like “slay”, “rizz”, and more. The same applies to food. We create food; it doesn’t create us. Human thought and behaviour can never be fully standardised, and as a result of that, cultural diversity continues to flourish and evolve.

But I’m not saying that there is no value in holding on to our traditions—heritage should not be forgotten just because of its temporality. Our ancestors and elders still have much wisdom to pass on, especially when we share this knowledge with others from different cultures. Creating new diversity is important, but that new diversity means nothing if the culture it originates from fizzles out. As my DTK1234 instructor liked to say, “plus one minus one equals zero.”

In these volatile times, preserving our cultural identity is important to keep us grounded in our place in the world. It ensures cultural continuity for future generations to come, to teach them of our cultural heritage and wisdom so that they too can find their place in the world (even if it means tweaking it to fit their needs). Moral value should not be assigned to the maintenance of a cultural status quo nor our inability to ‘protect’ it from contemporary changes in the world. We grow with culture, and culture changes with us. It has changed with us from the millennia of global interactions our ancestors shared, and elitist attitudes towards cultural, gustatory, and linguistic “purity” do nothing to help us connect and bond with others like us. If anything, this division of people among social lines to form a safe, welcoming “Us” and a threatening, dangerous “Them” is just racism repackaged again.

While culture shapes us, it remains shaped by us. Though it can be necessary to preserve aspects of our unique cultures which we take pride in, conservation is not mutually exclusive with the adoption of new culture. The essence of authenticity lies not in rigid adherence to the past but in the continuous, living dialogue between tradition and innovation—culture was not created to be locked away and safeguarded in a museum. It’s meant to be shared with others and reflect our human capacity to bond across social groups. Anything we do as a member of a community which we belong to, regardless of how much it adheres to tradition, is an authentic representation of our culture’s thoughts, behaviours, and rituals. There is no fault in defending culinary traditions or linguistic nuances, but the discourse of what’s “correct” or “real” or “pure” transcends mere preservation. In our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, embracing the dynamic nature of culture challenges us to face our anxieties head-on. It would be less daunting to face it together.