Orientalism and the Coronavirus

When we first started getting news of a disease in China, the detail many American kids were captivated with was its supposed origin: a wet market.

A wet market is, simply put, an outside butcher, where vendors sell raw meat, fish and produce. Rumor has it that Covid-19 came from the consumption of a bat from a wet market in Wuhan. When I heard that news I was devastated, not because I’m a vegetarian or because I really like bats, but because of the racist backlash I knew would follow.

Every year my Chinese class goes to Brooks middle school to talk about the Chinese program. This year, in addition to the usual comments about eating dog, we got many insensitive questions and comments about cooking bats and the coronavirus. The whole experience made me really mad

I’m not mad with the Chinese person who ate the bat, or the market that sold it, or the culture that deemed it okay, because its not my culture and it is out of my zone of control. I was mad at the inability for Western people to think from a different perspective because the Cultural norm, that is of course not shared by all Chinese people, to leave nothing to waste deserves so much more respect.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I suggest you read the book, Sichuan Pepper and Shark Fin Soup by Fuchsia Dunlop. In this book, Dunlop tells the story of her travel to China and her discovery of the province of Sichuan through its food. Most notably, Dunlop describes the practice by many Chinese people, to eat the whole animal and to leave nothing to waste. The parts that we Americans tend to leave aside, like intestines, eyes, and fins, are incorporated into some Chinese dishes.

Along with this norm comes the rare consumption of unconventional-seeming animals like turtles, dogs, and bats. I don’t think it’s wrong, not that my opinion really matters, to consume animals such as these. What’s normal is different in different places. For example, the rampant consumption of beef in America may be appalling for many Hindus who believe the cow is sacred and our normalcy of Cheese Wiz may, and probably does, make everyone else want to puke.

Now, what does this have to do with Orientalism? Well, Orientalism is the tendency to warp and exaggerate the differences in the West compared to the East. I believe that the difference in food consumption is one of the many things that has been exaggerated. Yes, the average American eats differently from the average Chinese, but the difference is not as stark as we make it seem and the American horror surrounding these differences really stems from ignorance.