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.

7 thoughts on “Orientalism and the Coronavirus

  1. YUNHAO XU

    Well, as a Chinese, I appreciate you can treat this issue fairly. Just like you said, we do eat different kinds of things and it is part of our culture, BUT we still have a limit. Wild animals like bats, pangolins or something like those are not permitted to sell in the markets. However, some stupid people prefer to try something special to show their manhood or courage and they use the statement of “Chinese people can eat anything” as an excuse to hunt illegally. Anyway, I just want to point out that we have a complete law that prevents such disease from happening.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Yunhao, for sharing your first-hand experience.

    Simone, you make great points here — and I think, yes, ultimately, this has to do with an Orientalist mindset we still maintain. I can’t imagine a better example than the American veneration of chemical concoctions such as “Cheese Whiz.” Somehow, that is “normal” and other food that is out of our immediate comfort zone becomes “exotic.”

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  3. Connor D

    It’s discouraging that you got such awful questions from middle schoolers. I’d like to think they just don’t know any better, but that’s not necessarily an excuse. I also definitely agree with Mr. Heidkamp that we in the U.S. eat things that would be considered weird to other countries, like bull testicles, deep fried butter, and those croissant-donut crossover things. It’s all about cultural perspective, and unfortunately it tends to be the Western and white perspective that is given moral authority.

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  4. Katie V.

    To be honest I think it is real rich that as Americans we like to get on a high horse about what meat is acceptable or not. Now their are legitimate reasons for someone to say that people shouldn’t eat a certain species, like if the animal is endangered, for example; however, most of the comments made about people in China eating bats and such are not of that variety. They just boil down to “ew that’s different and gross”. Considering, we eat and raise pigs that carry many diseases, and their flesh is super similar to humans (according to scientists) we don’t really have a leg to stand on. Does this mean I think we should stop eating pigs? No. I love pork. My point is that it is hypocritical to go “ew” at what meat another culture eats and then go and dig into a pork loin roast.

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  5. MEENAH H

    This was a really interesting post to read! I also wrote about Orientalism and the Coronavirus Pandemic, and hearing the story about visiting the middle schools with your Chinese class was really shocking to hear. I also believe that it is important that Americans, and the rest of the world, work to respect other cultures and their customs and their traditions. In the United States, we have many customs that other cultures would consider unusual. We need to work to better understand other cultures to destroy the racism that is involved with the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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  6. Iris J

    Oh god, that trip to Brooks made me so mad. Middle schoolers suck! After we went, I kept seeing news about how there were Chinese folks (and other Asian folks) getting attacked in NYC, LA, and other big cities. It’s so incredibly frustrating that people are so ignorant and it doesn’t help that our president made COVID the “Chinese Virus”.

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