Something Happened At My Son’s School: Guns in a Backpack!

 

By Chunyan Song

March 30th Thursday was a regular teaching day for me at Chico State. After I finished the last class of the day, I went back to my office and checked my emails. My son Lucas’ 4th grade teacher Mr. Pembroke had just sent a really odd email minutes before. “Folks, I want to assure you that your children were always safe today and that, in fact, we had a good day of learning.  Your children’s safety is always first and foremost for all of us that work at school.  Today was handled very well and we carried on, business as usual.” The email attached a note from the school’s principal, Ms. McLaughlin, with similar message to the parents. In the principal’s note, it also said that Chico Police Department was working on “this case”.

I immediately checked my cell phone to make sure that I hadn’t missed any important calls from the school or anyone else. No missed calls. I opened Facebook. On the top of Facebook feeds, it was a news story from Action News Now. The first line of the story made me almost scream, CHICO, CALIF. – Around 11 a.m., Chico Police received a call from authorities at Parkview Elementary, to report a small handgun had been safely removed from a student.”

This happened at my son’s school while I was teaching! According to the news report, an “unidentified” 7-year old second grade student had brought a loaded .380 caliber Ruger handgun to class. Fortunately, the teacher found the gun in the student’s desk and called the police. The news also said the kid obtained the gun from “an unlocked and unsecured location inside his mother’s bedroom.” He was a good student with no behavior problems. And his mother was a “law-biding citizen.” It seemed that he brought the gun to school as a “show & tell” to impress his friends.

I was mad that I had to learn all of these through Facebook. Later at home, I found that the school had left two computer generated messages at my home phone, with the first saying “weapon was found” at the school and kids were safe. In the second message, it emphasized no need to pick up kids from school and the school was not in lockdown. The words “gun” or “loaded gun” were never mentioned in either of the messages.

Besides the initial shock, I am deeply grateful that nobody got hurt or killed. However, above all, I feel furious that something like this could even happen in an elementary school. As an immigrant from a country where guns are strictly prohibited, I find the gun culture in America sick and incomprehensible. I am appalled at the government’s inability to implement necessary gun controls even after so many gun related catastrophes. It is high time for Americans to face the reality and do some serious self-reflection on gun violence. Let’s look at some statistics and studies together.

The population of America currently stands at 311 million, accounting for less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Approximately 300 million weapons or 35 to 50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns are kept by Americans.   It is close to one gun per person in America!  This firearms per capita ratio is the highest in the world! 

With such an alarmingly high gun ownership, and plenty of negligent parents, Americans have witnessed one tragedy after another with either children as the victims, or the perpetrators of gun violence. A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 5.4 percent of students nationwide had carried a weapon (e.g. a gun, knife, or club) on school property. In another study by the National Association of School Psychologists, 7.5 percent of students in the Washington, D.C., reported having brought a gun to school.  A third of Americans with children under 18 at home keep a gun on the premises. And what I find especially disturbing is that nearly a third of households with children younger than 12 fail to lock up their guns. Parents of adolescents in particular appear to be more likely to keep guns unsecured in the home.

The United States also has the highest homicide-by-firearm rate among the world’s developed nations. More broadly, America ranks 4th for the highest number of deaths from guns, only superseded by Columbia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Based on the CNN report from June 2016, from 1966 to 2012, nearly a third of the world’s mass shootings took place in the U.S.  In the first 164 days of 2016, we’ve seen a total of 136 mass shootings in the United States. The three deadliest shootings in the U.S. have occurred in the past 10 years. The Orlando attack on June 12th, 2016 was by far the deadliest shooting in the U.S. history with 49 killed. The 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting killed 32 lives. The third deadliest shooting, the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, claimed 27 lives among which 20 six- and seven-year-olds and 7 teachers.

My own two kids were recently about the same age as the kids killed in Sandy Hook. I was so sickened by the news that I could not bear to read, watch, or talk about it for a long time. I cried for the lost little lives and for their mothers. I was mad then and still mad today. How could it have happened? After it happened, how could any human beings with warm blood still be able to find excuses after excuses not doing anything to change? Yes, guns don’t kill and people do. Yes, the criminal was mentally ill. We need to fix that. Yes, we couldn’t have prevented a mentally ill person from killing. However, my stubborn gun loving American neighbors, don’t you agree that it is much harder to kill forty nine or twenty seven people with a knife, a sword, or a baseball bat? Don’t you agree that a strict gun control or even ban will discourage criminal-minded sick people from going through all the trouble to acquire a gun before killing at impulse? Study after study shows this is the case, as do comparisons with so many other developed countries where gun controls are stricter, and death rates lower.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama stated,

“We can’t tolerate this anymore.”

“These tragedies must end and to end them we must change.”

Five years have passed. No changes have been made. The Sandy Hook kids have died in vain. What a national shame!

The gun culture in America is firmly entrenched in an outdated Second Amendment of the American constitution from 1791. More than two hundred years have passed. The society has changed. Guns have changed. Isn’t time for Americans to change the law like they did when slavery became out of date, presidential term limits were needed, the income was needed, and 18 year olds were allowed to vote? But it turns out that it is almost impossible to change that pesky out-of-date 2nd amendment. A number of gun advocates consider ownership a birthright and an essential part of the nation’s heritage.  Many Americans live in the paranoia that everyone wants to attack them, even though that is clearly not the case. In addition, they do not trust the police to protect them in the extremely rare case of such an attack.

In all, fewer than 20 states have enacted laws to hold adults criminally liable if they fail to store guns safely, enabling children to access them. In opposing safe-storage laws, some gun rights advocates have argued that a majority of accidental shootings of children are committed by adults with criminal backgrounds. The Times’s review found that was not true — children under the age of 18 were most often the shooters — and that the families involved came from all different backgrounds.

The day after the gun incident at Parkview Elementary School, Lucas was invited to a classmate’s birthday party for some archery fun at the Down Range Indoor Training Center. I drive by Down Range daily on my way to work. I have zero interest in supporting any business, including this one, promoting guns. Every single holiday, Down Range puts up an oversize poster next to the freeway. For Christmas, the poster had Santa Claus holding a rifle with an obnoxious message saying, “Pew! Pew! Pew! Merry Xmas!” Right now in the last week of March, the poster has already taken on the Easter theme. It features a pink-eared bunny with a provocative solicitation message, “Need an AR? Hop On In!”

The party was scheduled right after school. I decided to take my son to the birthday party for the sake of a quick peek towards the journalism writing paper I had in mind. Right at the entrance to the left side of the facility, a dozen heavy duty gun safes were for sale. Hunting clothing and gears on display shelves occupied most of the middle section of the large open space. To the right, the rifles and handguns were for sale behind the counters. My son’s friend took us directly to the party room next to the archery facility. Most of the kids at the party were from his class. Over soft drinks and pizza, the topic of the incident at school from the previous day naturally came up. One girl said that her brother was in the 2nd grade class where the gun was found, and that her brother actually saw the gun before it was taken away by the teacher. Another kid mentioned how his mom freaked out after she heard about the gun. A few kids knew the name of the 7-year old who brought the gun to school. There were already rumors about him getting expelled from school, as if a seven year old was personally responsible for the negligence of his parents and for the larger gun culture.

After snacks, an employee looking barely a kid herself brought the kids out for masks to get ready for the archery shooting. The kids were divided into two groups and were then led into the archery room. A ceiling-to-floor net separated the entrance area from the archery obstacle course. In the middle of the large room were a dozen obstacles. The employee gave them a brief instruction and gave the kids a trial run. The goal of the game was for the two teams to shoot “arrows” at each other. The team with more “survivors” at the end of the game would be the winner. At the order of “go,” the kids scrambled to the middle of the room to grab as many “arrows” as they could. Some kids got a hang of the game right away. They successfully shot a few kids from the other team while seeking protection from behind the obstacles. Some unlucky ones got shot at the very beginning of the first round and were taken out of the game right away. Amid the innocent giggling and laughter from the little kids, in the background, loud gunshots echoed from the shooting range facility next door, “Bang! Bang! Bang!” I wondered whether any of the kids paid attention, or if they did, whether they knew what they were[1].

Later that night during bedtime, I lay down with Lucas and asked whether he was scared about what happened at his school. He said not really. They had gone through drills before and he knew what to do if someone tried to kill them. I told him I was glad to hear that. He lost interest in this serious topic quickly.

In the dim night light next to the bed, Lucas reached his left arm above his head and showed me his bare armpit, “Mama, when will I start to grow armpit hair?”

“Why do you ask? You don’t have to worry about armpit hairs for a few more years.”

“I can’t wait to wear the deodorant,” my 9-year old son said with a sense of eagerness.

I promised him that I would let him try some deodorant tomorrow morning if he goes to sleep now. With that, Lucas stopped talking and closed his eyes.

A wave of overwhelming joy and gratitude filled my heart. I could feel the warmth of his rhythmic breathing right next to my face. His little hand rested on my arm, feeling warm and heavy. But my heart simultaneously was filled with a vast emptiness and sorrow for the Sandy Hook mothers. For them, the opportunity to talk with their little ones about armpit hairs was violently taken away from them. This was the worst pain no mothers should ever experience[2].

 

[1] A few days later, my daughter participated in a self-defense training class with a group of 12- to 13- year-old girls. When the coach asked the group whether anyone had fired a gun before, one third of the girls raised their hands.

[2] April 10, 2017, the day when I finished this essay, a murder-suicide shooting in a special needs classroom in San Bernardino, California claimed three lives including an 8-year-old boy.

“That was a Real Nice Truck” Vigilante Justice in Skidmore, Missouri, USA

(Last week I posted about vigilante justice in Tanzania.  It happens in the United States, too, which is what this story is about. As with the previous post, this is an extract from my book  When Killing is a Crime, 2007 Lynne Rienner Publishers).

Ken McElroy was shot and killed while sitting next to his wife Trena in a Chevy Silverado in downtown Skidmore, Missouri, USA, in August 1981. At least thirty-five people were present at the time of the killing, including law officers, the mayor, and other prominent people in the small community. At least two guns were used to shoot as many as 15 rounds.

The shooting occurred in the afternoon outside the American Legion Hall following a meeting which had been called to discuss how Skidmore could protect itself against Ken McElroy. McElroy and his wife Trena showed-up uninvited at the meeting. Leaving after exchanging words with the men there, he and Trena returned to his truck. As he was sitting in the truck, he was shot by two different rifles. Despite the large number of potential witnesses, and repeated investigations by local, state, and federal authorities all reached the same conclusion. Ken McElroy had been killed by “persons unknown.” All thirty-five people present claimed not to have seen anyone fire. Despite the coercive power of the courts to compel testimony, none present admitting to having seen who killed Ken McElroy. Town Marshall David Dunbar, who had earlier resigned out of fear of McElroy would attack would only comment twenty years later: “It’s really a shame about the Silverado,” he said. “That was a really nice truck.”

Ken McElroy was born in 1934, the 15th of 16 children born to itinerant sharecroppers. He never really learned to read well, and never had a job. McElroy lived outside of Skidmore, a town of about 500 people, with a succession of women. A harem, writers called it, because frequently there were more than one teenage wife or girlfriend living there. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, he regularly cased junior high schools, looking for new girls to replace those of whom he had tired. As a result, by the time of his murder in 1981, he had had at least ten children by four different women. He had been arrested twenty-two times, been tried only once (he was acquitted) but never served time in jail. Indeed, the event that precipitated his murder, a shotgun assault on a 70 year-old grocer, resulted in only his first conviction and sentencing. He was free on bail when he was killed.

Ken McElroy married for the first time at age 18, and moved briefly to Denver, Colorado. He could not hold a job, so he and his wife soon moved back to Skidmore. There, he began hanging out with his “coon huntin’ buddies,” men who shared his passion for hunting raccoons at night when the animals were active. His nighttime activities were to become his income—he became a cattle rustler in a remote corner of Missouri where cattle markets were poorly policed, and there was no obligation to brand cattle. Nighttime stealth, a refined capability to harass any witnesses, and an attorney who could be retained at a cost of $5,000 per felony kept him out of the courthouse, and driving a succession of new trucks. McElroy also developed a skill for brandishing weapons, and intimidation.

McElroy’s first arrest came in connection with his wife-to-be Trena, an eighth grader who he first seduced in 1971 when she was 12 years old. McElroy already had two women, Marcia and Alice living with him at the time. Nevertheless, Trena moved in replacing Marcia. She dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and was pregnant by the time she was 14. But then 16 days after the birth of her son, she and Alice fled to Trena’s parents. This lasted only a few hours. McElroy brandishing a gun forced the girls to return home with him, where as punishment, he beat them and forced them to perform sex acts. After that, he returned with Trena to the home of her parents. McElroy shot the family dog, poured gas around the house, and burned it down.

Two days later, Trena took her new-born son to a doctor, who coaxed the story of the arson out of her. The doctor contacted the county social welfare agency, who put Trena and her baby into foster care. The case was taken to the district attorney. On the basis of Trena’s testimony, McElroy was indicted for arson, assault, and rape. Even at $5,000 per felony, his attorney told him, it would be difficult for him to be acquitted. But McElroy did not relent. He found the foster home where Trena was living, and began making threatening calls. The District Attorney slapped on eight more felony molestation charges as a result of the trysts he had with Trena beginning when she was 13 years old.

But McElroy was still charming. He arranged to divorce his second wife Sharon from whom he had been separated for several years, and marry Trena. More threats persuaded Trena’s mother to give consent to the marriage, which in turn solved McElroy’s legal problems. As his wife, Trena could not be compelled to testify against him, in a case which was highly dependent on her cooperation for a conviction. McElroy had beat the charges.

There were more cases during the subsequent years. Many involved intimidation, whether it was over women, slights to his honor, or accusations of criminal activity. His last fight was in many respects just as trivial as the others. One of McElroy’s children was chastised by shopkeepers Bo and Lois Bowenkamp for not having paid for a ten cent piece of candy. Ken McElroy came back to the store, and found Bo Bowenkamp cutting open boxes with a butcher knife. A verbal altercation ensued, and Bowenkamp was shot with McElroy’s shotgun. This time, despite the claims of McElroy and one of his coon huntin’ buddies that Bowencamp had threatened McElroy with the knife, Ken McElroy was sentenced to two years in prison. But, under Missouri law, he remained free on appeal; still the only question in August 1981 was when he would begin his sentence. Stays were granted, during which McElroy returned to Skidmore to threaten witnesses, including the Bowenkamps. It was at this time the town called a meeting in the American Legion Hall. The conclusion of the meeting resulted in the still unsolved death of Ken McElroy, by persons unknown.

Ultimately of course, this is a story about the legitimacy of the law as it emerges from the people. Not even the power of the FBI could break the code of silence in Skidmore. Skidmore, in short, to address the problem of Ken McElroy briefly became a virtually stateless area. The death and subsequent code of silence was as powerful as that in an inner city gang, or any stateless areas which are so difficult to police.

Further Reading

Film: “Without Mercy” (2004)

Krajicek, David (n.d.) Court TV Crime Library, online at http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/classics/ken_mcelroy/index.html

MacLean, Harry N. (1988). In Broad Daylight: A Murder in Skidmore, Missouri. New York: Dell

Originally posted at Ethnography.com, April 2015

 

More about Erving Goffman and my German Language Problems

As I wrote before I am living in Germany and learning German.  On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I spend 2.5 hours with ten strangers from all over the world. We have little in common except that we are foreigners living in Germany struggling to integrate. Our conversations with each other are in German, and inevitably about such topics as why it is so difficult to remember how to get the right ending on a comparative adjective (is it –e, -en, -er, -em, -es, etc.?). Not really the stuff that great friendships are made of; particularly when you do not share fluency in a common language. But nevertheless, Cordula our teacher assures us that this is all necessary for our life in Germany. So grumpy or not we all push along, collectively sharing an unspoken dream of proving Germans wrong about the idea that multiple adjectival endings are important to anyone’s life.

All of us have tried to explain to Cordula at some point why German does not make sense. She just smiles nicely, and notes that “it’s irregular,” which is the language teacher’s way of saying “it is logicval only when I say it is logical, otherwise it is illogical.” And so we are stumped since after all, how can you ever say that my language is “more logical” than German unless you get the proper ending onto the adjective (something along the lines of “my language is more logikalerere than German because the der-die-das komparativ so much easier is”). You don’t have to believe me on this issue, of course. Mark Twain wrote “The Awful German Language”
after killing two or three German teachers—they died of heart failure—in the 1880s during his attempts to master German grammar. Fortunately, Cordula, has both a better sense of humor and stronger heart than Twain’s teachers, is still alive, but more about her below.

But this blog is not about the nature of German language, but about my classmates who are what sociologist Erving Goffman called my “own” because we share the stigma of being linguistically impaired in Friedrichshafen. There are ten of us, and except with the young English-speaking Kenyan woman who works at a local nursing home, my conversations with the others are in German. We all speak enough to know something about each other. There are two music teachers (one from Russia and one Kazakhstan) both married to German men. There are two from Belarus in the class, one a computer engineer at a local company, and the other a language student. Two Italians work at local restaurants, and Daniel from France who recently retired here. The most fluent German speaker is a Hungarian-speaker from Romania who we all secretly admire greatly. In short, we have little in common, except that we ended up in Friedrichshafen somehow, we are all foreigners, we share a classroom twice a week, and believe in Cordula’s capacity to transform our German verb forms.

And yet we also share that unspoken and special bond described by Goffman in his book Stigma. We are each others’ “own” with respect to the vast numbers of Germans around us who are the “normals.” Some of the best classroom conversations have been about how the normal Germans do things to us which are odd to us. Among the things we notice are that Germans are insurance-crazy, carry little reflective triangles in their cars (in case their car breaks down, and their warning blinkers don’t work), and do not like hugging as much as Italians, Russians, and French. We have all compared notes about German immigration law as a result of time spent securing permits in the local immigration office.

We have also endured at some level an attitude that foreigners should just get with it and learn German—integration is the key (gee thanks for the advice Mr. Normal German—when was the last time you tried to memorize and use 48 Kazakh articles?). As with normals everywhere, they do not easily understand what it is like to be on the outside looking in. Believe me, we all want to “integrate” and achieve linguistic anonymity–were it only so easy! So integration from a normal is the last thing any of us wants to hear after hours spent wrestling with the weird German vowels like Ö Ä Ü, unpronounceable even to Mötley Krüe, or worse yet distinguishing between the sound of a sharp s (ß) and a double ss.

And so we help each other out in class with whispered answers when we are stuck, awkwardly trade news about planned vacations and family, and have a special bond when we encounter each other in the city. Daniel especially, has become helpful in slipping us all study guides, and one of the Italians picked up the tab for me and my family when we were at his restaurant. Cordula of course is our shared hero—she is what Goffman called one of the “wise.” She is a “normal” German, but as a result of years teaching German, she instinctively understands and sympathizes with our tribulations. She points out my “typical English mistakes,” and I can even laugh when she does this. She also knows more about the rapidly changing German immigration laws than do most Germans—a wisdom she gained through years of interacting with foreign German learners.

Among Cordula’s more appreciated tales are about the strong local dialect known as Swabian German. Somehow it takes the edge off of things, realizing that all those “normal” Swabians also use the “wrong” article with the word for “butter” routinely, and butcher any word having a st consonant combination. Those of us imagining ourselves at the bottom of Friedrichshafen’s linguistic heap enjoy the chance to snicker at the problems of our presumed tormentors!

 

Originally posted December 18, 2007 at Ethnography.com

Language Learning, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

This blog is about why ethnographer Erving Goffman’s observation of stigma are important not just to ex-cons, but also to professors like me on foreign exchange programs. Goffman, as many sociologists and anthropologists know, observed the maneuvers of the marginalized and stigmatized in society, and then wrote about how they thought about their disability. He saw that the marginalized were constantly managed their spoiled social identities because they feared public exposure of their disability. To make his point he wrote about ex-cons, ex-mental patients, prostitutes and others. Such stigmatized people, he wrote, are acutely conscious that at any moment any pretense they maintain of being a “normal person” can be unceremoniously disclosed. Mental patients, ex-cons, and prostitutes always wonder if a passing person knows them from their “other” life, simply recognizes the habits and tics they carry with them from that life. What this creates is a “hyper-vigilance” on the part of the stigmatized as they move through their daily routines. They watch everything, and are always wary. To control the stress, the stigmatized avoid situations where they are easily exposed—they fear being the fool, humiliated, or even attacked. Their greatest desire is to be socially invisible, even as they move through the necessary routines of daily life.

In fact, I was mulling over Goffman’s wisdom when walking to the bus stop on my way home two weeks ago. My mind though switched off when I realized that once again, as it is with many new American residents of Germany, I needed to manage my identity with respect to my highly imperfect, ungrammatical, and accented German. I can of course manage this by remaining mute in many social situations. This is surprisingly easy in places like supermarket checkout lines where the numbers on the cash register, hand gestures, and smiles help me pass without disclosing my stigmatized status. But finding the right bus home creates higher risks of disclosure than the supermarket checkout line.

Because I have yet to master bus schedules, I arrived thirty minutes early at my stop that day. Not wanting to stay on my feet, I spied an almost empty bench—only one fellow there to ask “permission” to share. I did this with hand motions, eye contact, a nod, the universal “ok,” and then scrunched into the furthest corner possible from my fellow bench warmer. Terrified at the thought that my bench mate would initiate a conversation, I took the only English language book in my backpack out (Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, no less) and buried my nose into it. This was effective, and the man sharing my bench ignored me. But five minutes later we were approached by an older man who politely asked if the spot between us was “free.” I nodded, smiled, motioned, and grunted, protected once again from having to say anything. But the situation was now more hazardous. There were now three of us on the bench sitting uncomfortably close, and the potential for being unmasked as a linguistic incompetent had uncomfortably increased.

Anyway, I soon decided I wasn’t that tired anyway, and got up and wandered back to the bus stop, even though I was still 15 minutes early. There I leaned against a post, and again tried to bury my nose back in my book. Soon though, I was distracted by what happened next at the bus bench. A woman with dogs on leashes came up. One of the dogs started to sniff at the older man’s bag. There was a brief exchange, and then the woman with the dogs went on. The older man then stood up, picked up his bag, and walked over to where I was standing and then, horror of horrors, he began talking to me. I more or less understood what he said, but could only muster the barest of responses:

Man: Did you see those dogs? They sniffed through my bags!
Me: Grunt.
Man: People should control their dogs, shouldn’t they!
Me: Grunt.
Man: Don’t you think it is an invasion of privacy that dogs will sniff through my bags?
Me: Certainly.

Thankfully, the bus then arrived, resulting in a change of subject. We got on the bus, and then further horrors, he sat near me! What would I do? Too nervous for Max Weber, my hyper-vigilance sensors went up, and I studiously avoided his occasionally friendly gaze, fearing that my incompetence could be further revealed. In this context, I bolted for the door when five minutes later we arrived at the place where I needed to transfer buses. I rushed off the bus, eager to re-embrace the anonymity that would be available on the next bus. But then things became worse. The man was following me onto the bus—he was going in the same direction I was!

With relief, I saw him settled with his bag into a seat far from mine. But still my anxiety did not dissipate until I reached my final stop ten minutes later. Off I stepped, and finally regained my anonymity as just another normal person, anonymous and obscure on a busy German street.

Such hyper-vigilance is exhausting, but also routine when you are a discreditable minority of any kind. Goffman’s mental patients, ex cons, prostitutes, and others were always aware that someone from their former life will strip away the sense of normalcy they desired . But the same principles applies to foreigners in all places, linguistic minorities, ethnic minorities, racial minorities and others who fear a part of their identity will unceremoniously at any time subject them to ridicule, or a loss of honor.

Like the ex-con and mental patients, I seek the comfort of blending and belonging while here in Germany, something I take for granted at Chico State. The sad thing for me was that as a result, I passed up language learning opportunities on my bus ride. In retrospect, I know that I should have bravely plowed ahead, and attempted a conversation with both my fellow bench warmers. After all, intellectually I know that Germans are almost always unfailingly kind to foreigners attempting to learn their language. I know too that it is educationally correct to have a conversation with the two men at the bench, rather than avoiding them. It would also have been enriching to engage the man the one who “followed” me on my two bus rides in small talk about the weather, dogs, his bag, or anything else. I didn’t of course because I value the anonymity of being normal more. As a result, I hid my stigma behind props like Max Weber’s book, and avoid the random encounters of social life which in English, I often delight in.

Both sociologists and anthropologists glamorize the intellectual stimulation such cross-cultural experience I am having. I still believe it is glamorous, and I will continue to encourage students to go abroad and study languages. But there is another value to study abroad experiences, particularly for students who are from the default normative category of their own country. At Chico State, this includes me, as well as the many middle class suburban white students in my undergraduate classes. But studying abroad is also about becoming an outsider who will evaluate every potential social encounter for its capacity to strip away the comfortable anonymity we gain when we hang with people like us. My chance to be an exchange scholar in Germany is of course partly glamorous. But my story is also the one that Goffman wrote about. I am sure that in one year, I will speak better German, and the memories of my constant hyper-vigilance dissipate. But in the meantime, I look forward to the mental exhaustion of both language learning, and stigma management.

For what it is worth, I sleep more here in Germany despite the pleasant Fall weather. Hyper-vigilance is mentally exhausting!

Reference

Goffman, Erving. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

Conclusion: The American Diet by Chunyan Song (Part VI)

by Chunyan Song

It took a long journey and a health crisis to turn my diet and health around. I am married to a vegetarian. Together we try to raise two health-conscious kids. I haven’t eaten a Whopper Jr. Sandwich for years. Nowadays, I have a dozen fruit trees and a vegetable garden in the backyard, along with fourteen free-range chickens. I love my hens. They are hardworking and lay all the eggs for my family and a few friends. But I have not figured out what to do with the two roosters. They are constantly at bloody wars with each other. Amid the mass of claws, beaks, and feathers in the air, I find the rooster fighting rather disturbing to watch. I swear more than once, one day when I gather enough courage, I will cook one of them for orange chicken. However, I cannot make up my mind which one I should pick, the loser or the winner.

When I need food I do not grow, I go shopping at Trader Joe’s or at the farmers market on Saturday mornings. I make sure always read labels. I now know that America’s food is as diverse as its people. Mexican burritos are just as American as Burger King Whopper Jr. Sandwiches—and perhaps equally tied to America identity. At home, my kitchen represents the great melting pot that America has always been. We cook vegetarian burgers, Thai curries, Mexican rice and beans, Korean kimchi, along with Chinese stir fries. Our favorite “ethnic” food, according to my nine-year-old, is kale salad with edamame and a home-made olive oil and liquid amino dressing.

On Halloweens, we give out chips instead of candies. After coming home from trick-or-treating, my kids have to trade their candies for healthy alternatives. It is not easy, nor is it fun. My kids often accuse us being the meanest parents in the world. Neighborhood kids refer to our house as the chip house. It is both physically and mentally exhausting to fight the food cultural norm.

However, I know it is all worth it. The statistics paint a very gloomy picture of the dire toll on our health due to bad eating. United States is ranked the fattest nation in the world. Two thirds of the American adults and one third of the American children are obese or overweight. It is predicted that today’s American children under the age of 18 will be the first generation of Americans with a shorter life expectancy than their parents’ generation[1]. Faced by obesity and mortality due to macro social and political factors outside individuals’ immediate controls, Americans are struggling to find the next right diet to keep healthy. Being overweight and diabetic is not entirely the fault of any individual; becoming a gluten free health nut is a choice forced upon me. Until fundamental changes happen at the macro-economic, social, and political level, I will have to continue to treat eating as work which requires extensive research, deliberation, planning, extreme mental power, and self-discipline.

Fortunately due to the outcry and demand from the increasing number of informed consumers, organic food and healthy alternatives are becoming more and more accessible. To initiate more positive changes in my own family’s meal culture, I will order the Skymall peppershaker soon. This weekend, I have a friend’s family of five coming over for dinner. Like my family, theirs is a multi-diet household too. Two are vegetarians eating organic chicken, and two are pesco-vegetarians. The last one eats everything, but happens to be in the middle of a one-year sugar-free challenge. For the main courses, I plan to serve brown rice, baked honey chicken thighs, vegetarian soy protein tacos, a spring-mix salad with 3-ingriendent-only home-made dressing. For drinks, I will serve fresh filtered water with ice. Water is raw, natural, local, vegan, sugar free, and gluten free. I hope everyone will be pleased.

[1] Ogden, Carroll, Fryar, & Flegal, (2015). Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2011-2014. National Center for Health Statistics (US) Data Brief.  Nov;(219):1-8.

 

Editor’s Note

I. Introduction: We Are What We Eat

II. Edibles and Non-edibles

III. Mass Food Production and its Ills

IV.  The Sad SAD Diet

V.  Identity–You Are What You Eat

VI.  Conclusion–The American Diet

Identity–You Are What You Eat (Part V)

by Chunyan Song

What we eat and how we eat is part of the self-identity construction process that expresses and defines who we are. When we eat, we not only eat with our mouths for nutrition, but also to replenish our beliefs, mindsets, and social beings[1]. Look at the TV if you do not believe me. Advertisements on TV often portray masculine men, instead of women, eating big burgers and red meat. French cuisine is associated with “class and status”. Mexican tacos from a roadside food truck are associated with affordability and lower aesthetic tastes. Your diet defines you. You are what you eat, not only in terms of nutrition, but status as well.

Eager to assimilate to the great American Melting Pot, new immigrants deliberately changed their diets to include more American food such as hot dogs, burgers, and French fries. So when I was in graduate school, I religiously ate one Burger King Whopper Jr. Sandwich or a piece of pepperoni pizza at the campus cafeteria every day. They were inexpensive. They were American. When in America, eat as the Americans do. Once, an American lady acquaintance made a bland remark, in front of me, criticizing another immigrant I knew, “If she doesn’t like our food here, she should go back to where she belongs!” This remark gave me an immediate chill. I didn’t want to be looked at as another picky foreigner who only ate weird foreign food.

The American phenomenon of non-religious vegetarianism is complicated by the many different reasons why people voluntarily avoid meat. Overall, vegetarianism is inevitably tied up with questions of individual identity building. Animal rights vegetarians are concerned about “what is my place in relation to nature including animals on the planet?” Environmental vegetarians ask “what is my responsibility to the environment and to the future generation?”[2] Vegetarians who avoid meat for health reasons are concerned about meat contaminations due to the overall use of drugs on animals in large corporation farms. Their concerns are all legitimate. Reports on animal cruelty and antibiotic resistance in industrialized countries are well publicized by the media.

In western societies like the United States, the social desirability of a slender body also has huge implications to our eating patterns, especially among females[3]. Losing weight remains the No.1 item on the New Year’s resolution lists for so many Americans. Being overweight for the most part is a byproduct of food abundance. In countries where food is in shortage, people do not want to be thin. They want to be fat. My parents’ generation in China experienced famine and starvation in the 1950s and 1960s. The memories of having nothing to eat are still vivid and real. Even after so many years, and even when food is plentiful in China, they still greet each other with the same old-fashioned question “have you eaten yet?” For them, telling a friend “you have gained weight” is a sincere compliment rather than an insult. When I sent home photos of a ten-pound heavier myself during my first year in America, my parents were relieved and pleased. My mom told me over the phone that with my chubby cheeks and plump figure, I had never looked more beautiful. America had treated their daughter well.

The western ideology of capitalist economy and food production are spreading to the rest of the world quickly. GM rice is already sold in the Chinese market. A college friend’s father has been working on breeding a square-shaped watermelon for the sole purpose of easier transportation. MacDonald’s and Pizza Hut now make more money in Asia than in the United States. Everywhere you go, chain supermarkets are replacing local farmers’ markets. People in China and in most parts of the world elsewhere are becoming more distanced from their land and food, just like we do in America.

 

[1] Germov, J., & Williams, L. (Eds.). (2008). A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: the Social Appetite. 3rd Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

[2] Germov, J., & Williams, L. (Eds.). (2008). A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: the Social Appetite. 3rd Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

[3] Germov, J., & Williams, L. (Eds.). (2008). A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: the Social Appetite. 3rd Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

 

 

Editor’s Note

I. Introduction: We Are What We Eat

II. Edibles and Non-edibles

III. Mass Food Production and its Ills

IV.  The Sad SAD Diet

V.  Identity–You Are What You Eat

VI.  Conclusion–The American Diet

The Sad SAD Diet (Part IV)

by Chunyan Song

The fast-paced modern life we live in America does not encourage healthy eating. A lot of us get food from where our cars get fuel, meaning we buy gas, and then dash into AM/PM to load up on hot dogs and chips. We eat last night’s leftovers in front of our computers. When we are too busy to go inside a restaurant, we pick up our orders at the windows of the drive-through. The demand for efficiency and profit in the capitalist economy propels the epidemic of the Standard American Diet—the SAD diet. Much of the food in American grocery stores is not “real food” or at least food that our ancestors would have recognized as such. The aisles of canned food and processed food are loaded with chemicals, sugar and preservatives, catering to the twin demands of modern living: ready and convenient. Typical school lunch items include pizza, macaroni and cheese, burgers, and French fries. Everything is yellow or brown, made intentionally so for the convenience of finger eating. Most of the days, I pack my kids’ lunches with healthier alternatives from home. But I know that by lunch time, they are already several hours old and cold. When it is time to eat, the lunch scene is chaotic with some kids eating while running and some others eating crackers from their lunch boxes on the grass. In France, according to the author of French Kids Eat Everything[1], Karen Le Billon, five-year-old French kids all sit down to enjoy a three-course hot school lunch starting with soup, and served with real silverware and cloth napkins.

Popular kid’s menu items in American schools and restaurants exist because they can be cheaply prepared and pre-packed, and kept frozen until there is a demand. Then it is easy and fast to meet the impatient little customers demanding here-and-now. I have only seen kid’s menus in American restaurants, not in Asia, or in other countries I have visited. Kids, once past the infancy stage in most other cultures, are regarded as mini-adults. Hunger between meals is normal and is expected to be tolerated rather than whined about. Snacking between meals is forbidden in French and Japanese elementary schools. Kids are expected to wait to eat at the same time as everyone else, an acknowledgment of the social function of mealtime. They also  eat the same food as everyone else, and to eat with silverware instead of their fingers. In America, parenting experts advise parents to always give their kids options. What do you want to wear today, pink or purple? What do you want to eat, pizza or broccoli? Here in America, kids are deemed as special human beings demanding special foods and treatment. All individuals, kids and adults alike, are assumed unique in an individuality that is always honored and respected. This accommodation to individuality is a byproduct of the individualist cultural norm of American society. In group-oriented societies, you will go hungry if you do not eat the food provided for the rest of the family. It does not matter whether you are three or thirty.

When my kids were three and five, I took them to visit my sister in China. To my surprise, my nephew who is the same age as my son, had none of my kids’ food fussiness. He drank water instead of juice. He barely snacked. He ate three proper meals a day including a hot breakfast and a hot lunch at his preschool and dinner at home. Thus, he didn’t even own a lunch box which was deemed as an essential necessity for all preschoolers in America. At the age of three, he ate fried peanuts with a pair of chopsticks, which had left quite an impression on my two kids and me. Whenever we went out together, I always made sure to carry a backpack full of juice boxes and snacks along with tissue papers and hand sanitizers. All my American parent friends do the same. At the first sign of hunger or tiredness, you are supposed to comfort your kids with a snack. My sister and other Chinese moms in the playground couldn’t comprehend my over-indulgence to my kids. They looked at my large snack backpack as something bizarre and something totally unnecessary. My kids were used to snacking all the time! I confess, I snacked all the time too. After all, someone had to take care of the kids’ leftovers. Even when people do not have the burden of kids, many Americans snack like kids themselves. In America, we are too busy and too impatient to wait for the quality experience of a proper nutritious meal.

During lunch hours, you can always expect to spot a few lone diners at any American restaurants. With a fork in one hand and a smart phone in the other, the lone diners quietly and grimly gobble down the meal at a corner table. But eating alone seems to me to be an American phenomenon. It is a byproduct of modernity and material abundance, industrialization and specialization, which while maximizing efficiency, isolates human relationships. We eat alone, play alone, live alone, and some of us even go bowling alone, as Robert Putnam reminded us[2]. Eating alone has been associated with unhealthy dietary behaviors and obesity[3]; it is not good for your soul either. The Latin root for companionship, “panis”, means bread. When you share your bread and food with someone, you gain companionship. Human companionship and face-to-face interactions are the sources of the deepest happiness and meaning. In American restaurants, even families order meals individually. Sharing meals in family style has to be made in a special request. In China and many parts of the world, family style is an unquestionable part of the local food culture. With the ease of a rotating tray in the middle of the table, everyone gets a taste of everything.

At Chico State where I work, classes are scheduled from early morning to late in the evening to maximize the use of classrooms and other facilities. Some of my colleagues and I only see each other at the Department meetings, once a month. But in Chinese universities, and at the University of Hawaii according to a colleague who used to work there, the campuses are closed off during a common lunch hour when everyone goes to the dining hall to share precious social time over a meal. I went to a four-year university in Beijing before I came to the U.S for graduate school. For four years, I never had to eat alone, not even once. Over our daily lunch and dinner routines in college, my friends and I formed a lifelong bond like sisters. One of the biggest challenges in my first semester of graduate school in America was to find people to eat lunch with. My roommates and classmates were busy and had different schedules. Eating lunch together was no longer a spontaneous thing everyone did together like in my university in China. Making a week-day lunch request required advanced notice and skillful coordination between two or more calendars. I often ate alone. I hated it.

One generation ago, most Americans had sit-down-together dinners at the end of each day. Only a quarter of today’s American families eat family dinners every day[4]. With two working parents and two kids of each gender, like many middle-class American families, my own family of four is stretched between the dance lessons, karate lessons, baseball practices, and piano lessons. We often have to rely on those grab-and-go pre-packed food and sugar loaded “nutrition bars” on the run. On the rare occasions when we can share a home cooked meal together, I struggle to get everyone together. Alone and together, here we are, the four of us, all under the same roof, scattered into different parts of the house, each distracted by a separate electronic gadget, a video game, a TV drama, or glittering text messages on the IPhone. Once I saw in SkyMall magazine an ad for a peppershaker with a hidden Wi-Fi blocker. When the mom twists the peppershaker at the dinner table, everybody is forced to eat together without any distractions. I immediately knew this was the secret weapon that I had been looking for.

 

[1] Le Billon, Karen. (2012). French Kids Eat Everything: How our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters. William Morrow.

[2] Putnam RD. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[3] Tani, Y., Kondo, N., Takagi, D. (2015). Combined effects of eating alone and living alone on unhealthy dietary behaviors, obesity and underweight in older Japanese adults: Results of the JAGES. Appetite, Volume 95, 1-8.

[4] Beardsworth, Alan, and Teresa Keil, (2005). Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society. New York: Routledge.

 

Editor’s Note

I. Introduction: We Are What We Eat

II. Edibles and Non-edibles

III. Mass Food Production and its Ills

IV.  The Sad SAD Diet

V.  Identity–You Are What You Eat

VI.  Conclusion–The American Diet

 

Mass Food Production and Its Ills (Part III)

by Chunyan Song

In 1999, on my first American grocery shopping trip at Safeway in Tempe, Arizona, I marveled at the size, shape, and color of the bell peppers, carrots, eggplants, apples, grapes, and cauliflowers. They looked too big, too round, too bright, and too perfect to be real. I had to touch them and feel them to convince myself that they were not fake. Behind the too-perfect-to-be real presentation of American produce in supermarkets is the genetically modified (GM) food industry and food marketing system. Driven by profit and corporate lobbying, America has adopted a much less restrictive policy on GM food than most parts of the world since the mid-1990s. GMOs are now present in the vast majority of processed foods in the US while they are banned as food ingredients in Europe and elsewhere. Stronger, bigger, more colorful, lasts longer, GM food are usually at half or sometimes one third of the price of organic food. It has become the top choice for the financially less able and the less informed.

GM plants are artificially engineered to be herbicide tolerant by combining genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes in GM plants guarantee a much higher yield than organic plants, but are hard to digest for many people. Studies done on animals have linked GM food with serious health issues, such as allergies, immune disorders and gastrointestinal problems. Myself, I suffered for years from bloating, sinus infections, insomnia, foggy brain, and extreme fatigues without a proper diagnosis. In the end, my doctor and a special expert from UC Davis diagnosed me with depression. I was put on a round of anti-depression pills. Refusing to believe that it was purely a problem in my head and desperate to function at home and at work, I went through a round of expensive and exhausting explorations of non-traditional medicine treatments. In the end, after reading a dozen books, I started to experiment with the food in my diet. When I cut out wheat from my diet, my “depression” miraculously went away.

But this “wheat allergy” was odd. I grew up in northern China where wheat bread and pancakes are part of the daily staple foods. I was never allergic or sensitive to wheat there, neither was anyone else I knew. At the beginning of my medical journey, my doctor ordered a food allergy test which turned out negative on wheat. Wheat never came into my mind as a possible trigger for my symptoms. At the peak of my “depression” in 2009, my parents travelled from China and moved in with me for six months to help out. They did laundry and took care of the kids. And more than anything else, they worked around the clock in the kitchen in a desperate attempt to replenish my body with my childhood staple foods, steamed bread, home-made noodle and pancakes. Despite their effort and good intension, my “depression” went for a fast downward spiral. I developed a big wheat belly that made me look five-months pregnant. My vision deteriorated quickly. I could no longer see close-captions on the living room TV. My feet ached day and night. I was peeing every thirty minutes or so, and I became pre-diabetic. The depression pills did not work as my doctors had promised.

It turned out that the wheat I eat in America is different from the wheat I ate in China. I am sensitive to American GM wheat. When I traveled back to China, I noticed that I was able to eat all the wheat I wanted. Many of my European immigrant friends and well-traveled American friends have similar stories to tell. A piece of garlic bread in America will give them a headache lasting for days, while they have no problem eating a croissant in Paris or in Latin America.

I live in a northern California college town, Chico, which is surrounded by large corporate farms, orchards, and paddy rice fields. Such corporate farms in California produce 45 percent of the vegetables and fruits and 25 percent of the table food consumed in America. Farms and orchards in California, like American farms elsewhere, are situated on large parcels of land, which enables the use of large modern machinery for efficiency and higher yields. On the way from Chico to San Francisco during rice planting season, you can often spot agricultural airplanes hovering over rice fields spreading seeds along with herbicide and pesticides. After the rice is harvested, it is sprayed with preservatives to keep its freshness for a longer shelf life.

We know a rice farmer in a nearby town. He keeps a separate changing room in his house. After work before entering the house to hug his wife and kids, he will strip off the chemically contaminated work clothes and wash them in a separate washing machine. His mother who lived her entire life on the farm died of lung cancer at a premature age of 58. I often wonder whether it has anything to do with all the chemicals they use on the farm. I also wonder whether other grains and food in America are processed in a similar fashion like rice.

Modern refrigeration and transportation methods make it possible to sell produce to far-away places. But fruit and vegetables must be harvested before they reach their prime ripe states in order to endure the journey for refrigeration and transportation. Moreover, the modern food industry has greatly narrowed down our food variety. New breeds of fruit and vegetables, invented in the labs for their indestructible quality to endure the transportation process, have replaced the non GM produce and become the main food choice for restaurants and supermarkets. American customers now get to taste less than 1% of the vegetable varieties that were grown in the U.S. a century ago[1]. Once the produce arrives at the market, it will be put under chemical sprays for a perfect presentation of color and shape, all at the sacrifice of taste. Peach is one of my favorite fruits. After I moved to the U.S., I looked everywhere for the type of juicy and flavorful peaches I used to eat in China. Peaches sold in American grocery stores, hard and bland, taste like a “cardboard picture of its former self.” After my husband and I moved into my house in 2004, the first thing we did was to plant a dozen fruit trees including two varieties of peaches. I never have to buy another tasteless peach from the store again.

Meat is also processed differently in America. A lot of the meats sold at the air conditioned supermarkets are frozen. The rest of the “fresh” meat has already been cut up, packaged and wrapped in plastic containers days before. In many parts of the less developed world, when you go to the market to buy meat, you pick your meat by pointing to a live chicken in the cage, or a live fish in the tank. The clerk will slaughter and clean it right there. Probably less than one hour passes between when you pick that chicken and when you eat it as a meal. Anyone who has eaten fresh food knows the difference in taste. My friend Susan’s father was a professional fisherman from a coastal town in Eastern China. We ate at a seafood restaurant in Beijing at our last gathering. The cook tried to pass a previously frozen fish as the one Susan picked up in the restaurant’s tank. With only one bite, Susan was certain that the fish was not a fresh kill. The restaurant had to take it back and send out its manager to apologize. I am not as good as my friend Susan when fish is concerned. However, I have eaten enough rice to tell the fragrant taste of new-crop rice. In China and Japan, new-crop grains including rice usually are labeled so with a sticker on the package. They are sold at a much higher price due to their freshness.

In America, most people cannot tell the differences between fresh and frozen meat or this year’s new crop and last year’s. In the capitalist economy, the amount of work and effort to transport livestock to where people shop for food are not cost effective. A typical open market where you can buy freshly slaughtered chicken is smelly and dirty. In America, we have a much higher standard of hygiene and efficiency. Livestock are transferred from farms to slaughter house and the associated meat factories. By the time the baby cow reaches the supermarket, there is no more blood to be shed, no skin to be peeled, no more screaming that upsets anyone’s ear and soul. On the plastic package, the baby cow is now called veal. Consider, when Hmong refugee immigrants from near Chico slaughtered chicken in their apartment parking lots, their American neighbors reported their cruelty to authorities. Americans like our chicken, but they just don’t want to see where they come from.

[1] Kingsolver, Barbara., Hopp, Steven L.,Kingsolver, Camille. (2008) Animal, vegetable, miracle: a year of food life. New York; HarperPerennial,

Editor’s Note

I. Introduction: We Are What We Eat

II. Edibles and Non-edibles

III. Mass Food Production and its Ills

IV.  The Sad SAD Diet

V.  Identity–You Are What You Eat

VI.  Conclusion–The American Diet

Edibles and Non-Edibles (Part II)

by Chunyan Song

Although many Americans have to be on restricted diets due to religious or health reasons, many others voluntarily avoid certain foods because material wealth and food abundance grant them the opportunity to pick and choose. When I first came to the U.S, I was struck by how limited Americans’ food choices were. As a popular saying goes, Chinese eat everything that flies except the airplane and everything with four legs except the table. Vegetables in China and many parts of the world include all kinds of plants, garden greens, herbs, water lily bulbs, and sea weed. And then of course there are also the six-legged critters which are not even considered edible in America—insects are to be avoided!

One of my favorite dishes from my childhood is scrambled eggs with shepherd’s purse, a dark leafy green vegetable with a potent anti-inflammatory effect. In China, shepherd’s purse grows both in the wild and in vegetable gardens. Most Americans probably have never heard of such a thing and will definitely consider it as another inedible weed. In the middle of March or early April, when shepherd’s purse springs out the field everywhere, village kids will be sent out with a basket and a scoop to gather the plant just like American kids go egg-hunting on Easter. They share stories and crack jokes along the way. After they come home with their baskets full, the harvest will soon appear at the dinner table for the entire family to enjoy. For many people, the aroma of shepherd’s purse scrambled eggs marks the official start of the spring season.

The mainstream food culture of the United States rules out a large range of potentially nutritious food as inedible. Only a very limited number of animals, such as cows, pigs and sheep are considered edible. And when those cows, pigs and sheep are slaughtered, they change name and are called beef, pork and lamb, a conspiracy to disguise the fact that they were live animals before.

Another one of my childhood favorite dishes is fried silkworms. The word “worm” will definitely gross Americans out. Actually, silkworms are much cleaner than most of the other animals we eat. Their bodies never touch the ground, and they only feed on mulberry leaves. When it is fried, it is really rather a very delicious food. Coated with a generous layer of oil, salt, and pepper, the silkworms are crispy outside while tender inside. They taste like nothing else, but only one hundred times better than everything else. I used to eat them one by one, chewing slowly while savoring the crunching sound and buttery taste. Even writing about it makes my mouth start to water profusely. Chinese also like to eat frogs. Koreans eat dogs. French eat horses. Of these foods, at least two of them are well loved pets in America. However, rich in nutrients and protein, they are actually very tasty, only if you dare to try.

In America, so many of the animal body parts, such as the heads, necks, and feet, are deemed valueless and are thrown away. But what turns the stomachs of Americans is often eaten with relish elsewhere. For example, nothing is scarier and more disgusting to Americans than eating chicken feet. Nowadays, thanks to a high demand from China and global trade, the U.S. exports about 300,000 metric tons of chicken feet to China every year.  Eating chicken feet does not make the Chinese disgusting or more barbaric than Americans. It is ethnocentric to judge other people using the American standard. And in fact, much of the rest of the world has never had the luxury to be fussy about what they eat. When faced with overpopulation and limited resources, they ate what nature provided. No food was ever wasted. Being wasteful was shameful.

Oddly though while so much nutritious food is regarded as inedible in America, Americans incorporate dangerous amount of substances with no nutritional value into their diets. How Americans love their sugar! They even call their wives and kids “sweeties” and “honey.” Even after seventeen years of living here, I, who haven’t developed a sweet tooth like Americans, and still find it uncomfortable to use these two food words on anyone, even my own family. After I learned to read the labels, sugar all of a sudden turned up in everything and everywhere. It is in the bread, the soup, the drink, and the dessert. Candies, cookies, and cakes, loaded with sugar and food coloring, are served during all the holidays, at birthday parties, at meetings, gatherings, and even at the dentist office and physician’s office where I think they should have known the best. It is estimated that on average an American adult consumes 150 to 170 pounds of refined sugar a year. Since I barely eat any refined sugar nowadays, someone out there must be consuming my share of 150 pounds too. For decades, the sugar industry conducted pseudo-scientific research projects that led the Americans to blame their poor health on the fat. It was only in 2016 that this sugar conspiracy was made public knowledge.

Editor’s Note

I. Introduction: We Are What We Eat

II. Edibles and Non-edibles

III. Mass Food Production and its Ills

IV.  The Sad SAD Diet

V.  Identity–You Are What You Eat

VI.  Conclusion–The American Diet

We Are What We Eat, Part I

We Are What We Eat (An Introduction to Six Essays!)

by Chunyan Song

“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”

—Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarian, The Physiology of Taste (1825)

America has opened my eyes to a variety of diets that I had never even known before my immigration from China to the United States seventeen years ago. It seems that most Americans I have encountered are either on one type of diet or another due to weight concerns or allergy issues. It is almost impossible to invite a group of Americans to dinner without having to cook three or four different main courses. There are the gluten free people, dairy free people, nut free people, Paleo people, raw food people, the vegetarians, the meat eaters who eat everything, and the meat eaters who avoid red meat. While I find the meat eaters who eat everything the easiest people in the world, the vegetarians are the most complicated human beings to cook for. Among vegetarians, there are the Buddhism followers, animal rights advocates, environmentalists, and heath devotees. I had never heard of such a thing as nonreligious vegetarians before my arrival to America. In my home country China, only monks and nuns do not eat meat.

When my American guests claim they are vegetarians, I cannot take their word for it. Within the vegetarian category, it turns out there are several subgroups. Vegans are people who do not eat any animal products including eggs and honey. Then there is another group of vegetarians who only eat unfertilized eggs. The third group of vegetarians does eat fish only if it is salmon and wild caught. I think eating fish disqualified them as real vegetarians, which explains why this group has a name of its own, “pesco-vegetarians” or “pescetarians”.

I used to laugh at the peculiarity and pickiness of Americans’ diet obsessions. But, seventeen years of living in America have converted me into one of them. Nowadays, in my household of four in America, we have four different diets. I am one of those gluten free health nuts. My husband is a vegetarian who eats cheese and eggs. My 12-year-old daughter is a vegetarian who eats turkey and duck, but no fish. My 9-year-old son is a strict vegan but not on Wednesdays when his school hot lunch serves orange chicken. The only family member that joyful eats everything is our family dog, a 2-year-old Javanese.

During the hectic morning hours, between getting two different breakfasts ready and packing two different food items for lunch boxes, I often wonder how I got myself into this big mess. On the surface, the choice of diets seems to be completely an individual matter due to our different modes we each have for nutrients, taste preferences, and refueling. However, eating is more than just merely consuming nutrients and satisfying our taste buds. There is much more than that. Over the years, I have learned that what and how we eat are largely socially constructed events. The natural, sociocultural, and political environment all play a significant role in shaping our food choices. As the most industrialized nation in the world, America is blessed with abundant material wealth, food excess, advanced technology and machinery for its food production and distribution. However, the mass food production process, the constant drive for efficiency and profit in the capitalist economy, and the individualism cultural norm, all work against a healthy diet for individual Americans.

Editor’s Note

I. Introduction: We Are What We Eat

II. Edibles and Non-edibles

III. Mass Food Production and its Ills

IV.  The Sad SAD Diet

V.  Identity–You Are What You Eat

VI.  Conclusion–The American Diethttp://www.ethnography.com/2017/04/the-sad-sad-diet-part-iv/