White Gaze

Food for Thought

I’m fond of Hwa Yuan because it’s like a parody of fine dining. When it opened, the waitstaff was clueless about serving the fine dining audience, mostly of rich white people. Different servers constantly interrupted our conversation to ask if everything was OK. It was as if they were just told that’s what white people want to hear. It was adorable.

Yesterday, I figured they must have gotten their act together by now, but, no; it appears their comedic interpretation of fine dining has become a tradition. The server poured a small amount of wine for my friend and said, “Tasting,” apparently concerned that my friend might be annoyed by the small amount. As soon as he took a sip, she exclaimed, “It’s good!” before he could share his opinion. For dessert, they served my friend a tiny container of Haagen-Dazs on a specially designed plate. I guess they feel it’s a brand worth showing off, like Dom Pérignon.

The fine dining culture is all the same regardless of cuisine. Everything is designed to make a small segment of rich white people as comfortable as possible, like menu structure, interior design, lighting, music, wine list (even if wine isn’t part of the cuisine), and plating a tiny portion on a massive plate with a garnish carefully placed with tweezers. The entire format is a cliche. It is hard for me to take it seriously when the restaurants have no self-awareness or sense of humor about it.

“White gaze” is so ingrained into Asian cultures that it has created a double-bind situation where even rejecting it would be just as oppressive as blind worshipping since your mind must still be attached to the lack of it. Asian parents mindlessly force their kids to study Western music and ballet because they represent “sophistication.” Asian countries proving themselves to the world means showing off how Western they are.

But the deeper the meaning, the more universal it is, which is why great writers tend to focus on the poor. When you are determined to prove yourself to the world, the white gaze is inescapable, but you won’t find anything meaningful in that pursuit because living up to the standards of others makes you blind to your own.