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Posts Tagged ‘Amy S. Choi

How cultures around the world make decisions?

The many different approaches to decision-making around the world, in very general description of the very “normal people”

Is the American obsession with individual freedom really such a great idea? (Freedom of suffering and Not asking for relief from the community?). Individual choice is a powerful received idea, but frankly, it’s a bit of a white lie that our culture tells itself

What other cultures know about how to make good choices.

Oct 21, 2014 /

Sit down at a restaurant in France, and there’s a menu. Salmon with rice. French beans. Wine.

If you ask for potatoes instead of rice, the restaurant will say no. Because it is their menu. Not yours.

To an American, this is nearly unfathomable. (They don’t have menu: burger, steak, French fries and simple salad…)

One American model: Give me personal autonomy or give me death.

“In terms of fetishizing the idea of choice, the U.S. is the absolute pinnacle,” says Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and social change at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice. “We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as the things that don’t.”

We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as the things that don’t.

Rice and potatoes aside, the American desire for choice has manifested in numerous ways:

politically, in a demand for a voice in governance; commercially, in the demand for a variety of consumer goods and services; and spiritually, in the demand to choose and create exactly the kind of individual life, and self, you believe in.  (Stretching this manifestation too thin)

In the U.S., the overriding perception is that anything you do out of allegiance to tradition and social expectation is inauthentic and Not you. Because the real you is the choices you make.

TED

After Protestant colonists brought the concept of personal autonomy to the U.S., the idea was further cemented into the national psychology with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Personal and religious freedom became irrevocably tied to economic freedom from the monarchy and early capitalism. “Americans were truly the only people that brought those ideas together,” says Sheena Iyengar, professor at Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing (TED Talk: The art of choosing.)

“It made the idea of personal autonomy such a dogma that it almost became a religion itself.”

The American cultural responsibility to revere choice has been Present since before America was America. In other words, IT WAS NEVER A choice.

My fellow Americans and I believe that choice allows us to individuate ourselves, to prove that we are free. Our preferences, therefore, become who we are. We feel acutely the need to construct a personal narrative out of our choices and, thus, construct our own identity.

There’s a certain degree to which this is sheer lunacy, and also fallacy.

Because our cultural responsibility to revere choice has been instilled in us since before America was America. In other words, we never chose choice.

The Amish model: Belonging, not choice, is crucial.

Even within the U.S., not all cultures regard the idea of personal autonomy as sacrosanct.

In the Anabaptist religious tradition, for example, there is one major choice to be made: whether or not to be baptized into the church.

The Amish are baptized between the ages of 18 and 24 years old, after a “rumspringa,” or period in their teenage years in which they experience modern life, including dating, driving and using technology.

The Amish wonder why we’re so anxious about our work that we’ll tear apart our families and move across the country for a job, to end up living among strangers.

Once they’ve made the choice to be part of the church — which the majority of young adults do — and are baptized, all other choices are made within the Amish canopy, says Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, and author of numerous books on the Amish.

For example, because formal education terminates at the end of eighth grade, there are limits to the choice of profession. You can’t be a lawyer or surgeon.

But within limits, you have every freedom to choose whether to become a small business owner, or carpenter, or baker, or horse trainer, or any number of other occupations. The Amish sense of identity isn’t shaped by choices they make but is conferred to them by the community. Instead of choice, they have belonging.

“I have a very intelligent Amish friend who thinks the rest of us are crazy in how we view the professional choices we make,” says Kraybill. “We’re so anxious about our occupations that we’ll tear apart our families and move across the country for a job and end up living among strangers with no family or social support if we get ill or have an emergency. And put that way – how insane does that sound?”

Why should it be any less authentic to be a product of the family that raised you and the culture you grew up in and the religious institutions you participate in?

Rather than knowing who you are by knowing your preferences, you know who you are by knowing what you belong to.

One Asian model: Focus on interdependence and harmony, not independence and self-expression.

In some Asian cultures, to fulfill your independent self is not the primary goal of an individual: The goal is to be interdependent and maintain relationships and make them harmonious.

In Japan, for example, being a “going your own way” person is to be immature and not culturally sophisticated.

Though people obviously have preferences, they often don’t choose what they like, because that’s not the ideal manner. “Your cultural task is harmony, not self-expression,” says Hazel Markus, social psychologist and professor of behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

The idea is that the person is not a whole, but a part, and only becomes whole in connection with others.

Why? Partly because being part of the social organization is a core tenet of traditional Eastern religions. “All of them foster an idea that a person is not a whole, but a part, and only becomes whole in connection with others,” says Markus. “The fundamental, ontological understanding of what a person is, is as a node in a network.”

In Confucianism, especially, the belief is that without knowing your place in the hierarchy, and behaving accordingly, chaos will ensue.

Certainly, you can choose not to adhere to the norm; Confucius says not to do certain acts if you don’t believe them, says Peter Carroll, associate professor of Chinese history at Northwestern University and author of Between Heaven and Modernity: Reconstructing Suzhou.

You have the choice to opt in or opt out; the difference is that there’s a clear expectation of what the correct choice is. By not doing the correct thing, you are demonstrating that you are less than a full person.

Meanwhile, in America, a similar rhetoric rules.

By not exercising your full range of choices, you are demonstrating yourself to be less than a full person — even though most people don’t exercise the choices they believe so strongly in, such as the right to vote.

This is the fiction of choice in the West, says Carroll. “Individual choice is a powerful received idea, but frankly, it’s a bit of a white lie that our culture tells itself,” he says.

According to the United States Census Bureau, only 57.1 percent of Americans over the age of 18 voted in the 2008 presidential election. Chart courtesy of Jmj713/Wikimedia.

“We’re not the most non-conformist, and we’re not the most individualized,” says Iyengar.

“But what Americans do have is a very strong dogma. We believe ourselves to be the most autonomous; we value autonomy more than any other culture; we value the concept of non-conformity more than any other culture; and we value the concept of individual freedom and individual choice more than any other culture, at least rhetorically.

But we’re certainly not the most radical in offering freedoms, such as with gay rights or getting women the right to vote. We are not the first ones to actually empower people with autonomy.”

As Western consumer culture proliferates around the world, will cultural views on choice change?

Our fixation on individual choice is actually dangerous to our society, because it pacifies our activism, argues Renata Salecl, philosopher and sociologist (TED Talk: Our unhealthy obsession with choice).

Making choices based on social and political good actually engineers the most change.

In the Scandinavian countries, she notes, it was a political choice to open government to women and make rules regarding energy use and environmental sustainability. If left to the individual, that likely wouldn’t have happened.

In India, studies found that even while young college students become megaconsumers, that picking clothes or music without consideration for what their parents might think is not considered particularly moral, says Markus.

In Japan, advertisements explicitly encourage individuals to “follow the trend” and “fit in.”

Similarly, in Korea, ads for food products advertise that “You might be able to make a dish almost as good as your mother-in-law’s” — because the ability to uphold tradition is most valued in driving personal choices, not innovation or individuality.

Still, as countries become more urban, more people will be exposed to diversity and, generally, open themselves up to reflection. Likewise, as more people around the world are educated — and educated in a Western style — the more they will come into contact with different ways of living and the more they will see and deliberate on choices in their own life. The digital revolution vastly accelerates the process.

You have a lot of people around the world consuming an American-style education, and what that does is teach a common language regarding how you discuss and frame your ideas,” says Iyengar.

“A result of that is that the intellectual class around the world is starting to debate more. That’s leading to more conflict for sure, but they are also using this way of arguing when it comes to choices they need to make, even when it comes to defending an absence of choice, like in a political system.”

The American obsession with choice insists that choice be installed globally, whether through geopolitics or consumer goods. It’s anathema to let people limit their own choices.

“It’s tied to being free,” says Markus. “And how do you know you’re free? Because you get to freely choose and do what you want to do and follow your heart and your dream. The way things are now are not the way they have to be tomorrow. It’s bedrock for us, for our American selves. Freedom equals choice, and in every human heart is the desire to be free, so that must mean choice for all.”

Yet complete radical freedom and individualism creates a life that can’t be lived. Tyranny is unacceptable too, of course. But somewhere between tyranny and radical freedom resides a mixture of constraints, social norms, legal constraints and individual freedom of choice that enables people to lead satisfying, meaningful and authentic lives.

Featured image by Lyza/Flickr

Food cultures? What could we learn beside ingurgitating what we can swallow?

By Amy S. Choi

For me, a first-generation Korean-American, comfort food is a plate of kimchi, white rice, and fried Spam.

Such preferences are personally meaningful — and also culturally meaningful.

Our comfort foods map who we are, where we come from, and what happened to us along the way.

Notes Jennifer 8. Lee (TED Talk: Jennifer 8. Lee looks for General Tso), “what you want to cook and eat is an accumulation, a function of your experiences — the people you’ve dated, what you’ve learned, where you’ve gone. There may be inbound elements from other cultures, but you’ll always eat things that mean something to you.”

Jennifer Berg, director of graduate food studies at New York University, notes that food is particularly important when you become part of a diaspora, separated from your mother culture.

It’s the last vestige of culture that people shed,” says Berg. “There’s some aspects of maternal culture that you’ll lose right away. First is how you dress, because if you want to blend in or be part of a larger mainstream culture the things that are the most visible are the ones that you let go.

With food, it’s something you’re engaging in hopefully three times a day, and so there are more opportunities to connect to memory and family and place. It’s the hardest to give up.”

Food as identity

The “melting pot” in American cuisine is a myth, not terribly unlike the idea of a melting pot of American culture, notes chef Dan Barber (TED Talk: How I fell in love with a fish). “Most cultures don’t think about their cuisine in such monolithic terms,” he says. “French, Mexican, Chinese, and Italian cuisines each comprise dozens of distinct regional foods. And I think “American” cuisine is moving in the same direction, becoming more localized, not globalized.”

American cuisine is shaped by the natural wealth of the country. Having never faced agricultural hardship, Americans had the luxury of not relying on rotating crops, such as the Japanese, whose food culture now showcases buckwheat alongside rice, or the Indians, or the French and Italians, who feature lentils and beans alongside wheat.

“That kind of negotiation with the land forced people to incorporate those crops in to the culture,” says Barber. And so eating soba noodles becomes part of what it means to be Japanese, and eating beans becomes part of what it means to be French.

Illustration by Andrea Turvey for TED.So if what we eat is what we are, what are Americans? Well, meat.

“If Americans have any unifying food identity, I would say we are a (mostly white) meat culture,” says Barber. “The protein-centric dinner plate, whether you’re talking about a boneless chicken breast, or a 16-ounce steak, as an everyday expectation is something that America really created, and now exports to the rest of the world.”

Every single culture and religion uses food as part of their celebrations, says Ellen Gustafson, co-founder of the FEED Project and The 30 Project, which aims to tackle both hunger and obesity issues globally.

(Watch her TED Talk: Obesity + hunger = 1 global food issue.) “The celebratory nature of food is universal. Every season, every harvest, and every holiday has its own food, and this is true in America as well. It helps define us.”

Food as survival

Sometimes food means survival.

While the Chinese cooks who exported “Chinese” food around the world ate authentic cooking at home, the dishes they served, thus creating new cuisines entirely, were based on economic necessity.

Chinese food in America, for example, is Darwinian, says Lee. It was a way for Chinese cooks to survive in America and earn a living. It started with the invention of chop suey in the late 1800s, followed by fortune cookies around the time of World War II, and the pervasive General Tso’s Chicken, in the 1970s.

Waves of more authentic Chinese food followed, as Hunan and Sichuan cooking came to the U.S. by way of Taiwan.

In Chinese cities, meanwhile, only grandparents are cooking and eating the way that people from outside of China might imagine “Chinese” food.

The older generation still would shop every day in the wet market, bargain for tomatoes, then go home that night and cook traditional dishes, says Crystyl Mo, a food writer based in Shanghai. But most people born after the Cultural Revolution don’t know how to cook.

“That generation was focused purely on studying, and their parents never taught them how to cook,” says Mo. “So they’re very educated, but they’re eating takeout or going back to their parents’ homes for meals.”

Food as status

Those slightly younger people have been the beneficiaries of the restaurant culture exploding in Shanghai.

The city is home to 23 million people, and has more than 100,000 restaurants, up from less than ten thousand a decade ago. Now, you can find food from all of the provinces of China in Shanghai, as well as every kind of global food style imaginable.

The introduction of global foods and brands has compounded food as a status symbol for middle-class Chinese. “Food as status has always been a huge thing in China,” says Mo.

Being able to afford to eat seafood or abalone or shark’s-fin or bird’s-nest soup, or being able to show respect to a VIP by serving them the finest yellow rice wine, is part of our history. Now it’s been modernized by having different Western foods represent status. It could be a Starbucks coffee, or Godiva chocolates, or a Voss water bottle. It’s a way of showing your sophistication and worldliness.”

Eating is done family style, with shared dishes, and eating is the major social activity for friends and families.

Eating, exchanging food, taking photos of food, uploading photos of food, looking at other people’s photos of food — this is all a way that food brings people together in an urban center.

Even waiting in line is part of the event. People may scoff at the idea of waiting two hours in line to eat in a trendy restaurant, says Mo, but waiting in line for a restaurant with your friends is an extension of your experience eating with them.

How and why you eat your food, is, of course, also very cultural.

In China, people eat food not necessarily for taste, but for texture.

Jellyfish or sliced pig ear don’t have any taste, but do have desirable texture. Foods must either be scalding hot or very cold; if it’s warm, there’s something wrong with the dish.

At a banquet, the most expensive things are served first, such as scallops or steamed fish, then meats, then nice vegetables, and finally soup, and if you’re still hungry, then rice or noodles or buns. “If you started a meal and they brought out rice after the fish, you’d be very confused,” says Mo. “Like, is the meal over now?”

Food as pleasure

“Food in France is still primarily about pleasure,” says Mark Singer, technical director of cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

“Cooking and eating are both past time and pleasure.” The French might start their day with bread, butter, jam, and perhaps something hot to drink — “There’s no way that it would expand to eggs and bacon,” says Singer — but it’s a time of the day when the whole family can be united.

Singer, who was born in Philadelphia, has lived in France for more than 40 years. (He doesn’t eat breakfast.)

“Things have changed dramatically in the past 20 years when it comes to food in the country,” he says. “What was a big affair with eating has slowly softened up. There are still events in the year, like birthdays and New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve that still say really anchored into traditional food and cooking. But it’s not every day.”

Some of the ideas of French food life may be a performance, adds Berg.

“I led a course in Paris this summer on myth-making and myth-busting and the performance of Frenchness. The students want to believe that France is this pastoral nation where people are spending five hours a day going to 12 different markets to get their food. The reality is most croissants are factory made, and most people are buying convenience food, except for the very elite. But part of our identity relies on believing that mythology.”

How a country savors a food is also telling.

In Italy, as in France, takeout is still relatively rare. “Eating fast is not at all part of our culture,” says Marco Bolasco, editorial director of Slow Food and an Italian food expert. Our meals are relaxed, even during lunch break.”

Food in Italy is love, then nutrition, then history, then pleasure, he says. An Italian child’s first experience with food is not buns or rice or eggs, but probably ice cream, notes Bolasco.

Status and wealth play less of a role in food than say, in China.

Food as community

In Arab cultures, community is key to the food culture.

The daily iftar that breaks the fast during Ramadan, for example, features platters of traditional fare such as tharid and h’riss that are shared by all who are sitting down to break the fast, eating with their hand from the same dishes. Families and institutions will host private iftars, of course, but mosques, schools, markets and other community organizations will also offer large iftar meals, and all are open to the public and shared.  (Sweet dishes and ice cream are what people eat most of the night during Ramadan: I gained 10 kilos once when I decided to share Ramadan fasting period with a friend of mine)

This family style of eating is not dissimilar to the dishes on a Chinese dinner table, where one does not eat a single portioned and plated dish, but is expected to eat from shared, communal platters.

Food as humanity

Perhaps cuisine, though, isn’t so much about progress as it is about restraint.

“One of the great things about cuisine is that it’s the best way to hold back our worst kind of hedonism,” says Barber. “There is no landscape in the world that sustainably allows us to eat how we think we want to.”

In another sense, says Barber, food is the physical manifestation of our relationship with the natural world. It is where culture and ecology intersect.

It can become even more important than language, and even geography, when it comes to culture.

“Your first relationship as a human being is about food,” says Richard Wilk, anthropology professor at the University of Indiana and head of its food studies program. “The first social experience we have is being put to the breast or bottle. The social act of eating, is part of how we become human, as much as speaking and taking care of ourselves. Learning to eat is learning to become human.”

Illustrations by Andrea Turvey for TED. 

Patsy Z  shared this link
“Our comfort foods map who we are, where we come from, and what happened to us along the way.”

What are your favorite comfort foods?

Food feeds the soul and helps unify cultures.
Here, a fascinating exploration of food cultures around the world.
t.ted.com

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