The other day, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that media mogul and celebrity billionaire, Oprah Winfrey, got her first introduction to Tibetan cooking on the Periscope mobile streaming app.
What we didn’t realize was that she was getting that lesson from a non-Tibetan chef with no knowledge of Tibetan culture and identity. While an up-and-coming culinary talent in her own right, this decision was particularly callous due to the brutal ongoing reality of over 100 Tibetan self-immolations in protest of repressive government policies in the region. The featured chef being a Chinese immigrant, one would hope that this frustrated response by Tibetans would be understood — especially since it was learned on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that captivated the world during the global movement for democracy in 1989. While credentials are certainly not lacking in this case, the abundance of talented Tibetans in this field and the copious amount of Tibetan restaurants in multicultural hubs like New York leaves an understandably bitter taste in one’s mouth. The New York Times has covered Tibetan cuisine to some length. Oprah does not lack resources. She has a team of people fact-checking and researching topics and stories before air time. It’s the sheer lack of effort and the carelessness towards the plight of the Tibetan people that is the most discomforting here.
This is, sadly, not the first case of cultural appropriation of Tibetan food in the U.S. A recent attempt by the outdoor clothing company Patagonia to market a whitewashed version of the staple Tibetan food and symbol of dissent, tsampa, was met with swift condemnation by Tibetan exiles just a few months ago. Reflecting an alarming trend, this latest transgression is thus that much more serious. For the first generation of a diaspora struggling with the hurdles of statelessness and assimilation, it is imperative for these allegedly socially-conscious brands to take into account the harsh political realities for new refugee communities.
Highlighting Tibetan cuisine is absolutely welcomed by the growing population here in North America, but blatantly co-opting it for profit — while avoiding the critical historical context of an already marginalized and invisibilized minority (in the case of Tibetans, both in China and the west) — is disturbingly reminiscent of the colonizing influence from which Tibetans now in exile sought to escape.