‘On Consuming Ethnicity: Cultural Performance in Far2Fresh Foodmart’ by Kylie Tan

1 July, 2017 1 comment

The regulation of ethnic consumption determines the survival of a Chinese supermarket located on the border of a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood in Mississauga. Westerners consume not only a supermarket’s food, but also its public image. Their consumption influences a supermarket’s shifts in presentation.

The hot food section of Far2Fresh Foodmart – the name ‘Far2Fresh,’ for all intents and purposes (like threatening lawsuits) is a pseudonym – presents itself as ethnic by being something that it is not. In this context, reverse psychology is used as a tool for understanding Far2Fresh’s current presentation. At the opening of the supermarket in September 2015, the owner’s intended audience for the site was Westerners. I know this because the indicators include: 1) It was clean 2) It had improved customer service 3) It had similar fixtures with Western supermarkets (large billboard signs indicating the meat or dairy section, spacious aisles) 4) There were non-Asian workers 5) It used to sell Western-style cuisine (sandwiches, roasted whole chickens) 6) I work there. However, the owner’s vision did not last long. Now, Far2Fresh presents itself as the opposite.

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The following digression is irrelevant to the subject of the discussion.

This is more of a starter kit – a setup to another larger discussion. Is it just me, or has the freshness in a Chinese supermarket always been scrutinised? (Most likely due to cheap pricing) I’ve never felt so bad for fruit, and their image’s dependency on the adjective ‘fresh.’ I’m casually bringing this up because it’s a question I hear frequently from customers during my shifts: Is it fresh? I usually respond with a yes because 1) It’s my job to say yes 2) I assume that locally attainable fruits like apples, grapes, etc. come from the same wholesaler.

By and large, the main difference between fruits in Loblaws and fruits in a Chinese supermarket is, according to a Redditor, its packaging:

“So i work at a fruit packing company and can further explain what some of the others have said. There are different tiers of quality for produce when it gets packed, they are called classes. The three classes are: Class 1 which is export market (Japan, korea, China etc.) Class two is domestic market (Safeway, Costco, Target) and class three; peddler. For class 1’s the fruit must be perfect in the box, zero defects… The fruit for class three has the most visual defects, not really affecting the quality of the fruit but not the most visually pleasing. Most ethnic markets/flea markets/roadside fruit stands buy class three…”

It’s interesting to see a supermarket’s marketing strategy/price psychology raise so many questions. In other words, there is a quick and powerful circuit from price numbers to discourse.

The hot food section of Far2Fresh Foodmart…presents itself as ethnic by being something that it is not.

Through careful observations during my work shifts, I notice Far2Fresh’s Western customers did not purchase Western products. The customers expected that this approach will encourage the owner to do what is actually desired by Westerners: to have a Chinese supermarket in their neighbourhood. Essentially, they did not want another Metro or Sobeys (before Far2Fresh leased the building, it was an unsuccessful Sobeys). However, at this point, Far2Fresh becomes a product of a fuzzy concept.

Far2Fresh is experiencing a double consciousness – carrying a fragmentation of identity and belonging. If you describe Far2Fresh’s purpose as: to serve Western and Eastern customers, the conjunction “and” suggests an unstable chain of meanings. Particularly, I believe the site itself does not realise that it perpetuates a view of ethnicity as an otherness that exists to serve and please; I believe it realises that it just exists and earns money. Therefore, as long as Far2Fresh is earning money, I do not think it minds that its site is creating a colonial vision of the ethnicity as exotic and alluring.

In May 2017, its exoticism lives through the Chinese characters on price signs, a pig intestine dish, customers interacting with the servers in Mandarin, and the disappearance of Chinese workers every 6 months so they can go back to homeland China. And then, when you have someone like me – who cannot communicate in Mandarin and has worked in the supermarket for more than a year – it disrupts Far2Fresh’s ‘authentic’ Chinese atmosphere. In I Hardly Ever Go into King’s Family Restaurant, Fred Wah best describes my feeling of disconnection: “I can’t escape, and don’t want to, for a moment” (200). This passage is the epitome of how, a Chinese myself, feels disconnected in the supermarket’s environment, like how an immigrant feels disconnected in a foreign country. This sense of disconnect-ception, feeling like you belong while simultaneously feeling like you do not belong is ironic. Conclusively, there is no transparent way “to participate in anticolonialist exchanges of food,” and experience ethnicity at the site in an anti-colonial fashion because power dynamics [of capitalism] continually exist in the soul of organisations (Heldke 339). Similarly, many years ago, an external force (the angular momentum) allowed the Earth to evolve. However, the Earth continues to spin till this day because of inertia. Like the Earth, an external force (Westerners/colonialism) allowed Far2Fresh to evolve. However, Fear2Fresh continues to run its business because of its static position, and its lack of interest to participate in anticolonialist exchanges of food. Therefore, the promotion of ethnic differences occurs – as exploitation, for lack of a better word – during colonial times; Far2Fresh runs on the fuel of hierarchy and colonial affairs.

Works Cited

Heldke, Lisa. “Let’s Cook Thai: Recipes for Colonialism.” Food and Culture. A Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routledge, pp. 339.

Reddit user: https://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/2ebw2p/eli5_why_is_produce_at_ethnic_stores_so_cheap/

Wah, Fred. “From I Hardly Ever Go into King’s Family Restaurant.” Strike the Wok: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Canadian Fiction, edited by Jim Wong-Chu, et al., 2010, pp. 200.


Kylie Coleen Tan is a BA English student and writer from Toronto, Canada. She is currently a Chinese hot foods server (who experiences language barrier all too often.) In this environment she: learns her family’s Chinese-Filipino WWII history, reads Dostoevsky’s skepticism, and re-evaluates her love for Kevin Spacey. Her writing’s found in: The Continuist, Ryerson Folio.

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Vicki Lee 1 July, 2017 at 3:15 pm

Wonderful essay, Kylie! You made a lot of astute points on the intersection of food+enthnicity+capitalism, something that has become normalized to the point of invisibility. Your postcolonial acuity gives shape and form back to these hidden forces. And thank you, as always, your sharp and beautiful prose. Please bless us with more pieces like this!

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