Thursday, October 30, 2003
Inauthentic Authenticity

I had an interesting set of conversations and experiences yesterday, and I think they all will fit into my ongoing 'series' of thought-pieces on Truth.

After our workout yesterday, my housemate (Art) and I went to a sushi place he really liked for dinner. Not being much of a sushi person myself, I stuck with the Chicken Teriaki, but Art said the sushi was great. During the course of our journey over to the restaurant, we had discussed varying aspects of the University of Toronto, Southern Ontario, and Canada in general, so we were in a 'thought-full' mood as we sat down to eat. After discussing the lack of balance in Canadian politics (ie. the lack of a coherent conservative political option), I commented on the fact that the restaurant was a living, breathing example of the vastness of diverse culture in Toronto, and that people always point to this as a counter-example to my complaints about political balance. I then stated that this doesn't hold up, because I'm not arguing that we are not culturally diverse enough - I'm arguing that we are not ideologically diverse enough.

But this conversation and its observations led me to note another interesting fact. There we were, in a Japanese Sushi place, surrounded by a multitude of languages, being served by Asian waitresses and chefs who were not, in fact, Japanese. The predominant language of the staff was Cantonese (according to Art, who's family is from Hong Kong), though there were also some Koreans working as well. As we left the restaurant, Art said that we passed a Japanese staff member who was entering.

One thing I've noted in the past is that North Americans proclaim our hatred for hypocrisy, for untruth - we say we want people and things that are authentic. So why is it that we relax our demands for authenticity, so long as something appears that way? Isn't that the very definition of inauthenticity?

How likely would customers be to patronize a Sushi place that had no Asian staff? Not very. Or at least, they would prefer to visit a restaurant that employed people from whence the food style originated over a restaurant that didn't. Why? Because it feels more authentic. But what if those Asian waiters and waitresses were actually not Japanese? What if they were Vietnamese? Or Laotian? Or from Singapore? I don't think it would matter, so long as they look 'Asian.'

Now don't get me wrong - I'm not coming down on places for hiring non-Japanese workers, not at all. These businesses can hire whomever they want, and I'll still exchange my money for whatever service they provide. What I'm noticing and commenting on is not business practice, but the attitude of the consumer that drives it.

So what have we seen? A desire for an authenticity that only seems authentic. A hypocrisy, really. We don't insist that things be 'real', we only require that they satisfy our own preconceived notions. Asian restaurants should have Asian staff - nevermind the fact that there are a multitude of different Asian countries and cultures, and just as great a number of differences among them. Korean food is different from Thai food is different from Japanese food is different from Chinese food is different get the idea. But it's okay, because they all look the same? For a continent that claims to be pluralistic and open-minded, this sure seems fly in the face of all for which we say we stand. "People are different...unless they look alike."

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A webjournal of ideas, comments, and various other miscellany from a Texan university student (with occasional input from his family) living in Toronto, Ontario. Can you say "culture shock?"

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