The outbreak of the Corona Virus in China has spurred a worldwide media storm. Whilst it is common practice for the mainstream media to extensively cover the outbreak of a given epidemic or virus, that does not mean all of it has been beneficial or fairly informed. The past few days has saw rife amounts of speculation emerge concerning the origins of the virus which play on crude cultural and orientalist stereotypes. A number of outlets, including several British tabloid newspapers, focused on an alleged dish of “Bat Soup” being allegedly eaten in Hubei province, attempting to indirectly link the outbreak to the presence of apparent culinary habits which are considered unconventional or unusual. The video was later found to be from a tourist in the South Pacific Island nation of Palau.
This coverage is not only misleading, but also unfair. Not only has scientific proof not yet pinpointed the specific origin of the virus, but these explanations literally contribute nothing serious to the effort but the perpetuation of popular western stereotypes which implicitly assert a cultural supremacy by framing China in a backwards, mysterious and exotic way. A situation like this must be explained rationally and scientifically, rather than making false accusations which literally target, defame and generalize the people of the country itself in crude ways.
Food plays a bigger and more significant role in shaping how we think and represent the world than we realize. In practice, food items are abstract things which we attach popular meanings, symbolisms and identity too. We tend to associate some food with certain countries, cultures and traditions in ways that are stereotypical and rigid. Thus we derive from such thoughts, feelings and imagination of given places and people which often don’t fit in a box. In doing so, we also create a conscious distinction of what we classify as “normal food” and “abnormal”, thus forming a part of our own cultural identities.
However, this way of thinking opens up to stereotypes and prejudices. In western countries there is a tendency to assert one’s own cultural supremacy and in turn dramatically project a conscious sense of difference and distinction to the non-west. This phenomenon, known as “Orientalism”- rife in literature and entertainment, conceives the Eastern world as exotic, mysterious, backwards and uncivilized, thus exaggerating the scope of human and societal differences. This enters into the realm of food, where popular imagination assumes non-western countries frequently eat dishes which are “abnormal” and abhorrent.
This unfortunately plays a big role in western popular imagination of China. Stereotypes abound that Chinese people eat unusual dishes and animals which are “off limits” to the “civilized westerners”. This marks a continuation of western thought which treats the country as a problem to be solved by western knowledge, instead of acknowledging it on its own terms. In doing so, these stereotypes have become a misleading foundation for all kinds of allegations concerning the corona virus which are orientalist, culturalist and downright racist even. Western popular media has sought to leap on this phenomenon to obtain clicks and views in the midst of speculation and panic over the virus.
However, none of it is true because the logic is flawed, imaginative and unscientific. One does not have to go into detail to recognize things such as “bat soup” are patent nonsense and eaten in China. At this point, the exact cause of the virus has not been established. However when it is established, it won’t be through some ill-conceived cultural stereotype. This kind of talk is counterproductive, and as the world moves to cooperate with China to help contain the virus, it is crucial that cool heads and rational minds prevail. Unabated hysteria and silly clichés have no answer or explanation. It is important to understand people as simply people, and not to de-humanize them with this.