Anti-Asian Racism: When My Food Becomes Your Fear Factor

[IMPORTANT UPDATE: after this was posted, Pastor Jonathan and I had an email conversation where he responded to the points raised in this article. In the spirit of redemptive and restorative justice, please read my summary of this conversation at the end of this article.]


Fear may not a factor, but racism definitely is.


Do you remember the TV Show Fear Factor? If you don’t, it was what Joe Rogan did before his racist podcast on Spotify.


On Fear Factor, Joe hosted contestants to face their fears for the chance to win $50,000. They did things like eat live worms, get swarmed by live cockroaches, etc. Basically, they had to do gross, disgusting things, and the last person standing won.


[At this point I have to give a trigger warning for any Asians reading this, particularly Chinese and Filipinos, because what I’m about to describe is outrageously racist against you.]


Joe Rogan’s Fear Factor was cancelled in 2006, but a church in Toronto created their own version of it for Good Friday in 2022.


Now I’m a Christian, and I’m Chinese. But I felt completely dishonoured and disrespected in both those identities by their Good Friday online service, which was blatantly racist. What two white pastors did in this video was choose foods that are normal, delicious foods to Chinese and Filipino people, and make it their Fear Factor challenge. By their own admission they found the food “different” and “uncomfortable” to eat. They chose to eat it because it was hard for them to do so, so they were making a big sacrifice – just like Jesus. (Their analogy, not mine.)


Pastor Jonathan and Pastor Jessica at Yan Yu, a Chinese restaurant in Toronto. (Credit: all photos in this article are screenshots from their video, linked below.)

I’ll link to the video below (it’s public on YouTube and their website), but first I’ll explain what’s wrong with it.


The first thing wrong with it is that they see nothing wrong with it.

That’s very common with how racism shows up today. I’m sure these two white pastors who claim to be “celebrating the fact that [they’re] part of a multicultural church” never thought what they did was racist. In JEDI, I’ve never heard a single white leader say “I’m racist”.


And this video was a whole production, with someone filming, and even one of their staff (I assume a Chinese person) picking out food for them to eat. None of those people stopped this from happening.


I was deeply horrified, offended and triggered watching this. I don’t expect everyone will agree with me, but I absolutely see this as racist against Asian culture, food, and Asian people. Here’s why.


They weren’t eating it in appreciation. They were eating it as a gross-out challenge.

You can tell this not just by their faces and verbal reactions, but also by their menu choices:


(Clockwise from top left: Jellyfish cucumber salad, pig intestines, duck tongues, balut (egg with duck fetus), chicken feet, and frog legs.)


I’ve eaten all of these dishes before, except balut. Duck tongues is one of my absolute favourites. My mom used to buy them for me as a treat. Chicken feet I enjoy sucking all the skin and sauce off the bones at dim sum. (Fellow Asians, you have to see the way Pastor Jonathan eats the chicken foot – puts the whole thing in his mouth at once!)


So you may still be wondering, “What’s wrong with this?” After all, they didn’t say the food was disgusting. They politely tried every dish and even said some were “good” or “not bad”. Isn’t that being open-minded and appreciating diversity?


Unequivocally, NO. Do I expect them to like all the foods I like? Certainly not. Neither do I expect them to take foods that are normal and special to me (duck tongues aren’t cheap!) and treat them like something weird to be choked down grudgingly. (I’m not making that up, Pastor Jessica said in her sermon afterwards that “eating those duck tongues, that was pretty hard for me.”)


If they truly wanted to “celebrate a multicultural church”, as they stated, then they would have tried those foods like they would try a $200 tasting menu at a Michelin Star restaurant. After all, Michelin Star chefs pride themselves on creating dishes no one’s ever had before. So eating there should be an adventure too, right? Except white people don’t eat white tasting menus like they’re going to vomit afterwards.


Pastor Jonathan gagging while eating balut

Aversion vs. appreciation

A foodie friend of mine goes to expensive white restaurants and asks the chef a million questions. What are the ingredients? How did you cook it? For how long? What are these flavours I’m tasting? How do you bring out X or Y? Where did you source the meat? How did you come up with this recipe? What’s your inspiration? What makes this special?


If you want to appreciate Asian food, maybe go with an Asian person and get their perspective (and advice on how to eat the food – you don’t eat the chicken foot bones!) Savour the dishes and try and pick out the flavours. What are you tasting? What makes it taste that way? What’s the history / story behind the dish? Is it eaten on any special occasions, is it street food, or a homey dish?


Instead of picking the weirdest not-white dish they could, holding their nose and swallowing, imagine if they were curious about it, asking questions to increase their understanding of context, significance, and taste?


This was bad enough, but what’s even worse (in my opinion) is what happened next.


Patronizing, self-congratulatory attitudes in conquering their food fears

In part two of the video, the two pastors go to a local Filipino restaurant to eat what Pastor Jonathan says he’s never wanted to try – balut.


If you don’t know, balut is a cooked duck (or chicken) fetus in the shell.


I can understand why he would find it gross. I admit, I’ve never had it myself, and I don’t know that I want to try it. But my Filipina friends say that it’s delicious, especially if you eat it in the dark (their joke, not mine!)


Leaving aside their interaction with the Filipina server at the restaurant, the most racist thing they did was at the end of the video. After Pastor Jonathan eats the balut (which he pretends to enjoy – I don’t think his “This is very tasty!” fools anybody), Pastor Jessica congratulates him with:


“You did it. I’m so proud of you.”


They continue by saying:


“What a journey.”

“We did it.”

“Sometimes you just gotta go through the hard way.”

“Even though there is a bit of pain, there is gain to be had.”

Pastors Jonathan and Jessica fist bump each other
Fist bump if you think balut is gross and you ate one anyway!


UGH.


Filipino friends, have you ever said to another Filipino after they ate balut, “I’m so proud of you”???


Eating foods from different cultures is not an obstacle to overcome. It’s an experience to be had.

The epitome of racism

The final proof (if you needed any) of their racism is in Pastor Jessica’s self-description in her sermon:


“I’m a pretty safe person when it comes to food. I like to order the same thing from a menu and I prefer to eat what I know. And so eating those duck tongues, well that was pretty hard for me.”


She’s talking about food, but what she described is the epitome of racism. Just substitute “people” for “food”, and you get:


“When it comes to people, I like to hang with the same cliques, and I prefer to be friends with people who feel familiar and I know well. And so spending time with those [Asians/Blacks/Latinos/people who aren’t white], well that was pretty hard for me.”


I know, I know, that’s not what their food adventure was about. And she probably would never say (or even think) any of that about racialized people.


But is it really such a stretch? Is it really such a big leap for a person who “only orders the same thing from the menu” to then only want to be with the same people - people like her - white people?


I’ll give both pastors credit for stepping out of their comfort zones and trying new things. But I'm disgusted by their reason for doing it. Because they weren't trying to appreciate food from other cultures; their stated purpose was just to do something really hard for them.


So in the end, Pastor Jonathan and Pastor Jessica didn't even need Joe Rogan to come up with their own racist show. They took food that I, and billions of other people, find delicious, enjoyable, and sentimental, and turned that into their personal gross-out challenge.


Jonathan and Jessica wanted to win Fear Factor. And they exploited my food and my heritage to do it.


Guess what? Maybe they won Fear Factor, but they also won the racism factor.


Congratulations. I’m not proud of you.



Link to OneChurch.to's Good Friday Service video: https://youtu.be/rW703GZSY1I?t=978

(the video was removed by the church, see Update below for explanation)



PS. In terms of what they could do differently, I basically covered that in the Aversion vs. Appreciation section. I also recommend listening to this podcast episode with Rev. Dr. Timothy Tang (the fact that he’s a reverend is purely coincidental; I hosted him because his doctorate is in intercultural development). At the end of the episode, Tim shares ideas about growing our intercultural competency through food and pop culture, in ways that aren't racist. Imagine that.


PPS. Kudos to the restaurants that served these white folks who didn't actually name or credit them. So I've done my best to find the restaurants in case you want to try these yummy dishes (and not as your personal Fear Factor). At least we can give these restos some business!


Chinese restaurant: Yan Yu


Filipino restaurant: hard to tell from the video but I think it was Golden Lechon Jace Pinoy 2.



UPDATE as of May 17, 2022:

As you can see, the video has been removed since the publication of this article. In an email exchange between myself and Pastor Jonathan, he and Pastor Jessica apologized for the video, and I accepted. I'm not quoting his exact words here because they were written in a private email to me, but I fully believe in the sincerity of their apology, and their conviction that the video was harmful. They also acknowledged their white privilege, thanked me for alerting them to their blindspot in this instance, and shared that they are offering to dialogue with their community especially BIPOC folks to learn and change going forward.


I commend Pastors Jonathan and Jessica for their courage and humility in responding to my article, and I acknowledge my own blind spots and ongoing need to decolonize myself. None of us are perfect, and we all have much to learn, unlearn, and change.


Rather than dwelling on past harms (once the harms have been acknowledged), it's more important what we do going forward to make reparations, heal the harms we've caused, and change our world for good. I'm thankful that Pastors Jonathan and Jessica are doing that with their church.