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Whose Adobo is Authentic, Anyway?

Will gatekeeping culture and calling out cultural appropriation bring justice? Or is it going to kill the very thing it wants to protect?

On my second day in gloomy London, I found myself making my version of adobo. I threw the thinly-chopped garlic in the pan of cubed tofu, adding the bay leaves after and letting the ingredients simmer in cider vinegar (it was either that or the balsamic in the pantry—I would’ve preferred cane vinegar, but that meant a trip to the Asian store in Stratford, a few kilometers away.)

If there was any doubt that there was a Filipino inside this house, that doubt would’ve been certainly overpowered by the strong smell that had enveloped the whole kitchen and now started to waft outside.

But is my vegan adobo truly adobo? Maybe not for the Philippine government, who has proposed to standardize the dish for international taste. It was a move that was unsurprisingly met with much chagrin. Why are we after all mandating that only one adobo recipe is valid?

People called out the elitism of this proposal, and have mentioned that it can’t be compared to Thailand’s pad thai, which was a dish invented to specifically assert and solidify national identity.

Policing and protecting culture isn’t exactly a new thing. France, for example, is notorious for being extremely protective of its culture: the Académie Française, established in the 17th century, has existed for hundreds of years to guard and protect the French language. Unsurprisingly, the country was also responsible for pushing the political concept of cultural exception (l’exception culturelle), which argues that cultural goods and services should be treated differently from other traded goods and services because of the intrinsic differences of such goods and services.

This has allowed them to push back against external cultural influences, especially in mainstream media: French law compels that around 40% of the music being played in the country must be French.

But for whom do we fence culture for? One could argue that this gatekeeping is in the service of a specific goal: the commodification of culture.

When culture is treated as capital, those who are able to dispense it and make it scarce for consumption profit from it tremendously. (Just look at South Korea, and their massive gains from the K-Pop phenomenon: the globally-popular boy group BTS has reportedly made US$4.65 billion in 2018—while only 0.3% of the country’s GDP, it is definitely not a negligible amount.)

As political scientist Thomas Held said: “The culture industry produces for mass consumption and significantly contributes to the determination of that consumption…Its goal is the production of goods that are profitable and consumable. It operates to ensure its own reproduction.”

Consequently, pushing culture for mass consumption foments a fantasy. Held also observes: “As a result of the exchange of cultural artefacts, fetishism is reinforced as ideology.”

The hot-button topic that is the war against cultural appropriation is both a battle against who ultimately profits from whose culture, as well as the use of someone else’s culture for aesthetic reasons. Recently, the Black community had protested against Tiktok, saying that the absence of proper recognition and compensation for helping the social media platform gain popularity was tantamount to exploitation, especially as White people gain the most materially on the app.

But until when can gatekeeping culture continue without damning it to an inevitable demise?

British-Nigerian writer Ralph Leonard muses:

“The culture warriors aren’t even trying to expand cultural freedom and possibility for non-white artists. No, they want everyone to be provincialised, white people included. This to me can only produce inane solipsism and break down the possibility of having a shared universal conversation that transcends colour lines and cultures.

“Crusades against cultural appropriation are not progressive, they are reactionary. Not only does it constrain exchange, inhibit the imagination, and threaten to deaden cultural expression and innovation, they undermine precisely what is valuable about a diverse and open cosmopolitan society. For the sake of art, culture and the human experience itself, let’s take a stand for true cultural freedom and unfettered imagination.”

I imagine that the rising movement of Dataism would be against cultural gatekeeping of any sort. By heralding the free flow of information as the ultimate good, the paranoid refusal to surrender cultural information goes against the ethos and belief that that is the only way we will evolve. For everyone to benefit from this though, everyone must collectively agree to never withhold information. Otherwise, one gains the advantage of hoarding more knowledge while giving so little.

Come lunchtime, as I served the adobo to my non-Filipino boyfriend, I wondered for a split-moment: did I just unwittingly commodify my culture? Maybe, in some sense, I did gain something out of it (albeit non-materially)…?

What I’m certain of is this though: he did love the adobo, which makes it valid enough.

To paraphrase the Velveteen Rabbit’s Skin Horse: “Real isn’t how adobo is made. It’s a thing that happens to it. When your partner loves your adobo, then: it becomes Real.”

By Evan Tan

Evan Tan is a writer & communications professional from Manila, Philippines. www.writerinmanila.com

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