A Western Vegetarian 'Foray' into Non-Western Culture

A few months ago I got an email announcing a vegetarian get together at a Cambodian restaurant. Eating food associated with Cambodian culture is a perfectly valid basis for a vegetarian gathering, and I'm totally in favor of having an event at a place like a Cambodian restaurant. But what struck me was how the event was advertised as a "foray" into the food of Cambodian culture. I wanted to bring to the organizers attention a couple concerns regarding the use of the word "foray" in title of this event.

The primary definition of "foray" is "a sudden attack or incursion into enemy territory, esp. to obtain something; a raid." Synonyms for foray include: "raid, attack, assault, incursion, swoop, strike, onslaught, sortie, sally, push, thrust." This violent meaning obviously makes "foray" a very problematic word for referring to an event concerning a culture that is not our own, especially given the history of violent US led forays into Cambodia. The term's relation to military conquest is directly interrelated to its secondary meaning.

The secondary definition for "foray," the one obviously intended in the promotion of this gathering, is "an attempt to become involved in a new activity or sphere." This is also a concern, because it assumes that Cambodian foods are "a new activity or sphere" for all potential attendees. However, those with ties to Cambodian culture would likely find very little new about this. Here the use of the term "foray" fits a pattern of ethnocentrism that includes the use of terms like "ethnic" or "exotic." This ethnocentrism frames food associated with White, Anglo culture in the US as the central standard by which all other cultures' foods are set against. This is a serious concern that many vegetarians with ties to non-Western cultures have brought up in various vegetarian communities. They point out how alienating and marginalizing this sort of language is because it doesn't take into consideration their everyday experience or even their very presence in vegetarian circles. This sense of the word fits the definition of "Orientalism," that is the way in which Western cultures arrogantly view non-Western cultures.

Perhaps more than "exotic" or "ethnic," which assumes participants are Whites/Anglos/Westerners, "foray" cuts to the heart of why this sort of language is so painful to some vegetarians with connections to other cultures. This is because "foray" makes a clear connection between everyday Orientalism and its relationship to military violence. That is, taken together, the militarist and Orientalist meanings of the term "foray" create a complete sense of colonialism – that is, of exploring and conquering other cultures.

I brought this to the attention of the organizers of the gathering not to discourage them from holding events that concern non-Western cultures and their foods, but to encourage them to take seriously how these kind of events frame the cultures concerned. If we fail to take these concerns seriously we'll effectively alienate and marginalize those vegetarians with connections to non-Western cultures. Worse, we'll also effectively perpetuate obsolete patterns of Western dominance related to ideologies of colonialism, militarism, and racism.

I understand that this is likely the first time someone has brought up these concerns to the organizer. And the use of "foray" is meant for the benefit of White/Anglo/Western vegetarians for whom Cambodian food is assumed to be an "oddity." But this is a major part of the problem; after the evening out, attendees are expected to go back to eating "normal" (Western) vegetarian food.

Organizing cross-cultural events can be a challenge. And, of course, even the best of intentions are no guarantee of the right outcome. After all, every day we are overwhelmed with speciesist messages telling us that eating the products of other animals' bodies is something to revel in. Of course, as vegans, we know that there is another side to all that celebrating and thanksgiving – that all that pleasure comes at the expenses of other animals. Likewise, we also are overwhelmed with ideologically-driven messages that promote the marginalization of non-White, non-Anglo, non-Western cultures.

So it is important to be conscious of how our "foray" can easily come at others expense. And it doesn't need to be this way. Just as it takes forethought to challenge dietary speciesism and avoid meals that exploit other animals, it also takes forethought on the part of White/Anglo/Western vegetarians to relinquish our colonial thinking and show equitably respect to other cultures.

Unfortunately, events like this are far too common. I constantly see language like this, as well as more openly hostile racist rhetoric, in announcements for events or discussions of restaurants, menus and recipes. I asked the organizers of this particular gathering if they had any questions regarding the concerns I'd brought up to please contact me. However, after saying the above in an email responding to the announcement, I never got a reply. In fact, similar events have since taken place at restaurants representing other Asian cultures that continue to use the same colonialist theme of adventure into the strange and unknown.