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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

What Atheism Has In Common With Chinese Cuisine

There’s a little Chinese buffet just down the street from me. Every night during the early bird rush, it’s packed to the walls with all the local retirees. A sea of white folks with combovers and orthopedic shoes surges around the hot plates. There is, of course, sweet and sour pork, spring rolls and chicken chow mein. A murky wonton soup sends billows of steam up into bifocals every few minutes. There’s lemon and sesame chicken, dry ribs and fried rice and between each food item is a little wicker basket full of Kikkoman soy sauce packets and chopsticks, although most of the senior patrons eat with forks.

It’s a buffet of the deep-fried; a line-up to eat your way to a heart attack. The food piled high on your plate was, just a few hours earlier, frozen in a Kirkland box, with instructions on how to reheat it in English and French. No Cantonese. No Mandarin. There are no dumplings or duck or duck eggs anywhere in this wallpapered dive. You can’t find any barbecued pork or congee or hot pot.  It’s anything but authentic Chinese food, but to the sweet old white couple that keeps coming back for the early-bird special, this is what Chinese food looks like.

You can find a hundred sources on the internet that swear sweet and sour pork is an authentic Chinese dish, or that the streets of Beijing are oozing with lemon chicken stalls. You can find links to recipes by respected chefs that refer to their broccoli beef recipe as authentic Chinese. If you really wanted to, you could cite enough sources to prove that this little hole in the wall restaurant serving frozen Chinese food from Costco, is as authentic as Chinese food comes.

You would, of course, be wrong.

I had the pleasure of growing up in a city that filled rapidly with immigrants from China. I am now a minority in my home town, where the majority of residents are Asian. As the years went by growing up in Richmond, B.C. the food just got better and better. By the time I was in college, I had a very good understanding of what Chinese food really was, and realized my upbringing was all lies. The “Chinese” food I’d eaten as a kid was just white people food with foreign-sounding names. Amidst the unfounded and absolutely racist anti-MSG hysteria, I got an education in authentic Chinese cuisine and let me tell you, the fossils at the buffet down the street wouldn’t recognize it with a magnifying glass and a translator.

I’m still very far from an expert in Chinese food, being as the nation is as vast and varied as anything. I’ve never been to China, save for Hong Kong and even then, I wasn’t brave enough to try a lot of the local fare. While I have read, and followed recipes and tried, in my adulthood, to explore new foods as much as possible, I don’t think I’ll ever truly grasp authentic Chinese food unless I live there for a long time, and travel to each corner of the country as often as I can. That’s not likely to happen, though, so this is me admitting that even though I know more than the early birds, I’ll never really know Chinese cuisine. All I know is that I am ignorant and while I don’t know authentic Chinese food, I know it’s not that bullshit Kirkland brand sweet and sour pork they serve at the buffet.

Like Chinese food, atheism is wildly misunderstood. There are old, white Jeeby lovers the world over who swear up and down that atheism is the claim there is no god, or that it’s self-worship, god hatred, or rebellion. These people have been taught the wrong definition of atheism by leaders in their community their entire lives. Priests and parents and politicians all telling their vulnerable followers what an atheist is with an air of undeserved authority. The problem here is that like Old Man Chamberlain and his knowledge of Chinese food being born of a Kirkland box and the Albertan family with Ukrainian roots who opened it,  many of these religious people’s understanding of atheism comes from one biased and self-confirming source.

Of course, there are theists who venture outside of their little community bubble and try to learn more about what an atheist is, but the problem here is that there is just as much, if not more, misinformation out there than there is true information. A lemon Chicken recipe from Guy Fieri would prove that – some say he is a man with authority when it comes to food, and there he is saying his lemon chicken recipe is authentic. You’re inclined to believe the dude and might even cite his claims in an argument about authentic Chinese food, “But Guy Fieri says lemon chicken is authentic, so it must be!”

Likewise, the case can be made, using sources easily found on the internet, that atheism is the claim there is no god, or that atheism is a set of beliefs or religion. You can find educated men of authority on the topic of religion asserting that atheism is a rebellion and a denial of god. You can link me to a million different definitions of atheism from sources many would trust, all of which disagree with what atheism really is, just like you can link me to a million different sources that ensure us that the menu at my local buffet is authentic Chinese.

Despite a nation full of Chinese people that wouldn’t recognize most of the dishes heaped upon granny’s plate, this crowd of retired white people swears it has a good idea what Chinese food is. Likewise, despite a million atheists disagreeing with the many straw men definitions of atheism found around the internet, there is that faction of theists who think they know better. They constantly confront non-believers with their own false definitions of atheism and refuse to hear any different.

Being able to admit ignorance is a virtue, though. It’s okay to get things wrong or to lack information or certainty. Saying that out loud and recognizing it is not an admission of weakness, it’s a sign that you’re open-minded and willing to learn. Even though I have more experience with Chinese food than the local buffet crowd, I would never claim to know more about a nation’s cuisine than its inhabitants and even though you may have done some reading and research on atheism, you still don’t know more about what it really is than atheists do.

So, I guess the point here is that we have a choice. We can either be like Grandpappy Mackenzie shovelling Kirkland spring rolls in his toothless face and swearing he knows Chinese food when he sees it… or we can admit our own ignorance, and keep our minds open to the possibility that everything you’ve ever been taught about another group of people could maybe, just maybe, be wrong.

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