This past Friday, I found myself at our semi-annual Anthropology Symposium here on campus, where fellow Anthropology students have the opportunity to present both longer research papers and brief, innovative projects or proposals. One of my classmates, Mae, shared a portion of her thesis about the role of dragon fruit in Vietnam, where they are considered to be a staple item of both the local diet and culture, despite having originated in Central America. Through this presentation, I was most struck by her discussion of how this fruit that has become local, though foreign in origin, has substantial political, economic, historical and symbolic value, all of which contribute to the identity of its Vietnamese consumers. I found Mae's presentation to exemplify the goal of this blog: to illustrate how food and the movements surrounding its production and consumption contribute to both individual and communal senses of identity.
According to Mae's presentation, not only is this precious dragon fruit representative of the contested relations between Vietnam and China, but it also represens both a point of commonality between the two neighboring nations and a symbol of authentic Vietnamese identity. This contradictory yet dually purposeful role of dragon fruit, as highlighted by Mae, is exemplified in grocery store observations, where the color of the inside of dragon fruits (Chinese red or Vietnamese white) is hotly debated and where customers reveal their trust in dragon fruit, for it is surely authentically Vietnamese and undoubtedly free of chemicals that may have been injected in foreign fruits. While Vietnam competes with China in the fruit market, the dragon fruit seems to contribute to the Vietnamese national identity by both straddling the border between these two countries and yet continuing to be labeled as securely Vietnamese.
These roles played by dragon fruit as a symbol of Vietnamese food values with political, economic, social and historical implications not only secure the fruit as a local food, as argued by Mae, but also seem to contribute to a national identity, further solidifying what is perceived to be Vietnamese, and what is not. Mae's presentation of her research reaffirmed in my mind just how crucial a role food can play in the formation and reinforcement of identity on both an individual level, for those grocery store customers reinforcing their nationalism by selecting a fruit they believe to be truly local and therefore safe, and on a national level, as the dragon fruit symbolizes the nation's past and present relations with neighboring China. After listening to Mae's presentation, it seems clearer to me than ever before that we truly are what we eat.