Monday, November 08, 2010

bow properly, dammit

"Iron Chef America" is based on "Iron Chef," a TV show that originated in Japan. In keeping with East Asian tradition, the American version of the show incorporates East Asian elements. The show's tone is admittedly campy and cartoonish; everyone knows, for example, that the so-called "Chairman" isn't really the chairman of anything: he's Mark Dacascos, an actor and martial artist (not necessarily in that order). In the fictional universe of Iron Chef America, Dacascos's Chairman is supposedly the nephew of the Chairman from the original Japanese show.

Certain East Asian elements, however, are not played for laughs, and chief among them is bowing, which is one of the most visible tropes on the show. Very few American Iron Chefs seem to get this gesture right, unless we're talking about Masaharu Morimoto (who isn't American, last I checked). For me, the absolute worst offender is Bobby Flay, who insists on bowing with his hands on his hips-- an extremely rude gesture in East Asia. Other Iron Chefs, Garces among them, will sometimes bow only from the neck, which is a gesture performed only by those of the highest rank, not by tyros. Mike Symon, God love 'im, often bows with his hands behind his back; this might indicate diffidence to an American, but to me-- and I suspect that Asians would feel similarly-- it's as grating as fingernails on chalkboard.

On tonight's episode of "The Next Iron Chef," we saw that the new crop of potential chefs also required some schooling in how to bow properly. I need to watch the episode again to isolate just who bowed incorrectly; I'm sure Ming Tsai got it right, and Chef Tio may have done it correctly, too. But the white guys needed help.

Proper bowing isn't hard: just keep your hands at your sides with your palms facing into your thighs, put a pleasant expression on your face, and bow from the waist, with your back straight but not rigid. Don't prolong the bow, and don't bow too deeply: it's just a greeting, after all, and doesn't need to be overdone. Depending on the culture, you may have to point your eyes floorward as a gesture of humility, but if you've had any martial arts training, you may prefer to keep your eyes on the person you're bowing to as a gesture of mindfulness. The latter option works best with a smile on your face; it is, in fact, my default bowing mode. But be careful about smiling too openly; Americans are accused of this problem all over the world, because many people perceive us as artificially jovial, and thus insincere. "Aux Etats-Unis, on sourit pour rien" is a comment I've heard from some French folks. Politeness, with a touch of reserve, is a good way to handle most situations in Asia. It amazes me how few people get that-- including certain expats who should know better after several years in country.

That reminds me (if you'll pardon the tangent): I'm beginning to dislike Andrew Zimmern for precisely this reason. I've seen several episodes of "Bizarre Foods," and while I think Zimmern is a good soul and a well-intended, affable guy, he often seems pretty clueless for a self-styled world traveler. Some of his exaggerated gestures, remarks, and facial expressions, doubtless made for our benefit, strike me as downright rude to the natives, who have little choice but to stand there and take it. Zimmern's show is saddled with a certain cringe factor, which makes it hard to watch, especially when he's mugging for the camera while in an extremely poor part of the world. By contrast, Anthony Bourdain at least makes a show of being actively curious about the cultures he encounters, even if he comes away making snide asides (most of the time, these are reserved for certain snooty Western European locations).

Back to Iron Chefs and bowing. I hope the next Iron Chef is someone who knows how to bow properly, and while I generally like all the current Iron Chefs, I do wish that some of them would learn the proper East Asian gesture. If Morimoto can compromise by hugging his opponent, American-style, after the winner has been declared (as he often does), surely the non-Asian chefs can meet him halfway and learn proper bowing. It isn't hard.



Missy said...

let's not forget other basic chef etiquette . recall the battle a decade ago when Flay stood on top of his cutting board and raised his arms in premature victory. That was a total disrespect . Well, this isn't even about culture, it's just common sense!

Kevin Kim said...


Definitely not forgotten, and I agree completely: that was an arrogant, offensive act, not to mention dirty.

I admire Flay's skill and poise, and happen to think he's usually a good sport, considering how often he gets his butt kicked by local favorites on his "Throwdown" show, but he does lack intercultural politesse, and also needs to stop relying so much on corn and chipotle as his go-to ingredients.


Elisson said...

The Asian-style bow combines grace, deference, and politesse. Our culture would be richer if we adopted it... or at least understood it.

Charles said...

A lot of Westerners seem to have problems bowing--like you said, it's either too little or too much. I think people just don't know what to do. Some people will treat it as casually as they may treat any other Western gesture, like a wave or a nod of the head. But then there are those who treat it too formally. We had a pastor from the States here once who would bow ninety degrees to everyone (as you know, bowing ninety degrees here kind of makes you look like a gangster). I know for a fact that this made a lot of people (myself included, actually) very uncomfortable.

I wonder how effective a crash course in bowing would be. I think the problem with bowing is not that people don't know how to do it, but that they don't feel comfortable with it. You can tell a white guy how to bow, you can show him exactly how to hold his hands, etc., and he's still going to look awkward doing it if he doesn't feel comfortable with the gesture. In the West (although I can really only speak for the American situation, and only barely at that), bowing doesn't really have a place in the grammar of social interaction.

The bottom line is that until it feels natural, it's not going to look natural. But I guess you're not asking them to become professional bowers overnight, right? Just that they'll give it the old college try. To that I will heartily agree.