Does race or ethnicity matter?

corson may18 sushichef postOn a recent trip to San Francisco, a friend suggested dinner at a sushi restaurant that I’d never tried before. I’m always up for sushi, so I readily agreed.

At the restaurant, I was relieved to find an unpretentious neighborhood fixture—run by Japanese people. I must admit, whenever I see a Japanese restaurant with non-Japanese owners and chefs, my knee-jerk reaction is to write it off. I immediately assume that it’s a mediocre, copycat place, falling short of an authentic experience.

Is that fair? Are Japanese people born with a knack for slicing perfect slabs of maguro and hamachi?

Of course not. And I apologize to any excellent non-Japanese sushi chefs who must routinely face discrimination.

My attitude toward race or ethnicity of yoga teachers is quite the opposite. I almost expect yoga teachers outside India not to be Indian. (In over a decade of practicing yoga, I’ve studied with only one US-based Indian teacher.) Indeed, it is rather unusual to see Indian students in American or Canadian yoga classes.

This phenomenon occasionally gives me pause: Why are masses of non-Indian, predominantly white, people gravitating to yoga? Where are the Indian transplants? I got the same feeling when I briefly tried Zen meditation at a zendo. I counted one Japanese-American person in the room.

In India, practicing hatha yoga (asana and pranayama) is uncommon among the general population. (Of course, people might practice the more-subtle forms of yoga, such as bhakti yoga. Also, now that yoga is trendy in America, Bollywood celebrity yogis are introducing asana moves into pop culture.) Similarly, the average Japanese person does not sit in zazen morning and night. Most Japanese are Buddhist, but they express their spirituality through cultural traditions; wearing robes and sitting in zazen are for monks.

Essentially, Westerners have made yoga accessible to the masses, and this has affected its definition. While three of the most-established modern yoga methods were created by Indian men (BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and TKV Desikachar, all who were trained by Desikachar’s father, T Krishnamacharya), 21th-century yoga is sprouting from practitioners in the USA, Canada, England, Italy, and around the world. In 20 or 50 years, after the Indian masters are long gone, who will be the icons? Chances are, they will not be Indian.

That’s fine. I choose my yoga teachers (or any teacher) based on their expertise and character; their race or ethnicity is irrelevant.

Why not treat sushi chefs the same way? I should probably taste before I judge.

Photo: The Atlantic, “Does Race Matter for Sushi Chefs?”

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3 thoughts on “Does race or ethnicity matter?

  1. This is an interesting observation, and I have a similar bias about Japanese restaurants. But I don’t look for an Indian yoga teacher with the expectation that the practice will be better or “more authentic.”

    I think there are many complex reasons why non-Indians are drawn towards yoga. And I suspect that the reasons we don’t see more Indian people in asana classes might have to do with the reasons that we don’t see a lot of ethnic diversity of any sort in yoga classes. I’m not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way yoga became a pursuit primarily associated with affluent, white women.

    That said, I recently realized that my tastes in sushi are a reflection of my preferred asana styles. I like my sushi basic, simple and made with quality ingredients. I’d take a tuna maki over a mango-curry-salmon-kimchi-fusion roll any day…

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