Lena Dunham Says the Oberlin College Food Court Serving Sushi and Banh Mi Is Cultural Appropriation

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Lena Dunham is speaking out about the controversy at her alma mater Oberlin College, where international students are citing the campus dining services’s cuisine as culturally appropriative.

“There are now big conversations at Oberlin, where I went to college, about cultural appropriation and whether the dining hall sushi and Banh Mi disrespect certain cuisines,” the actress told Food & Wine. “The press reported it as, ‘How crazy are Oberlin kids?’ But to me, it was actually, ‘Right on.'”

The complaints arose last November, when the Ohio college’s newspaper The Oberlin Review published a report citing multiple international students who felt the food service management company contracted by the liberal college had “[blurred] the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines.”

The paper cited students complaining about the manipulation of traditional recipes like the Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich — which is traditionally made up of grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs on a crispy baguette, but at Oberlin’s Stevenson Dining Hall was served as pulled pork and coleslaw on ciabatta bread.

“It was ridiculous,” Vietnamese freshman Diep Nguyen said. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”

“When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture,” Japanese junior Tomoyo Joshi said, criticizing the college’s practice of serving sushi with undercooked rice and not-so-fresh fish. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

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In response to the allegations, Oberlin’s director of Business Operations and Dining Services Michile Gross told the paper that she would meet with students to hear their concerns and work with Bon Appétit — the food service management company contracted by Oberlin College — to implement changes.

“It’s important to us that students feel comfortable when they are here,” she said then.

An update on the issue, published in February, noted that the sushi bar was replaced with a deli bar and the CDS was labeling food in “more sensible ways, like saying the dish is Chinese-style, instead of claiming it as Chinese.”

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