Authentic Sustainability

There is a lot to unpack from one of the quickest 3 hour workshops I’ve been to in recent memory.

And though I can’t break down all of my takeaways from this afternoon at Yale FES, I wanted to start with where we started and where I ended.

As usual, it was a question:

What does it mean to be authentic?

I worked at a hotel in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province for 2+ years. At The Linden Centre, there was always talk of “the Real China” and/or experiences that were authentic.

This was always hard for me. Because of this same question:

What does it mean to be authentic?

Well, today I may have advanced my thoughts on this just a little bit.

By considering another question:

What does it mean to be inauthentic?

Many of us have ideas of what it means to be authentic. Based on my experience in Yunnan it’s a taste or a feeling of something that seems to be quite real.

Perhaps it’s something we haven’t experienced before.

Because, when you have had something “authentic” before, it sure feels hard to have something equally authentic again.

And so I have been exposed to more people thinking of authenticity as something exotic or fantastic rather than something as real as what’s in front of them on a regular basis. How could everyday life be authentic?

In my former case – how is everyday life in Beijing or Shanghai any less authentic than everyday life in Yunnan?

But when you re-frame the question to explore what is inauthentic, it’s very hard to argue one place being more or less authentic than the other. Provided everyone is being themselves.

I don’t exactly see Beijing pretending to be Shanghai any more than it would pretend to be Yunnan.

So when we re-frame that question to explore what’s inauthentic, it brings something quite different to me to the question of what is authentic.

Perhaps these opposites provide balance to the conversation. If we are to define what something is, then we need to define what it’s not. And by defining both, it enables us to come to greater clarity on what something is.

Given that our conversation was about authentic sustainability and now that we’ve established that definitions are good, one definition of sustainability used today was that attributed to John Ehrenfeld:

“Sustainability is the possibility of human and other life flourishing on earth forever.”

Sounds a bit hippy-esque, but essential it boils down to how people and other life forms can be awesome and at their best all the time and for all of time.

Stated in another way, sustainability is a pathway to planetary, organizational, and human flourishing.

As the conversation warmed up about how we understand and perceive authentic sustainability, we discussed as a group about conversations between people we labeled either as “effective” or “stuck” conversations.

 

And as we listed takeaway soundbites from the conversations around effective and stuck conversations we had with our neighbors, as a group we started to see the patterns where effective conversations were often when both sides focused on the mutual benefits.

Whereas in stuck conversations, there were always feelings and background conversations in our own heads that we were not dealing with openly that seemed to halt progress – often on both sides.

What really started to come out for me from there on out is that it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about sustainability or something else. The type of thinking we’re talking about with authenticity comes down to whether or not we’re ready to get real with ourselves because this has a major influence on how we relate to and interact with others.

My thinking started to drift into thinking about my authentic self. My relationships with others. How things were working and how things were not? What mattered to me and what mattered to another in this moment or that? I tried to bring a balance to both sides, both arguments, both thoughts, feelings, and words, in order to bring greater clarity to a particular situation from days gone by that was never resolved.

And I considered how I could have chosen to act – or react – differently.

One thing I realized over the course of today is that I can be quite emotional about the people and things I care most about.

And when it comes to those people and about those things, I am probably the least vocal about expressing my emotions.

I’ve never really admitted this to myself before.

And when I think of what I actually want out of life. It’s not to not communicate what I’m thinking and feeling, especially when it matters most.

This is an important part of who I am. When something matters, it matters. Holding that in doesn’t appropriately enable me to communicate to the people I care about or to others about the things I care about. And that was lost during my time in the dark.

Fortunately I came to realize that the only way for this to change is for me to more regularly express. Which is what this 60-days of writing has been about. Practicing expression. Being vulnerable with myself by opening myself up to these conversations with myself and with others.

But enough about me for the moment, how about you?

What is authenticity for you? What does it mean to be inauthentic?

What is the authenticity that you experience and appreciate?

Is there anything about your authentic self that you’re keeping locked away?

It might not be something you – or others close to you – even realize. But if you take some time to look, to listen to yourself, and to others, you may find something unexpected that might make you feel just a bit more sustainable i.e. fully and completely and extra alive.

i.e. an even better version of your best self.

Didn’t think it was possible?

Well, you’ll never know if you don’t take the time to look and listen.

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Interested in more on Authentic Sustainability? Learn about Gabriel and Jason’s work here.

Francis Lam on “Why I talk to Americans about food”

whenweretalking_webelongtogether

In the midst of a day of damp and drizzle there was warmth under the pavilion at the Yale Farm thanks the Yale Sustainable Food Project and a fellow named Francis Lam (note the second to last line on his bio, it’s worth the one minute distraction).

“Why I talk to Americans about food” was the 20-minute starting point that sparked a longer group chat. I found a number of things he had to say – aided by his delivery – extremely powerful. And at some points, I was very much moved.

Today I became a big Francis Lam fan.

Here are a few of my takeaways in (almost) chronological order.

Lauren from Biloxi, Mississippi told Francis an incredible story about how eddo (taro root), something prescribed to her to take, something she absolutely abhorred, became something she developed a taste for, something that helped her get her life back, bowl by bowl.

Lauren also gifted Francis with a fuller understanding of what it means to end up someplace when he asked how she (a woman from Barbados) ended up in Biloxi. “I didn’t end up in Biloxi. You end up somewhere when you try to go somewhere else and find you’re not appreciated there. I came to Biloxi.” You can read a story about Lauren here.

If you can talk about food and talk about football, you can talk to 75% of people in America.

I like to write about the stories of other people. The ones people that entrust with me when they talk to me.

As a kid, a friend told him, and he self-confirmed that people wouldn’t like to talk to him because he was Chinese. Different.

What talking means on the surface is something different underneath – it means you belong.

Food is also a powerful way to talk about culture. I eat food because I love food. I cook food because I love food. But I write about food because I love people.

We don’t often talk about how food can not be all sweetness. We don’t usually talk about how complicated our relationship is with food and how complicated our relationships are with others.

“What in God’s name is that awful smell?”, the day he threw out his lunch was the day he learned a lesson about shame and assimilation.

Power is all value-neutral. Food, like many things, can do as much good as it can do harm.

He referenced an interesting extended conversation with Eddie Huang (chef and owner of New York’s BaoHaus), which started with this article by Francis in the New York Times (“Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes”) and continued as a conversation between Francis and Eddie with “Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures’ Food?” Francis says the crux of the conversation ultimately boiled down to what it means to call something American.

Francis thinks that America celebrates immigrants as a larger part of American culture. That America is a concept, not a place. And if America is great because of the American dream, then our strength is in our diversity.

Why not look at who we are trying to be rather than focus on where we fall short?  It’s not necessary to give up who and what we are to blend in. We’re not a melting pot, but a mixed salad. In America, you are part of my salad and I’m a part of your salad.

And we should talk about it. Maybe we’ll have a good time, maybe we’ll walk away from each other. In the end, it’s not so easy.

But when we’re talking, we belong together.

—–

And more from the discussion that followed.

When someone talks about something authentic, the first questions that come to mind: where is it from (chances are more specific is more ‘authentic’) and what time period? As most people, culture, things are constantly changing, to define authenticity, it’s important to know when and where it comes from.

When it comes to the conversation around cultural appropriation, who really owns what? There can be great power to be able to go to a place and leave. For those who come and go, the experience may be devoid of a lot of history and context. For others it may already confirm what they thought they knew / wanted to know.

And feelings can sometimes be quite complicated when something you’ve been eating for your entire life, something that you may find a little bit tiring, and at some time may have even been a bit ashamed of, becomes popular.

If the opposite of authentic is inauthentic, then where does something like authentic Thai-American food fit? And what about food throughout the diaspora? How does American-Chinese food differ from African-Chinese food? Then there’s food from the Congo you find restaurants owned in France by Chinese people. Also, there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s.

Restaurants will also go through different phases of development – from the places to ‘feed our people, our food’ to catering recipes to a different set of taste buds.

Politics doesn’t have an answer to assimilation issues any more than we do. Where do traditional national narratives fit in our increasingly globalized melt… mixed salad?

A very thoughtful question: What does it mean when America spreads its food culture around the world? Is it burgers and fries served on every corner of the earth or is it the rise and spread of processed foods? Looks more like #2, which changes the culture of eating – both the social dynamics as well as the nutritional value in food.

There was some feelings discussed at the intersection where nostalgia meets horror at why Lunchables were once such a sought after lunch item. Inside their lunch box/bag was a freshly made lunch with whole foods while they longed for that purely processed bento box of a snack pack.

Isn’t it interesting that there are many people in America who don’t really, regularly, or ever cook for themselves until college and beyond? What if kids started cooking earlier? How would this change their relationship with food?

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One of the biggest takeaways from the day with Francis was this idea of when we’re talking, we belong together. It hit me right in the gut when he said it and moved straight towards my heart.

I decided to put in that whole line into my Google images search. What came out? An interesting book cover for a New York Times Bestselling Author (also an illustrator) named Todd Parr called, We Belong Together.

At first thought, even though we’re operating with a salad bowl approach in mind, a book about adoption and families didn’t seem to be the best fit.

But as I thought more about it, talking, being together is ultimately about adoption and the acceptance of our ideas and each other. And family, or community, is the manifestation of more and more of these positive relationships, bringing us together to a place we feel we belong.