Why the Chinese Takeout Emoji Is Being Accused of Cultural Appropriation

The designers of the emoji probably didn't intend for it to evoke disrespect and death, but that's kind of the point.

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Oct 10 2017, 10:14pm

Photo via Pixabay user piyalis14

Last Friday, October 6, Apple teased the new emojis that are set to come out with the imminent iOS 11.1 update. It's quite a grab bag, with emojis ranging from a steaming-hot pie to a dumpling with remarkably realistic creases. There's also a takeout box, which looks like a classic, trapezoidal white paper pail emblazoned with a red pagoda. The carton's flaps are open and its contents are unseen, but the tops of two chopsticks peek out from inside and point to the sky.

It's a representation of Chinese food that at least one food blogger has taken umbrage with. Last week, Ming-Cheau Lin, a writer and recipe developer born in Taiwan and now based in Cape Town, South Africa, raised concerns about this particular design.

"The chopsticks stuck in Chinese takeout symbolises death. Appropriated much?" she tweeted in response to an image of this emoji, accompanied with a plea for Apple to change its rendering. This prompted a back-and-forth between Lin and the takeout box emoji's original masterminds, writer Jennifer 8. Lee and designer Yiying Lu.

Over the course of the thread, Lin outlined her gripes with the emoji: Sticking chopsticks upright within a pile of food, she'd been taught, is a symbol of outright disrespect, mimicking the Chinese practice of sticking burning incense upright into bowls of rice to honor the dead. She was thus worried that this particular image was culturally insensitive.

"Taiwanese culture forms part of Chinese culture," Lin explains to MUNCHIES when asked about why this particular image of chopsticks in food strikes her as bad etiquette. "I was raised [to consider this bad etiquette], and from my understanding, the same applies in China and Japan."

READ MORE: Are We Wrong to Call Americanized Chinese Food 'Inauthentic'?

"My understanding is that, in the olden days, Chinese people would go and pay respect to their ancestors by giving them round bowls of rice, and they would put incense in them upright close together, like chopsticks," Lu, a Shanghai native now based in San Francisco, tells MUNCHIES over the phone. "This is the food for the deceased. This rule only applies when the sticks are upright and on top of a rounded rice bowl."

Lee and Lu submitted their original proposal for the takeout box emoji in January of 2016. On Twitter, Lee countered that there's quite a bit of wiggle room within this interpretation of a takeout emoji, since the paper takeout box is an expressly American product.

She echoed what the pair wrote in their original proposal: "[The takeout box] has become understood in Western cultures as a symbol of Chinese food, in addition to conveying the general concepts of takeout and delivery." They went on to note that takeout boxes aren't usually found within mainland Asia even though they've become visually synonymous with casual Chinese food within the United States.

READ MORE: The Struggles of Writing About Chinese Food as a Chinese Person

Lu understands Lin's concerns, but with two major caveats: There's a conspicuous absence of any rice at all within her design, and the chopsticks aren't upright, rendering Lin's point moot. "The chopsticks are not upright," she states flatly. "The chopsticks are not upright and there's no rice!"

Lin finds this justification insufficient. "The chopsticks are stuck upright in food," she insists. "Even if they're tilted at an angle, this is a cultural taboo. Whether it's rice, meat, vegetables or noodles does not matter." She maintains that Lu is unequipped to decide whether this is offensive and thus can't lay claim to authority, for she's someone who "isn't connected to the traditions of the culture" as well as Lin herself is.

There's precedent for a controversy of this sort, if you could call it a controversy at all. In January of last year, Lee and Lu submitted a design for chopsticks to the Unicode Consortium. The first iteration of the chopsticks design had the two chopsticks crossed, which also carries associations with death and poor manners. Following some polite criticism from people who pointed out that crossing chopsticks can be culturally taboo, Lu honored requests to change the design before the emoji had been submitted to the Unicode Consortium.

The blowback to the takeout box emoji is considerably more muted; Lu tells MUNCHIES the only person she's heard criticism from regarding the design of the takeout box is Lin. There's also no ability for Lu to change the design of this particular emoji, as she was able to do in the case of the crossed chopsticks. Now that the design has been submitted to and finalized by the Unicode Consortium, the option to make any cosmetic changes now falls squarely in the domains of the various vendors whose hands it's in, from Apple to Google. As Lu tweeted in June, different vendors have already taken visual liberties with their interpretations of the box, some with no chopsticks visible at all.

"Emoji are universal," Lu tells MUNCHIES of the criticism she's received, welcoming the dialogue. "It's fantastic that they opened up a conversation. It is very important to keep this conversation going, and to keep people discussing whether or not our emoji fit into cultural accuracy."

Indeed. May we all strive to make our emoji better.