Intergenerational Transmission of Dietary Practices among Chinese Immigrants

By Marie Spiker

What do you eat for dinner on a typical weeknight? How does that compare to what your parents might eat? And what about your children? As an undergraduate in the Medical Anthropology and Global Health Track, Marie Spiker has been exploring these questions with pairs of parents and children of Chinese descent to understand shifts in dietary behavior between generations. She feels fortunate to undertake an honors thesis under the mentorship of Dr. Rachel Chapman, and her work contributes to a body of knowledge that links what we know about culture change with what we know about the development of chronic disease.

Chinese residents in the United States are at the center of a unique epidemiological phenomenon: when compared to Chinese persons living in Asia, they experience higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancers. A similar deterioration of health corresponding to length of residence in the United States has been documented in other foreign-born populations as well, indicating a need to understand how lifestyle and diet change after arrival in the United States. A growing body of research on the “healthy immigrant effect” explores how culturally influenced health behaviors might have protective effects for new immigrants and studies which factors might lead to the deterioration of these behaviors over time. For example, while a recent Chinese immigrant might retain a diet containing less animal protein and more fiber than that of the average citizen, as he or she adapts to the cultural practices and socioeconomic landscape of the United States (called acculturation), this dietary behavior may change. In addition, any children of this first-generation immigrant will be exposed to dietary practices both foreign and mainstream, adding intergenerational acculturation as a layer of complexity. Previous anthropologists have described the intergenerational transmission of culture as a selective process, in that only some of the cultural knowledge that first-generation parents may hold will be passed onto their children, for reasons both voluntary and not.

As a result, dietary acculturation both within and between generations has been exceedingly difficult to categorize and quantify as a risk factor for chronic disease.  Commonly collected data measures such as ethnicity, country of origin, and language preference fail to capture the varied processes of cultural and lifestyle change, and result in binary classifications of dietary behavior as either “traditional” or “Westernized.”  While much work has been done in the public health arena to characterize the tangible differences between these “traditional” and “Westernized” diets in Chinese Americans, there is a lack of research asking not only what people are eating but why, and knowing “why” is essential.  As an example, medical anthropologist Nancy Chen emphasizes the role of food in traditional Chinese healing practices, sharing that “in Mandarin, one ‘eats’ medicine, just as, in Mandarin, one eats food.”

Spiker’s work thus far has included interviews with first- and second-generation participants, as well as time spent observing moments of cultural resilience and adaptation in the Danny Woo International District Community Garden. Her long-term goal is to continue to navigate both ethnographic research and public health practice in order to address our changing relationships with food as a critical determinant of our well-being. In a time of contradictory and politically charged recommendations about what we should be eating, the tools of ethnography become particularly important. A critical anthropology of food allows us to place our knowledge of what’s best to eat—whether it is knowledge produced for the purposes of legislative dietary recommendations or knowledge handed down from a mother to a child over a bowl of hot soup—within a wider framework of continually adapting cultural practices.


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