WANG: James Corden, Fish Eyes Can be Delicious

As Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month draws to a close, America must continue to reckon with the country’s anti-Asian racism.

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Comedian James Corden arrives at Number 10 Downing Street to interview UK Prime Minister David Cameron (Andy Thornley from London, UK, licensed with CC BY 2.0)

Debbie Wang, Staff Writer

“I can’t eat this – it’s a real fucking fish eye … [I can’t believe] that’s even a thing; I think I might throw up,” Khloe Kardashian gagged during the madly popular “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” segment on The Late Late Show.

 “Well, that would be wonderful for our ratings,” replied host James Corden, howling with laughter.

In the end, spurred on by a loud “eww!” from the audience, Kardashian briefly nibbled at the fish eye before swearing profusely and spitting it out.

With an average of 1.3 million viewers during its 2019-2020 season and 12 Emmy nominations, The Late Late Show With James Corden has amassed a loyal fan base since its 2015 premiere. As an initial fan of Corden, I had enjoyed the Brit belting out “I Had A Dream” on Parisian crosswalks and coaching Harry Styles through an intense game of dodgeball

My support for the show, however, ceased after watching its “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” segment, during which A-list celebrities are forced to either answer deeply personal questions or sample one of several “disgusting” food items. The problem with the segment lies in the cultural roots of these “disgusting” foods.

In this particular episode with Kardashian, five of the eight featured foods—chicken feet, thousand-year-old egg, fish eye, bird saliva, and cod sperm—had ties to East Asian cuisines. As a Chinese-American, watching the staples of my culture being branded as “disgusting” stung me with self-consciousness. Back home, braised chicken feet are enjoyed as rare treats during Sunday dim sums. Bird saliva, a delicate ingredient found in bird’s nest soup, is hailed as the “elixir to immortality” by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Following the Chinese idiom “you are what you eat,” my parents often set aside the eye of steamed fish for me, who struggled with lazy eye as a child.

Watching the segment, I felt a disorienting clash between my Chinese heritage and Western surroundings. Truth be told, the juicy questions featured on “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” are hilariously entertaining. Who didn’t love watching Gordon Ramsay rank the talent of fellow celebrity chefs or Corden confess who he turned down for “Carpool Karaoke”? Yet, watching Corden demoting my favorite foods to profitable punchlines still triggered a wave of insuppressible rage. 

Corden’s decision to showcase these culturally significant foods as “disgusting” reveals a troublesome pattern of chauvinism. Never taking a moment to acknowledge the foods’ cultural origins, Corden almost always presents the exoticized dishes out of context. For instance, the thousand-year-old egg, more often known as the less-sensational “century egg,” should be savored in small bites with congee. Just like no sane person would eat salt by the spoonful, the century egg is never meant to be devoured in huge bites, as Corden’s show had suggested.

Under the dark stage light, the food items – slimy, grey, and unpleasantly raw – are eaten by white celebrities for cheap laughs from an Anglo-American audience.

Admittedly, most people would not fancy the acquired taste of fish eye. However, the show’s fixation with “disgusting” Asian foods is incredibly narrow-minded; while most Americans would find French escargot or cave-aged cheese unusual, these foods have never been featured on Corden’s segment. 

Corden’s show is far from my first encounter with cultural chauvinism. A few months after moving to this country, I naïvely informed my sixth grade ESL teacher that my favorite foods were “pig ear” and “beef tongue.” The expression of utter disgust on my teacher’s face was one I will never forget. After learning about the story, my parents taught me the English word “hamburger.” 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the segment can be summed up by asking why none of Corden’s Asian American staff members spoke up. Do they sense that their voice is useless? Are they afraid of being deemed as the oddball—how I felt after the ESL teacher ridiculed my favorite foods? Or worse, are they afraid of the possible negative repercussions?

Despite a recent rise in public awareness of anti-Asian racism, campaigns such as Stop AAPI Hate alone are insufficient at addressing the racial divide in this country. According to a recent report, anti-Asian hate crimes had increased by more than 164% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to last year. The root of these hate crimes lies in America’s tolerance of my ESL teacher’s offhanded ridicule or Corden’s insensitive jokes. 

In his March 17th monologue, a teary-eyed Corden addressed the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across America, stating “ when you think about the casual racism that has been pervasive over the last 12 months, we can start to see the link between language and action … It falls on all of us to address the hate.” Ironically, Corden’s most recent “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” segment – which aired on March 21st – still featured “disgusting” foods of Asian origin. 

So, James Corden: if you really want to do your part in fighting anti-Asian violence, look within.