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“SPAM: Specially Processed American Me,” a presentation with Jaime Sunwoo and ETHS 180M

On Thursday, April 1, the Mills College Ethnic Studies department virtually hosted artist Jaime Sunwoo’s presentation about her autobiographical performance piece, “Specially Processed American Me.” The presentation took place as part of an ethnic studies class taught by Adjunct Professor of ethnic studies Susan Ito, “Representing Asian/Pacific Americans in Popular Culture: From Charlie Chan to Saving Face” (ETHS 180M). It was also the first event in Mills’ lineup of programming for South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Asian Pacific Islander Month (SAMEAPI month).

The first speaker of the evening was Professor Ito, who explained the event’s purpose as part of her class, noting that her students were spending the week exploring the theme of food in popular culture. She was followed by speaker Danica Ola, the president of Kapwa, Mills’ Filipino student affinity group.

Ola welcomed attendees to the event and thanked students, faculty, staff and the ethnic studies program for their assistance in organizing the evening’s event, as well as the Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC) for their role in funding the event. She gave particular thanks for the contributions of student organizations including the Muslim Student Alliance (MSA), Asian and Pacific Islander Student Alliance (APISA) and Liberty in North Korea x Mills (LiNKxMills). Ola also spoke on the importance of Kapwa’s sponsorship of the event, saying, “Overall, the meaning of ‘kapwa’ is an understanding of oneself, through the extension to our community members. […] I hope that you’re able to gain an understanding of one another and ourselves with tonight’s event.” Ola then handed the reins over to Sunwoo.

Jaime Sunwoo is a Yale Alumna, a Ping Chong + Company Creative Fellow and a multidisciplinary visual and theater artist who began working with film at the beginning of the pandemic. She started work on “Specially Processed American Me” in 2018, a project which has since earned awards from organizations including the NYC Women’s Fund, the Jim Henson Foundation and the Queens Council on the Arts’ Artist Commissioning Program. As a Korean American, Sunwoo was interested in learning more about the origin of the canned meat product “spam” or “SPAM,” specifically researching the history behind its stigmatized status in modern-day America and its important role in Asian cuisine, particularly in the diaspora. She plans to present these findings publicly in performance form in 2022, if the pandemic has ended by that time.

Early on, Sunwoo asked audience members if anyone knew why the Hormel Foods Corporation had named the product “SPAM” when they introduced it in 1939; no one offered an answer. She explained that people often believe the name is a shortened form or acronym for phrases including “spiced ham,” “special army meat” or “specially processed American meat.” The last is the “backronym” upon which she based the title of her piece, viewing the phrase as a metaphor for her own relationship to America. However, Sunwoo revealed, “SPAM” does not officially stand for anything; the brother of a company executive at Hormel merely suggested that the product be called “SPAM,” and the name stuck.

Throughout the presentation, Sunwoo made use of many visual, audio and video components, many of which were excerpts from “Specially Processed American Me.” These included vintage advertisements for SPAM, recordings of songs about SPAM that were written and sung by Sunwoo and her collaborators and a shadowplay sequence where an audience hears Sunwoo translate her grandmother’s oral description of her experiences with SPAM while seeing the words represented via puppetry. Sunwoo also showed a few seconds of a Monty Python skit about SPAM, which she credited as the origin of the internet terms “spam” and “spamming;” according to Sunwoo, Internet users used to flood online forums with quotes from the sketch in order to censor other users. 

Prompted by questions from Sunwoo, attendees shared their experiences growing up with SPAM both aloud and in the Zoom chat. Several reported hearing white classmates refer to SPAM with pejoratives like “mystery meat” and “dog food,” while others said that Asian parents who had grown up eating SPAM now refused to and called it unhealthy. Beloved recipes involving SPAM, which included SPAM and eggs, SPAM fried rice, SPAM musubi and SPAM with ramen, were also traded in the chat. The part of the event that was open to the public concluded with a “group photo,” where Sunwoo and several students turned on their cameras to show themselves holding cans or photos of SPAM. 

Upcoming events that will take place as part of SAMEAPI month include “Kulfi: Creating a South Asian Beauty Brand Rooted in Community by Samia Abbasi” on April 5; “Uyghur Voices: Understanding the Intersections of Uyghur Food & Culture” on April 6; and the Student Voices Series’ “Hate is a Virus: A Deeper Look Into Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia with Victoria Lam & Grace Hirschfeld.” Interested parties can find more information on events taking place during SAMEAPI Month on the Mills website.