Are Having Food Allergies Or Asking For Special Food Accommodations Obnoxious Or Hurtful While Traveling?

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Are Having Food Allergies Or Asking For Special Food Accommodations Obnoxious Or Hurtful While Traveling?

White People Asking Questions is a series where White people submit questions and they are posed anonymously to the public for a 24-hour period and are answered anonymously.

Oftentimes White people have questions about themselves, People Of Color (POCs), or awkward situations, but are afraid to ask them due to public backlash. On the other hand, POCs get asked these questions every day and are burdened with the emotional labor of constantly explaining the same concept to people that will never relate because it is not their experience.

But just because you can’t relate doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn and do something about it. Amirite? As Angela Davis said, “You have to be intentionally and actively anti-racist.” 

Therefore, this series is having the conversation on how White People can be ACTIVE in dismantling racist systems and not passively watching. What is unique, though, is this series is set up to be answered primarily BY White People FOR White People teach each other about their privileges. 

POCs are always welcome to participate in dialogue, but this also creates a space for POCs to watch White People do the work in educating each other. Many times our communities are so disconnected that we don’t know the conversations happening amongst other communities. This is also meant as a resource for POCs to direct White People to for difficult concepts.

How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch wants to acknowledge and thank everyone who took on the emotional labor of sending in these responses. We include all responses that are directly relevant to answering the question. We don’t filter or edit, but we do correct spelling and grammatical errors. Highlighted in red at the bottom is the takeaway of the discussion.

QUESTION:

I’m writing because I haven’t travelled much at all, but your posts are feeding right into my desire to get out there. The issue is I have some pretty annoying food allergies. I actually have previously written off travel because I thought it would be rude to ask people in other places to help me with my allergies. (I’m allergic to garlic/onion and bell peppers. It’s also an airborne allergy so I can’t even smell them cooking. Thankfully the allergy isn’t life threatening. But it is super painful and disruptive.) So my question for you is am I actually just cutting off my chance to experience amazing things? Or is it legitimate to think that refusing food or asking for special accommodations with food, especially as an American, will be received as obnoxious or hurtful?

White Responses 

Ahhh this is so huge and in my experience travelling as a white Canadian, there were so many instances where my saying “I’m full” or “no thank you” was interpreted as the food not being good enough for me, that I started eating anything and everything I was offered, in order to not be rude or give the impression I thought I was better than local people. I think this person would have to either cook for themselves everywhere they went, or really know enough of the language to clearly explain it is an allergy that would make them sick. Definitely a really tricky one but I think their concerns are not unfounded. Especially as an American (which white Canadians are often assumed to be when travelling), your actions will automatically be interpreted within the context and history of what your presence there means and has meant in the past, so you have to be prepared for that and work to minimize the impact of your behaviour on others. Also that experience I’m describing was specifically in Ecuador and Colombia.

I dunno if this is an answer, but my mother is severely coeliac and always prints out a piece of paper with an explanation of her allergy detailed the language of wherever she’s going which she keeps in her purse. She says that people are always really understanding and accommodating when they understand it’s a medical issue and not just fussy taste. She usually travels in Europe, but maybe this is something that would make you feel a little more confident about travel!

I am an ethical vegan, but I have definitely thought more about if my choices are rude to impose on other cultures while traveling. Personally, I’ve made a point to do some research ahead of time to see if there will be food options for me. When I traveled to Seoul earlier this year, there were vegan restaurants and even a vegan festival I got to eat at! But when, I traveled to the Philippines with my husband’s family (who are Filipino-Americans and our visit was focused around spending time with extended family), I was very appreciative of people going out of their way to make me vegan food, and if something wasn’t entirely vegan (ie someone thought it was but it most likely made with butter, or had a little fish sauce in it, etc.) I just did thanks and ate it anyway cause the intention was there. That being said, this is all a choice for me versus a painful food allergy! Overall, I think people are very kind and accommodating. And there are tons of apps to help, for vegans there is this thing called vegan passport (the wording isn’t exactly what I would choose, but it is translated well in many languages) and there is google translate. I’ve found people overall are very kind and accommodating, especially if you can give advance notice of your food restrictions. That being said, I wonder sometimes if I am offending people unknowingly or coming off as a ridiculously privileged white American. I recognize that there are many people in this world that don’t have the option to make the food choices I can because of access (either physically or economically), and I work to not judge anyone for their food choices. My husband and I have also had lots of discussions about how food is related to culture and travel. Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out on experiencing part of the culture of a place (in a way that is really respectful to do-everybody has to eat and people are always excited about sharing their food recs or even the best local food choices!!!) because of my personal choices, but so far it hasn’t been to a point where I’ve decided to change my eating choices. My husband has said he will never be vegan because Filipino food is one of the few things he feels truly tied to his culture with and it typically uses a lot of meat!

I can only speak for Europe and here it’s super easy to travel with allergies! EU requires restaurants to tell you what ingredients are in your food and even asking/requiring certain things is not considered rude. As for other places, I’d at least consider the availability of certain foods (i.e. don’t go round places asking for gluten free, lactose free etc if locals simply can’t get that food/it’s not available where you are). My best guess is that it depends on local culture and there’s lot of places you can travel without offending anyone.

European person answering, so this only applies to Europe: Due to law and regulations regarding food safety and also many people with allergies, restaurants are sued to accommodate people with allergies and can tell what is in there food and what not. Also, most restaurants will make alterations. But, make sure you know the words in the language to avoid any misunderstandings, or bring pictures at least. But, what also came to my mind, that for example in the Balkans or Turkey, it will be hard to avoid those ingredients, because they’re used in so many traditional condiments. Conclusion: do your research about the local cuisine, if you don’t wannna end up just eating McDonald’s 😉

Food allergies: in Sweden we have an asthma & allergy covenant (?) that if you are a member helps you with simple and easy to read car in like 30 different languages. OP probably isn’t the first one to travel with allergies so it might be worth looking in your country for similar service J Also I would just try to cook food myself, or look into restaurants that might have an easier time to help with said allergies, small and local could really struggle with this as it was such common ingredients  https://matallergikortet.se/

POC Responses

We Navajo don’t traditionally cook with garlic or bell peppers so this person can come to our Rez lol, but on the real it’s not stupid to ask for accommodations if it’s a medical issue. It’s all about how you ask and not being a snot about it. Makes me think that people are rude unintentional because they avoid just asking and being clear so they come off as rude when they really are just reserved. By not asking your being disrespectful. Which was what we were always taught growing up.

As long as people understand it’s medical, it’s not rude to ask for the accommodations. In return, you shouldn’t take it as rude if they share that they honestly can’t accommodate you and won’t take the risk since it’s medical. Whenever I travel, I’m usually in an Airbnb that also allows me to cook for myself on days that I can’t/don’t want to go out, so that’s also an option! (To avoid having to smell)

POC here—I’d say do your research and sorry not sorry, that’s just not gonna happen in just about any country. I guess I’m also thinking of it as in going to small local places. I forget most people who go to other countries won’t always try places they haven’t heard of.

So in this country it appears these foods are common, and traditional in a sense. But there is a difference in requesting no traditional foods because you don’t like them, and requesting no traditional foods because they will kill you without medical intervention. USA has higher food allergies than any other country, but allergies still exist around the world. You likely won’t be the first person to ever ask. I say don’t be afraid to live your life with your allergies, and don’t be afraid to politely ask if a place can accommodate your medically necessary request.

Pack an epi pen and risk it all. That’s just me tho, and I ain’t shit…nor am I white.

This can be biased but I don’t know tons of POC with serious uncommon allergies (peanuts, shellfish…) but nothing this extreme. Garlic onion is bae.

So I work in the food industry at a top restaurant in Los Ángeles and we ask EVERY table about any food allergies or dietary restrictions they may have. It’s ingrained into us, as serves, to ask our guests because people are allergic to literally everything. Some people really appreciate it when I ask, some people say “only in LA are you asked that”, some are very nervous when I ask like we’re hiding some crazy ingredient from them, and some straight up just don’t’ want to tell me what they’re allergic to and say “it’s fine”. Now I get some allergies are super life threatening and we take extra care when someone says they’re allergic to nuts. I ask them ALL nuts? Specific nuts? Tree nuts? What about seeds? What about legumes? I cover all my bases. I’m not trying to send somebody to the hospital because they went into anaphylactic shock cuz they forgot to mention a shellfish allergy. So trust me, we like to know what you’re allergic to. But if it’s not something life threatening or something that will make you seriously sick all night it can be a nuisance, especially when trying foods of different culture and cuisines. Food is a big part of a culture and if you aren’t open to trying their food the way it’s meant to be enjoyed and eaten or just literally can’t eat it then yea I’d try to make my own food as much as possible in foreign cities. It gets to a points where you’re asking someone to alter a dish for you where it no longer is the dish they are selling. And then they can’t guarantee how it will taste because it’s not the right dish anymore. If you have severe allergies I recommend looking up the restaurant/cuisine to see what you CAN eat before going. Or call the restaurant to see if they’re still serving those vegan options, if you’re vegan, or if it’s not too much of an inconvenience to see if they chef can alter something for you (AHEAD OF TIME, not when you show up) to your specific allergic restrictions. We appreciate this very much. And we do take allergies seriously when it’s told to us. I ask follow up questions when someone tells me they have an allium allergy, like “are you allergic to it in all forms or just raw? Can it be in a sauce?” These answers help me understand that sometimes it’s not necessarily an allergy but it’s actually something they don’t care for in their food. Also, people with severe allergies have given me a piece of paper or business care listing ALL their allergies. You might [roll your eyes] at it cuz it’s wow sometimes but I show it to my chef and we give them things they can eat. But like I said, doing things ahead of time is amazing. Sometimes we can make sure we save a chicken from being marinated in soy and garlic because we know we have someone coming in for dinner with allergies to that.

A food allergy card that lists all of the things this individual cannot eat

The second side of a food allergy card that continues to list all kinds of things this individual cannot eat
Someone’s allergy card I saved cuz it’s just wow, but also very thorough.

I would say being prepared would help most of all. Bring some things you can eat if you’re ever put in a situation where you can’t eat the food. Also the way you ask for accommodations matter, no one will think you’re an asshole for asking if you say it properly. A little research on the place you plan to visit and the kind of food available there is a good way to know what you can and can’t eat prior to visiting so you’re not interrogating your hosts or servers about the ingredients in their food. I recently traveled to Cuba with a vegan (I’m not) and she had a tough time finding anything that wasn’t cooked with pork and found out the hard way that fruit isn’t easy to come by. Knowledge is power so be prepared!

A friend of mine has a MEGA wheat allergy, so when she went to Japan, she made a beautiful little card that explained her situation and medical/food needs (with lots of please + thank yous) in Japanese + got it laminated, then learned a few basics on how to explain it and how to express gratitude for folks accommodating her, and had a super positive experience. There were some places that just couldn’t help her and she was understanding, but overall people appreciated the effort she made and were happy to help.

IMO it can be a little rude. If you’re visiting third world countries, sometimes that’s all they have! If you’re telling them o not use these (very basic btw) ingredients, it could put them in a weird situation. I mean I’m the Phillippines, onion, garlic, and bell pepper are pretty much the only spice we use. Asking people not to use them would be super disruptive.

Avid traveler here. I would say to not be afraid to ask for what you need, but I would do a ton of research and try to figure out which restaurants are better for you to go into than others. Some might be more accommodating and readily help people with allergies. This all being said, I would be very careful about how I ask. There is the stereotypical American tourist type that you want to avoid, that pushed themselves in and demands what they want and THINK they deserve w/o a thought or regard to the culture. Don’t be one of those people. (And that’s also just general traveling advice). good luck!

I would say politely asking for alterations is not obnoxious/rude but the way you go about it can be the determining factor. When I was in Vietnam I met this vegan girl and instead of just getting to restaurants and say she was vegan and expect to be accommodated, she actually got her list of most common “forbidden” foods and got it translated into Vietnamese. She would just talk to the people at the restaurants and when language was an issue she would bring up her piece of paper. If someone is offering you something and it’s a genuine allergy I doubt anyone would be offended if you turned it down, it literally goes down to your attitude and showing respect.

It has been very well received where I’ve travelled (Europe and Middle East mostly), as long as you explain it’s a medical thing. But it has sometimes been difficult to communicate and be absolutely sure that there is no nuts in something, especially in countries where they are widely used. I’d advise you make the effort to learn how to say (and pronounce!) the names of the food you’re allergic to. That’ll make it easier to explain to people. Also, have pictures on it on your phone so you can communicate, just in case. And keep in mind some food will be more or less difficult to avoid depending on where you go (avoiding peanuts in the Middle East was a bit tricky for example) so people will generally do their best since it’s a medical issue, but don’t be offended if they genuinely can’t offer you risk-free food.

Or travel with a face mask. If it’s airborne…and onions…hard to accommodate.

My friend did the same thing with a little card explaining how severe her nut allergy was when we travelled in Thailand. She had far less trouble with it than the other girl we travelled with who was vegan – the fact that her life depended on rather than a choice. And let’s be fair, if you have an allergy that severe you are never going to be 100% safe anywhere in the world.

My suggestion is learning how to talk about your allergies in the language of the country you’re in – both as a matter of respect + to make an attempt to make it as clear as possible. If talking is something you’re worried about, I’ve had people come in with little cards that have allergens written on them – ask a native speaker for help translating! The flip side is look for accommodations that have a kitchen – depending on where you are, local markets are a great way to connect with the community, support farmers + a great authentic experience! Overall though, I have found tourist towns are great at accommodating as long as you know what to avoid – as a server, it’s helpful if you can spot where allergens hide. Avoid ordering things that require a lot of modifying (cooks are human + kitchens are way more hectic than you’d realize.) But I’ve travelled with friends who have…

When I lived in Korea, this was really tough for me. I’m deathly allergic to shellfish. There were a few close calls where I had to send something back, but they just took the shellfish off the top, and I almost died because I didn’t know this until I felt my throat closing. I’ve found it really difficult even in the US because people don’t necessarily understand how severe and life threatening it can be. When traveling, I always make sure that I make a little laminated sheet with allergies and what happens so I can give that in whatever language I need to. But even then I’ve had to use my epi pen and a ton of Bendadryl. If it’s not super life threatening, just be super careful. I think some people think I’m annoying/rude because I have to explain it, but it can kill me, so I can’t not bring it up. This is why I cook most of my meals even when traveling.

I have very similar sensitivities. When I went to Ghana I prepared a lot of my own food and at restaurants just asked for things super plain. Same in Costa Rica. I think if you go to cities and tourist areas it will be ok (I did index card in Costa Rica) but small villages and families will have harder time accommodating. My husbands mom (Ghanaian) doesn’t fully understand my food issues but it doesn’t bother her as much now.

My friend did this in China! I was going to write in about it. She initially google translated and then asked a speaking friend to correct it and make it as clear/easy as possible. Maybe we have the same friend – she could have easily been to Japan already using the same method, too. I thought it was a really lovely strategy that would be very kind to both sides. Glad you do, too!

Yes yes yes!!! Totally agree with this! I used to be vegetarian before moving to South Korea. To come here and have the same expectations is so disruptive and ignorant. They don’t have the same crops, etc, to outsource these things is way too expensive and you are eliminating giving to local businesses if you’re just seeking vegan options. Sometimes you just have to adapt to your surroundings. Obviously, if you have an allergy, it’s not a choice. But, do be mindful when you are traveling and understand their local cuisine first.

TAKEAWAY:

Don’t let a medical allergy keep you away from travel.

Some solutions are: cooking yourself, bringing food you can eat, having a translated card with your food allergy, using “please” and “thank you” are important on that card, be okay with some places not able to accommodate you.

If you’re just a picky eater or having food preferences by CHOICE and traveling through developing nations, yes, that is inconvenient. Do not burden local people with your privilege.

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