Trading Chow Mein for Cheeseburgers: What really counts as “normal?”
Potato salads and beef intestines might have more in common than we think.
Do you ever find it amazing how vacuums are able to search out tiny particles from the oddest of crevices and suck them in with violent efficiency while making sometimes frighteningly loud noises?
I’m kind of like that, but with Chinese food.
I’ve gained an infamous reputation for my appetite among those who know me- food of all shapes, sizes and colors are my friends. Asian food, Chinese in particular is my ultimate weakness/ spirit animal/true love. Sadly, not everyone I grew up with in suburban Kansas shared this enthusiasm.
In the first grade, I had a friend come over for a home-cooked lunch for the first time. My mother, excited by the fact her son had managed to successfully interact with another human being, treated my new friend to a delicious meal of rice noodles stir-fried to a golden-brown with string beans, bamboo shoots and pork, drizzled with lines of hoisin sauce.
He thought it looked like worms.
Holding a chopstick in each hand like it was a stabbing implement, he shakily lifted the scraps of several noodles toward his mouth, his face grimacing like he was about to eat something still alive. Finally, with the noodles inches from his mouth, he put down the chopsticks and asked:
“Can I have a cheeseburger instead?”
It’s still hard for me to forget the look on my Mom’s face that day. She had worked hard to share a little bit of food from her home country with a new face. This was just fried noodles, not necessarily even that authentic, or anything close to actual “exotic” food. Since then, whenever my friends came over she would instead offer them Kraft macaroni or buy McDonalds.
At school, the merciless vultures I also called classmates would often tell me Chinese food was stinky, gross, and likely made of dogs. These were unsolicited opinions, but as the only Asian in the room and therefore obviously leading expert in my ethnic cuisine, I think they felt it was their civic duty to remind me that my culture’s food was weird and inferior.
For the longest time, I avoided eating or even talking about Asian food around my American friends. I traded my chow mein for cheeseburgers and steamed buns for hot dogs. I would pretend that my favorite food was spaghetti because it was just easier to explain than” Shanghainese red-cooked pork belly.” And in one unfortunate episode of my life, I briefly dated a girl who outright proclaimed to me that she didn’t eat Chinese food because it looked “disgusting.” So that was pretty awkward, as far as non-shared interests go.
Here’s the funny thing though- these American foods that we hold as “normal” in our heads and taste palettes are actually only socially constructed to be as such. What exactly makes a cheeseburger more normal than beef intestines? Growing up in a Chinese household, I ate tofu, wontons and non-filleted fish, head intact and googly eyes staring at you. That was my normal. Was it any less valuable than someone else’s’? Still, I wanted to fit in, and to me that meant eating the “normal” food all the white kids at school did.
I remember being terrified of apple cobbler when I saw it for the first time, thinking that its gooey and chunky consistency and brown color reminded me of barf.
Potato salad? You mean to tell me that if we just cover potatoes in mayonnaise it’s suddenly a “salad?” Is that really any less weird than beef intestines?
Sure, there are some admittedly intense foods in some Asian cuisines, but that’s like the equivalent of being mad at white people in general because Haggis exists.
My point is, all food looks a little foreign and perhaps scary to fresh eyes, but it’s amazing what trying it with an open mind will do. Not everyone will have an open mind though, especially if you belong to the majority and can live your life expecting people to conform to your tastes and not vice-versa. But that’s changing.
Today, there’s a new normal. More Asian and other cultural food than ever is being accepted and sought out, with a new wave of chefs showing the rest of the world what millions already knew- there is a lot of goddammned good food out there. Somewhere along the line I got tired of the bullshit and became proud to eat what I liked. So did other people.
It’s not crazy to expect a sorority girl to be as comfortable eating sushi as she would be drinking a smoothie. Black, white and brown faces can be found at an Indian restaurant enjoying saag paneer paired with a German beer. Korean Tacos exist and are the sexy bi-racial child of two equally delicious cuisines. Keep doing this; flaunt your food, people.