How I Reclaimed my Chinese Heritage by Designing a Cookbook

“Though broken Chinese cuts my mouth like glass, the taste of home soothes the wounds.”

Gabrielle Widjaja
Jun 9, 2019 · 11 min read
Degree project deliverables: a cookbook and a quilt.

This is the narrative of my degree project at the Rhode Island School of Design, Graphic Design BFA 2019.

This is also my first Medium article! I felt everything I wanted to express about this project and its impact on my life couldn’t be compacted into my Behance project post so here it goes. Click the link to see more pictures and details on the design process!

During my time at RISD Graphic Design, I always refrained from creating personal work, for fear of the internal demons that would break loose. In addition, I felt that to be a good graphic designer you couldn’t, shouldn’t, pursue personal work. It felt selfish. As a designer I learned that things should be made for others; there has to be some sort of purpose. But through this project I can honestly say I was able to achieve my own goals as well as (hopefully) reach out to others and help them as well. I was right, of course, that this project would force me to have some sort of reckoning with myself. Making personal work makes you vulnerable. But sometimes, it’s in the best way possible. And I would like to acknowledge that every Asian American’s story is vastly different than the next, but this is mine to share.

Degree Project trailer

Abstract

In Asian households, we don’t often say “I love you.” Instead, we say, “Have you eaten yet?” (你吃了吗?) This is a deceivingly simple and mundane question. But for us, it bears the weight of relationships, of family, of connection. This statement addresses not only the love for a person, but also a concern for their overall health and well-being. When we fight with our parents, we don’t necessarily apologize afterwards. My mom just says, “Dinner is ready; come downstairs.” And without being asked, my dad would bring me bowls of cut-up fruit while I’m doing homework. Food is our language of love and care. Which begs the question, what are we eating? And why? To which my answers respectively are, the food of our ancestors, and to nourish our cultural identities.

I still remember long drives with my mom when she would bring me to Chinese lessons against my will. I dreaded every Friday, making up any and all excuses not to go. There’s this very famous Chinese song called 月亮代表我的心 (The Moon Represents My Heart) by Teresa Teng. She would play this song in the car during this drive, often on repeat. One time I got so sick of it that I yelled at her to shut it off. She said, “I’m sorry. It just reminds me of my childhood.” It’s funny because now that song reminds me of mine, and my childish belligerence.

Growing up a first-generation Asian-American, my connection to my Chinese identity began strong. I remember how I used to sing and dance around the living room in front of the TV to outdated Chinese children’s songs, blurting mispronunciations and made-up syllables. As I grew up, I became disenchanted. By the time I was 12, I was barely even cognizant of my Chinese background. That’s just what had become — background noise. Sometimes the only way it crept its way into the foreground of my life was through peripheral moments. Like, when my grandpa used to ask, 你想吃什么? (What do you want to eat?)
“Not now, Grandpa. I’m not hungry,” I would bark back in English.

My mom often complained that America was making me into an uncultured and disrespectful child. “We are still Chinese,” she would repeat. She was right, of course. But at that point, all I cared for was buying all the same toys, eating all the same Lunchables packs as the white kids. I snickered at the Chinese kids in my 4th grade classroom that couldn’t pronounce “usually”, or tell the difference between “ship” and “sheep”. In our fervent pursuit of American-ness, of acceptance, we reject our own cultural identities for the sake of feigned belonging.

It wasn’t until I started college that I began to feel regret, as the absence of identity that I was once blissfully unaware of dawned on me, first little by little, and then all at once. Like a void, it swallowed me whole. I grew close to a number of Chinese friends who bond over tidbits of shared culture; they would speak in scrambled tongues that sounded all too familiar yet so obscure. The same Chinese students that I once used to make fun of, I was now jealous of. It was I who couldn’t even tell the difference between 的,得 and 地. I coveted the richness of culture — the traditions, the nuances that colored their lives. I realized how little I knew about Chinese culture. Was it even mine to claim? I felt what little of it I had was slipping quickly through my fingers like grains of rice, blown by a westward gust of wind. And I felt shameful. The flame of heritage grows weaker, dimmer, with each diasporic generation. What kind of culture would I pass on to my own children? I decided then, that I would not be the death of my family’s legacy. I was determined to relight this cultural torch and pass it down my family.

The narrative of the Asian-American experience is one of assimilation, loss of culture, and re-learning. Our culture is a vast ocean, and I find myself stranded on Western sands, only ever able to wade in the shallows, unable to navigate the sea. This shallowness defines Asian-Americanness. We have no access to the nuances of our culture, inaccessible to our westernized hands, indiscernible to our Americanized ears. What we can grasp, what we can relate to, is but the very outer margins of pages lost in translation. We only know of the most popular Chinese songs that have permeated space and time which most natives would cringe it. 老鼠爱大米 and 童话 to name a few. We only relate to drinking bubble tea, having strict parents, taking our shoes off in the house, and being forced to play the piano — the 4 pillars of Asian upbringing. These Subtle Asian Traits are so vital to our culture that they are the only things strong enough to resound overseas. Trying to reconnect with and learn about your culture is a difficult task. There is far too much material to discover, to unpack, to translate. But for me, and certainly for many others, one thing is for sure: Food is the life raft that has gently carried us into, and helped us navigate, the daunting waves of our ancestral oceans. It is an important entry point through which we can begin to realize our cultural identities.

Although I am not fluent in Mandarin, being literate in the language of Chinese cuisine is comforting because food is such an integral part of every culture. Through learning how to cook Chinese dishes, memorizing names of ingredients and spices, learning to tell the differences in methods of preparation, flavor profiles, preferences, and tendencies, I feel I have slowly acquired a firmer grasp on my heritage. It makes me proud because now there IS in fact, something I know about Chinese culture. Being able to order in a Chinese restaurant, recognize names of dishes, knowing a specific way something is cooked and what kind of flavor profile to expect just from the name of it is an exciting thing.

Food is an important medium of cultural literacy, and has been a huge aspect of re-learning and reclaiming my Chinese heritage. It has been a cathartic healing and self-care practice, and it has very much initiated a reconciliation of my relationship with my family lineage and put a new spin on the term “comfort food”. For the first time in my life, I feel more Chinese than ever. Lately, I have been playing 月亮代表我的心 on repeat everyday, I’ve been taking Mandarin courses at Brown University, and for the first time I’ve been able to text my mom and my grandpa in Chinese.

So I ask those of you of the diasporic Asian-American community, have you eaten yet? I hope to share my story with you, and remind you that home is never as far as we imagine.


The Project

The deliverables of my project were two-fold: a cookbook, and a quilt. Of course, even as a personal project, it was not without its design problems and solutions.

A Chinese Cookbook for the Diasporic Soul.

Part I: Cookbook

Of course, in any project pertaining to food, the most reasonable deliverable to create is a cookbook. Thus, I wanted to design an introductory cookbook dedicated to other Asian-Americans going through the same things I had experienced. For this book I chose 9 recipes starting simple, with each more challenging (and all the more delicious) than the previous.

Spread for Stirfried Tomato Egg 番茄炒蛋

Each recipe was illustrated in Procreate on my iPad Pro. But let us get to the 1st design problem: Cookbooks are too heavy on text. While pictures are helpful, they detract from the visual learning process because there is too much information. My solution was to illustrate every ingredient and every step (time consuming but all worth it in the end).

Ingredient list for Spiced Braised Beef Shank 卤牛腱

Each icon was drawn and vectorized in Adobe Illustrator. I find that I myself am a visual learner, and it is easier to identify things by distinct icons instead of names. I knew these recipes by heart at this point, but I wanted to consider the viewer’s experience and design it flawlessly.

Chinese Ingredient Glossary

Design problem #2: Chinese ingredients are difficult to find and learn the names of. Because I wanted to cater this book to people who also aren’t too familiar with cooking the cuisine, I included a Chinese Ingredient Glossary. As you can see in the previous image above, unfamiliar ingredients are notated with a red circle and a number, which instructs the viewer to look at the back of the book in the glossary and refer to the respective number. Each entry in the ingredient glossary is accompanied by an illustration, name, Chinese translation, pinyin translation (helpful in learning terms and applying them in real life) and where to find it.

Steps in Scallion Pancakes recipe 葱油饼

Design problem #3: Recipes are hard to follow. A block is created in the flow of physical action by reading and then doing. If we can create a visual-to-visual streamlined flow, it is easier to follow a recipe. Thus, I used an IKEA manual-like approach to show each step. A sub-problem in flow block is the separation of information.

Consider this scenario: You’re looking at an ingredient list that reads, “1/4 tsp salt”. You flip the page to the recipe, and step 2 reads, “add salt to the bowl”. Wait; how much salt was it again? You flip back to the ingredient list and try to find the salt. You flip forward again and have lost your place within the recipe, and also have forgotten the amount of salt again. This might be an exaggeration of this delay in the process, but multiply this times every step and ingredient within a recipe and you’ve got a whole mess of confusion. I solved this problem by notating ingredient amounts only where it is necessary (except where it’s crucial, like having 5 tomatoes or 12 stalks of scallions, it’s included in the ingredient list).

In designing something as seemingly straightforward as a cookbook, I found myself contemplating experiential design.

As for the illustrations, here is a time lapse of the drawing process in Procreate!


Comfort Food Quilt

Part II: Comfort Food Quilt

As a second component partnered with the cookbook, I decided to create a quilt that serves as a literal metaphor for the term “comfort food” and how it can keep you warm and make you feel safe. I was also interested in the concept of materiality and intimacy and wanted to create something everlasting.

I approached the Textiles department and begged them to allow me to use their digital embroidery machine. Then, it was a process of working with fabric—an arduous process of measuring, sewing, and planning that I had never done before. But it was the perfect opportunity to do something like this before graduating!

Stirfried Tomato Egg 番茄炒蛋

To connect the quilt to the cookbook visually, I made each square of the quilt the same ratio and size as the pages of the book. The jade green is echoed in the embroidered border pattern as well as the quilt edges, and the typeface used is the same.

Ginger Scallion Noodles 葱姜炒面

Checkout the Behance post for more documentation of the quilt-making process.

What makes me proudest about this project is that now I have recipes that I can pass down to my children, as well as a quilt I can see becoming an heirloom in my family for generations to come!


Presentation Day

The Presentation

Finally, the day of the presentation. What good is a project if you can’t show it off in a deserving way?

I created a cozy corner in the RISD Graphic Design Commons, with rugs and chairs around a glass coffee table. I put 4 copies of the cookbook out on the table and on a cookbook stand, ordered a tablecloth of my icon designs as a pattern from Spoonflower, and cooked 4 out of the 9 recipes. In addition, I wore a qipao inspired dress made by NoDress, and MahJong tile earrings!

Food laid out on the table

I also created small labels for each of the foods and some unfamiliar Chinese ingredients.

Red Braised Pork Belly 红烧肉
Quilt being passed around
Coffee table setup
Large posters tiled on the wall

If you’ve made it this far in my article, thank you for taking the time! This project was certainly an amalgamation of all the things I’ve learned at RISD Graphic Design, and I hope that it touches the hearts of others who can read/see it, and who attended my presentation. Thank you to my family and friends who have supported my practice.

If you liked this project, leave an appreciation on Behance, follow me on Instagram @gentle.oriental (personal) and @widjajaja (my design account), like and share, press that clapping button!

On a serious note, I’m currently considering mass-producing the cookbook and will have updates soon on a possible Kickstarter campaign! Leave a comment below or send me a message if you’d be interested in contributing.

Thank you all!
Gabrielle Widjaja

Brand Designer Airtable
email me: gwidjajaaa@gmail.com
website: widjaja.io
twitter: @ gwidjajaaa

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