How I grapple with Chinese food, authenticity and ownership

After publishing this column in the Washington Post in August, I was invited to speak at the 2015 Longhouse Food Revival in Rensselaer, New York, in September. Here are my prepared remarks.

I’ve been writing and producing news for two years in Washington, D.C., and last week I published a column in the Washington Post about my relationship with Chinese food — specifically with my dad’s beef brisket stew — and how I went from being ashamed of my family’s food to appreciating it. In the same column, I addressed how America’s relationship with Chinese food has changed in my lifetime.

To give you a quick timeline: as a child, I thought the way my family ate was interesting –special, even. I wasn’t made to feel ashamed of it until I was made fun of — and in a way that demoted my race as well as my family’s food. After this happened enough times I started to phase Chinese food out of my life until recently. Now that I’ve come to terms with the way I tried to cover up my family’s culture and history, I’ve become more attune to the ways trendy restaurants are doing the same.

In my piece, I cautioned against exoticizing immigrant food by treating it like a trend:

In the United States, immigrant food is often treated like discount tourism — a cheap means for foodies to feel worldly without leaving the comfort of their neighborhood — or high-minded fusion — a stylish way for American chefs to use other cultures’ cuisines to reap profit. The dishes of America’s recent immigrants have become check marks on a cultural scavenger hunt for society’s elite.

I ended with a list of resources I thought would endear people to learning more about Asian food –and I got a great response. Immigrants and children of immigrants sent me messages about their own experiences and coworkers asked me for my dad’s ngau lam recipe.

But for every person that messaged me saying that they could relate to my experience, it seemed like ten people would respond negatively.

Even though I heralded acceptance of immigrant food as “a positive change,” readers questioned why I wasn’t excited, grateful or relieved that white Americans had begun to embrace my culture. They accused me of ignoring their chapter in the story of American food. Some diagnosed me with reverse racism. Others suggested therapy.

An overwhelming number just didn’t understand why I was talking about it. To many non-Chinese readers who grew up with Chinese American food, this was simply a non-issue. And I get that.

But here’s the thing: The Chinese food served in Chinese American restaurants, is not necessarily the food that is served among Chinese people in their own homes. There is Chinese culture that non-Asian Americans are okay with there is Chinese culture that they are not okay with. For a century and a half, this has been the status quo.

Beef and broccoli, yes. Ngau lam, gross.

Now, globalization and celebrity chef culture have brought a new wave of food consumption –one that has led to a new chapter in Asian American cuisine. Many Americans are becoming more interested in the Asian cuisine that hasn’t been popular in the past. Sushi has been considered mainstream for years, but now, the category includes dim sum, Korean barbecue, pho, ramen and many other dishes.

But I was at the National Book Festival down in D.C. last weekend and University of Minnesota professor Erika Lee asked me something, which I remember distinctly:

“Now that mainstream America is embracing more of Asian America, let’s examine the ways that they do it. In what ways does the Americanization of Asian culture obscure the role of Asians?”

This is a question worth asking.

In writing this article, I never wanted to claim sole ownership over making and consuming Chinese food. That’s impractical and severely limiting.

I do want to stake territory over our history.

Food can be reinvented and remixed, but not its history.

If pungent and obscure Asian food is delicious now, it was always delicious. I want new fans of Asian food to know that our food has a story –and it didn’t start with them, or me for that matter.

I say that because this conversation is so much bigger than me, my family, my hometown and my Chinese American community. And in order for the discussion on culture and ownership to advance, we need to grapple with these issues.

I get that most people only eat to make it through the next chunk of the day, and that my plea is for those that are privileged to be dining out and eating for pleasure.

But if you are in that latter group, if you live in a city where “brunch” is a verb and people wait for hours to get into top-reviewed restaurants, I’d encourage you not to waste your appetite on mindlessly following trends. If it’s experience you seek, opt for one that provides a rich story alongside its food.

Use food as a way to empathize with others. To find weird and and amazing connections.

But don’t use food as a single token for suddenly understanding or discovering a new culture.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can encourage this in a practical way. And at first, I thought it was going to be really hard. Is being mindful about the food that we eat a difficult needle to thread? Or does it simply require a modicum of empathy?

This could be as simple as being as conscientious a diner as you are a curious one. Or seeking food writing that educates more than arbitrates. It could mean encouraging chefs to credit their inspirations and learn more about those influences.

As I said in my piece, many diners are becoming increasingly interested in where food is sourced –why can’t that interest extend to a meal’s cultural roots as well as its biological origins?

For me, moving forward means examining how I can draw attention to Chinese America’s culinary history so it’s not forgotten.

I don’t own Chinese food. All I own is my experience with it, which has already changed so much in my lifetime. I’m so grateful to have shared it with others, and all I can hope is that it inspires more people of all backgrounds to do the same.

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