By Kevin Gong
As odes and memorials to Christopher Columbus are increasingly scrutinized, a term has emerged to more accurately honor his legacy: “Columbusing,” or when someone claims to discover something that, in fact, already exists. As an Asian-American, a lot of the Asian food that I grew up with has been columbused, but now it’s happening more than ever.
Amid the preteen cacophony of my elementary school lunchroom, I’d occasionally hear someone yell, “What’s that smell?” or “Ew, what is that?” in my direction. I’d immediately turn red. In the middle of a sea of Lunchables, Smuckers PB&J sandwiches and school lunches, I was one of the only kids who brought Asian food.
The experience was traumatizing. I felt like I had to choose between my cultural background and assimilating into the white culture at school. Eventually, I started throwing away my food to fit in (which is awful, considering my mom put a lot of effort into making that food). I thought bringing my lunch would prevent me from making new friends.
Ruth Tam, another Chinese-American who experienced a similar phenomenon growing up, has written about the shame often associated with “immigrant food.”
“My hunger for my family’s food was overpowered by my desire to fit in,” she wrote. “So I minimized Chinese food’s role in my life and learned to make pasta instead.”
But now I’m encountering another kind of reaction: People from outside our culture are “pioneering” the types of food that people like Ruth and I were heckled over as kids to a wider, whiter American audience.
Here are just a few examples:
In August, the New York Times published an article with the headline: “The Blobs in Your Tea? They’re Supposed to Be There” in reference to boba (or sometimes “bubble”) tea. (They’ve since changed the headline and the story.) The outlet referred to the drink as if it had been relatively unknown until they reported on it. This is ridiculous for many Americans like myself — as a kid, I grabbed boba milk tea on my way home from high school every time I had a few extra dollars to spend. Casually getting boba at tea bars with friends is just something people do in the San Gabriel Valley, where I’m from, and in other cities with a significant East Asian presence. The drink has been available in the U.S. since the 1990s.
I grew up drinking coconut water whenever I visited Southeast Asia, where my extended family has lived for generations. I would use a spoon to scoop and eat the flesh of the coconut after I was done drinking from it.
But recently, corporations like Whole Foods, Costco and others have started profiting from coconut water in a big way. Vita Coco is largely credited for starting the coconut water industry in the U.S. And its founders accredit their “discovery” of coconut water to a conversation they had with Brazilian women at a bar.
Coconut water is now a billion-dollar industry, packaged by giant brands like Zico (owned by Coca-Cola), Naked (owned by PepsiCo) and Vita Coco. But people who live in tropical regions (including Southeast Asia) have been using it for thousands of years; it’s even been used as a replacement for IV fluid during emergencies. Americans’ interest in coconut water has exploded; it’s 14 times larger now compared to 10 years ago.
Pho is nothing new. Neither is ramen. But Bon Appétit Magazine presented it last year as if it was dethroning an outdated “ramen fad.” Saying “Pho is the new ramen” is as silly as saying “Pizza is the new cheeseburger.” They are two different foods that have distinct origins and should be treated as such. The video posted to their Facebook (which has since been taken down) featured a white chef explaining the proper way to eat pho.
Because of incidents like these, you might understand why it’s upsetting if someone opens a food business based on an “exotic” culture that isn’t theirs — one that’s already been heavily Orientalized. You can’t call yourself an “expert” of a type of cuisine you’ve only minimally immersed yourself in.
Asian food and the American dream
Many Chinese restaurants in the U.S. are family businesses run by immigrants living in cramped housing situations. Some of the best Chinese food I know is served up in poorly kept buildings that don’t necessarily emphasize aesthetic presentation — to me, it’s a sign of authenticity.
So it doesn’t feel quite right when a trendy “ethnic” restaurant capitalizes on a fad to compete against more authentic food cooked by immigrants who are barely making it. One is out of necessity, the other’s merely riding a trend. The cuisine is most likely not a lived experience for the latter. It almost feels as if these restaurateurs are stealing the American dream from them.
I love the Chinese and Asian food that I grew up with. It’s my comfort food, and I hold it close to my heart. I can find it in nearly every city that I visit. My love for this food is also the reason why I get worked up when I only see it getting accolades when it’s presented in a white-centric context.
Of course, I encourage trying out different cuisines, but my hope is that the experience of eating immigrant food fosters discussions about its cultural context. After all, food is one of the most accessible entry points to any culture. But since columbusing often includes a lack of acknowledgement or even an erasure of a food’s roots, we need to remember to appreciate food based on its origins and not its “discovery.”
Check out our series on Chinese food in America: