I’d like to think of myself as a complex human person comprised of an intersection of multiple identities. But if I were to narrow it down to two identities, they would be: 1. Asian American and 2. foodie. As I’ve become more comfortable with my Asian American identity in recent years, I’ve realized how integral food has been to my acceptance of my own cultural confusion and misinterpretations as a first-generation child.
I grew up with an understanding that culture and language are sometimes impossible to translate. From a young age, it was apparent that my immigrant parents found great difficulty in communicating the nuances of their Chinese and Taiwanese cultural backgrounds to my brother and me. Screaming matches of anxious miscommunication and tears lost in translation accompanied by silent triumphs in moments of clarity between my parents and me have thus encapsulated the delicate balance of my first-generation identity that I continue to navigate and attempt to understand.
The challenges I grew up with (and continue to face today) of connecting with my parents due to cultural ambiguities are undeniable, but no challenge was ever great enough to trump our daily family dinners. Regardless of whatever crazy spat we had five minutes prior, every night at 6 p.m., my family would sit down together for a perfectly curated meal of Chinese food homemade by my mother: rice, three sides, and a soup – new dishes each night depending on the seasonal ingredients available at the local farmers market.
Enjoying dinner together as a family was not a rule, but an unspoken understanding of gratitude, affection, and necessity. And as the dinner table and my mother’s impeccable food have proven to be the glue holding my family together, Chinese food in particular has become the one constant aspect of my multicultural identity which I fully love and embrace.
It was a great surprise to me when I moved to New York City for college that Chinese food was culturally established as and commonly referred to by my non-Chinese peers as “cheap,” “oily,” “drunk food.” I didn’t know whether to be offended or sad beyond my pure confusion when my freshman roommate (a white girl from Richmond, Virginia) said: “Chinese food? Isn’t that for poor people?”. Compared to the common perception of Chinese food being healthy, farm-to-table, and a privilege to eat in my Silicon Valley hometown where my public school’s graduating class was 83.6% Asian (mostly first generation, many of Chinese descent like me), this non-Chinese/ white American perception of Chinese food was bizarre and incomprehensible to me.
I quickly realized that the students at my NYC college – mostly white, upper-middle class, from suburbs in the Northeast – had a very limited understanding of Chinese food, unaware that Panda Express and cheap restaurants featured on Seamless are in fact, nothing close to authentic Chinese cuisine. Rather, their idea of “Chinese food” was actually an entirely separate cuisine called Chinese American food.
The purpose of this capstone project was originally to address my personal confusion about the perception of Chinese food among my non-Chinese friends. Over the past few months, this website has evolved into a comprehensive analysis of Chinese cuisine and its place within the discourses of Chinese American immigration patterns, the Chinese diaspora, and racial stereotyping in the United States. I hope that my re-articulation of these phenomenona in the context of food informs and inspires you to help me continue this conversation in your daily lives. Perhaps one day, the perception of Chinese food in the United States can be shifted to appropriately reflect the comfort and ease which it provides for my Asian American identity.