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Identity is a funny thing. How we view ourselves versus how others view us. The labels we choose to embrace or reject, sometimes slapped on our backs without permission or our knowledge, feeling jarringly like “Kick Me” signs. I have spent the majority of my life struggling to reach behind me to remove mine.
For over 25 years, ever since I first learned as a child that “different” and “special” were disparate concepts, I was a pick-me girl working hard to erase my own cultural identity. I took pride in willful ignorance of my own heritage; I wasn’t like “other Asians” and tried to fit as few of the stereotypes as I could. In a school of 300 where I was only one of three AAPI students in any given year, I felt it was, in fact, my responsibility to prove the diversity of our people—to single-handedly battle the overwhelming preconceived tropes by being not one of them.
Like the American snacks I so loved to eat, I was a Twinkie—yellow on the outside, white on the inside. And I was good with that.
Or so it went until COVID hit. The wave of anti-Asian violence has continued beyond the peak of the pandemic and hasn’t stopped shaking the community I didn’t think I was much a part of. And yet, there is so little impact or attention from the world I thought I was.
As report after report rolled in of grandmas being punched 125 times to near-death, bludgeoning by hammers of young Asian men, toddlers being stabbed in broad daylight, grandpas being violently attacked by children—all in the year after the deadly shooting at an Asian spa just 30 minutes from where I live in Atlanta—I realized the truth of the plight of Asian Americans across the country. Even becoming the epitome of American excellence, an Olympic gold medal-winner, was not enough to excuse Sunisa Lee of being pepper-sprayed in a racist attack not long after her victories. I started to hear a refrain in my head in greater and greater desperation: “love us like you love our food.”
Because as the influences of our flavors trend hot, perhaps the only way out of danger, then—to dig out of hatred and violence—is through the universal truth of food. Not only to unite us as it historically has, but with higher stakes … to prove the value of our very existence to the world at large.
“I was a Twinkie—yellow on the outside, white on the inside. And I was good with that.”
I’d cut my teeth on food writing in New Orleans, a legendary culinary capital of the South. Growing up in eastern Long Island, New York, where you were Italian, Irish, Jewish, or bust, I mastered a killer Sunday sauce, homemade meatballs and all; and I was proud to make a better matzo brei than my ex-husband, a Sicilian Catholic with Jewish grandparents. When I married him, I was excited to finally have the kind of last name that was romanticized in my youth, one with two capital letters and an unmistakable Italian lilt. I was so close—right there to being white, to shedding my banana peel.
I never set out to write about Chinese food, nor about Chinese-American identity.
My parents tried to keep me proud, but being “different” in a homogenous student body quickly beats it out of you. As immersed as I was in the life of a Chinese takeout kid, working at Chinese restaurants from the time I could serve ice cream in my grandpa’s sit-down place (4 years old) to when I rebelled and got my working permit (16 years old), I purposefully turned a blind eye to it. Subsequently, when I was offered my first Chinese-adjacent reference article for a major publication, I had grave reservations.
I felt like a fraud for writing about food that I’d watched others make. I felt like an imposter without enough context from others in the community to get a sense of what was “real,” what was “authentic,” or “traditional.”
When I was given another, then another story, I worried about being pigeonholed. Worst yet, pigeonholed without adequate credentials.
But in this journey, I learned how much I really did know. As our food became more popular and the demand to understand it grew, I started to regain pride in my heritage as I learned more about it—and how ingrained inherent, proximal knowledge can be.
When I researched, I learned that the things that were so obvious to me, so second nature, were actually earth-shattering revelations to others. While I wrote, I started to appreciate just how much I’d absorbed through lived experience, or even osmosis. And as people read more with increasing demand, I grew bolder, standing up straighter even with the “Kick Me” sign askew on my back.
I started to embrace and admit that yes, I love the sound that wok range flames make when it bursts in a shower of sparks. I love the efficiency of Chinese cooking techniques, like the back and forth tossing used for fried rice. And by golly do I love our flavors, with ingredients I took for granted or was embarrassed to confess were staples because they were “weird,” like fish sauce and oyster sauce.
The more hate crimes that came to light, the more determined I was to learn about the food I grew up with but didn’t have names for—food I knew by sight but didn’t know by meaning. I made a more conscious effort to ask my dad questions that annoyed him, to have conversations with other Asian folks in food. I intentionally gave traditional foods I didn’t think I liked an unbiased second chance, the better to combat naysayers to the cuisine of my people.
I began to invite my inner circle in, too.
“The more hate crimes that came to light, the more determined I was to learn about the food I grew up with but didn’t have names for.”
It’s funny—as a writer, it’s easy to pour your knowledge, your personal stories to an anonymous audience of many. You assume your friends and family may not read your essays; they know you well enough, so why would they? But as I began to talk more openly about my family’s traditions and beliefs, our recipes and food, I learned that they were interested, curious, and literally hungered for it.
The culmination of this was this past Lunar New Year.
Despite having written joyously about the holiday, I had no intention of celebrating Chinese New Year myself. My senior dog’s health couldn’t withstand the journey from Georgia to New York; it was an inconvenient Monday; and I’d never had a Chinese New Year when anyone but my chef father cooked.
But more importantly, who else cared? With all of these attacks on our people and no subsequent uproar, who on earth cared about people who look like me, who celebrate like me?
But the weekend before Reunion Dinner on New Year’s Eve, I decided, screw it. It’s the year of the tiger, and when better to publicly own the stripes that make me look so “different?” The most ferocious way I could truly stand my ground against the wave of AAPI anathema was to love my people’s ways as much as others hated it. To resist erasure.
I took the day off work in a frenzy of last-minute preparation. I drove 45 minutes out of town to a Cantonese barbecue shop where my boyfriend bought his first whole roasted duck and watched, fascinated, as they transformed it into bite sizes. I shopped at a faraway international market like a madwoman, looking for Chinese leeks, Shanghai bok choy, tree ears, Japanese eggplant, and other ingredients that would be new and novel for my guests.
I called my dad in New York half a dozen times, asking for six-second pointers on how to make dishes I’d never made, asking his seasoning sequence for fried pork chop nuggets, how he braised star anise-scented eggs. I texted him pictures of the beautifully fat sea bass I picked out, the lumpy, misshapen Shu Mai my friends gathered to make before dinner, the red clothing they threw on for luck.
In mere hours, I turned out a feast of 15 dishes for six friends who cared enough about me and my culture to come over on a cold, wintry Monday night to celebrate my heritage with me. And for longer than that, we drank, we ate, we toasted to diversity, laughing at things as silly as the identical Sumo oranges they brought after Googling Chinese New Year guest customs.
And that night, I realized I’d accomplished what AAPI people have been asking for these hard years, if only for one perfect moment. I felt what it was to be loved for my culture as well as our food.
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