I was eight years old when I lost my lunch bag on a school field trip to the local water park. My second-grade teacher called the class over to a bench, waving a sandwich over her head, and asked if one of us dropped our lunch. It has some strange, weird meat in it, she said, peering through the saran wrap. If no one claims it, it’s going into the garbage. Strange meat. Garbage. Three loaded words. My heart dropped as I looked into my backpack, realizing I didn’t have my lunch bag in it. My mind raced back to that morning, as I watched my mom make my lunch in the kitchen, as she placed some leftover BBQ pork in between two slices of Wonder Bread. This always seemed completely normal to me–for much of my childhood, we were always trying to merge colliding worlds. It was my version of Frankenfood, a mishmash of what I loved to eat growing up and what I wanted to eat because of where I was growing up. My sandwich was a physical representation of who I was–someone in between cultures, a child experiencing what San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho so accurately refers to as, “assimilation cuisine…food that’s made to close the gap between homes: a critical need when one lives in exile. It’s hard to give it a label, but other immigrants and children of immigrants recognize it when they see it.” I took a breath, and, in that pause, my mind filled with a million thoughts, each one caught up in a hurricane of panic. The embarrassment, of being the rightful owner of the strange meat sandwich; the humiliation, because if I claimed said sandwich, everyone would know I was different and therefore, abnormal; the disappointment, if my mother ever found out that I carelessly lost my lunch and had nothing to eat that day. I couldn’t say out loud–in front of everyone no less–that the sandwich was mine. I couldn’t do it. I watched as she casually tossed my lunch into the garbage can. And that was that. The rest of the day, I was left with hunger pangs, as I played with my friends on the splashpad, weaving in and out of the water. Skipping a meal wasn’t the end of the world, but I knew that the real knots in my stomach I was left with that day were of a wholly different variety.
These microaggressions are not new. For children of immigrants, the struggle is also not new–this is something we have witnessed our ancestors quietly contending with for eons, since arriving to the New World for a better life and the hope of a more prosperous future. It is a baton that has been passed from generation to generation, ad infinitum, even if we were born in this new land. Second, third, even fourth generations can easily become a part of the collateral damage. I exist in a culture that is simultaneously exoticized and reviled. It is a very ambiguous space to live in. People want the cult favourite chili crisp condiment, but minus its complex origins.
I’ve always believed that food is community. Many other cultures can probably attest to a similar sentiment, but food in Chinese culture is often used as a primary means of communication, expressing emotions we are usually too reserved to display. Hello. How are you? Are you ok? I love you. I care. Food is our way of gathering, a means of physically and emotionally filling ourselves up. Food reminds us of home and what we eat is an extension of that. For us, the casual othering when it comes to our food is multi-layered, nuanced, and quietly insidious. We have all heard the tired rhetoric many times over: Chinese food leaves you hungry an hour later (we’ve taken your money and left you unsatiated); MSG is a dangerous neurotoxin, Chinese food is full of it, and therefore, our food is terribly unhealthy (umami, the fifth taste which captures the exact same glutamate molecule as MSG in the taste receptors, is the exciting foodie buzzword trending in Western cuisine); we eat questionable meats and vermin (although no one blinks an eye when rabbit, horse or even foie gras is served in the Western world). “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” is a term that was coined in the 1960’s by the New England Journal of Medicine and it still exists in Merriam Webster’s dictionary today. The negative connotations about our cuisine aren’t even hidden–they are right there, aggressively in plain sight. The judgement is constant. What we eat is always placed under a microscope, an experience that isn’t shared by many other cultures. Walking the streets of Hong Kong on an overseas work trip with my colleagues about fifteen years ago, I noticed how they would wrinkle their nose at the roasted meats hanging in the diner windows, saying it was uncouth and weird to see an animal on display, yet a Christmas turkey on a table wouldn’t elicit the same kind of reaction. These seemingly small, internalized biases about our cuisine are built into a system that was established many moons ago and are perpetuated through time, to the detriment of our community. In fact, the display of roasted meats is a showcase of skill and pride–in many cultures, not just Chinese culture, it is not only respectful to honour the entire animal you consume, but also expected. Every last bit and bob that would turn people off, we use in its entirety because if you’re willing to eat the best parts of an animal, you should be respectful enough to find creative ways to eat the whole kit and kaboodle. Who draws the lines? How can anyone begin to understand what it feels like to have the goalposts constantly moved? What we eat is only strange if it is foreign to you and you have no desire to learn about it. It is neither good nor bad, just different. Our differences give life color, leading to so many discoveries about a culture that we would be immune to otherwise. But we simply haven’t gotten around to this idea yet as a society.
“Unlike ‘fusion,’ which is often focused on aesthetic innovations and mashups, these immigrant dishes are more like culinary fugues, organically building upon a kernel of a memory over the course of generations and developing into a complicated and layered narrative. Like with any immigrant story, this style of cooking is all about telling the story of a family through its subtle gestures, quirks, and out-of-place ingredients.” – Soleil Ho
Chinese cuisine has been morphed and repurposed in so many ways as not only a means for our ancestors to secure employment in a new country, but also to hang onto the vestiges of the past in order to remember our roots. These are the very dishes that have subsisted many a generation, allowing immigrants to make a decent living and grow roots in this new life. My BBQ pork sandwich was no different than Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls or Chop Suey, dishes that were born out of necessity, to make our cuisine more palatable (and therefore less foreign) to a new audience. This blending of Old World versus New World also gave us agency and control over our narrative. By straddling the gap, we allowed ourselves to reframe our experience, one that we are still figuring out while living in real-time. In speaking with Soleil about our shared experiences of integrating cultures, she stated, “Assimilation food is absolutely a survival tactic, but I think for most, it’s not really about ‘assimilation’ per se. It’s very much informed by class as well as immigration status. The tastes of my parents’ generation adjusted to what was around, and those adaptations were passed onto their children.” Simply put, we used what was available in our environment and we made it work.
But who are we without our sense memory for food? My father owned a Chinese seafood restaurant when I was growing up and the food he cooked for me has unduly influenced my palate. To this day, I still think about his Ging Duo Pai Gwut (Peking-Style Pork Chop) when I miss home. His exact version is the one I crave the most. At the same time, I also think about my mother’s version of spaghetti that I asked her to make for me as a child, a dish I still love, cobbled together from dried instant noodles and a can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup. Food is so irrevocably woven into our identity that an outward rejection of what we eat is essentially a denunciation of who we are at our core. I am still working to reconcile both warring worlds within me, codeswitching between both languages and cultures. It’s a constant reckoning.
Over the past few years, there has been a simmering revolution against anti-Asian sentiment not only in the real world, but also in culinary circles. What we’ve long accepted was no longer tenable. We do not need our food to be “elevated”, nor do we need it to be “fused” with anything in order to be “made better”. The idea to wholly and proudly accept our food as enough felt radical, good, and right. “As a concept, fusion stinks of the imperialist instinct to civilize foreign cultures and rehabilitate them into respectability”, counters Soleil. The process of taking parts of Chinese cuisine and ingredients, dressing it up in hip branding to be made more acceptable and marketable to the general public, and monetizing it all only compounds the erasure. It feels like the Western world is being sold a version of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The packaging is cool, but what’s inside is still ours. Could it be capitalism? Absolutely. Could it be clean up in Chinese culture aisle five? Definitely. Two things can be true at the same time.
“The fact that our food is one thing that sets us apart isn’t a coincidence: We’re not supposed to be here. I’m not ashamed of this — but it makes me want to use this life to surgically pick apart what it means to crave “American-ness” and belonging. We live on stolen land; and we have had our lands stolen from us as well.” – Soleil Ho
The use of food as political resistance is an interesting concept because it allows us to make measured choices every single time we nourish ourselves. By choosing to embrace our dishes, even those that are lesser known (according to the Western population), we begin to integrate the pieces of who we are into a cohesive whole. We can take small steps to break down the barriers within ourselves and as a result, we can start the process of reconciliation in the world. Can we embrace the recipes passed down through our families, those with no exact measurements, but laden with history and stories, and use our cuisine to claim our space? This act can be a cultural history lesson and a call to action all rolled into one–this is more than just food; it is a social and political movement. This is our way to remove the stigma from our food. “Is it possible to use the word “ethnic” to simply connect us to a race and geography and let go of its use in a deeper cultural context? Until the nations of the world that are not part of the northern European geography…start collecting, celebrating, and sharing recipes from their own nations, the world that is beyond their shores will certainly find them other, lesser, and poorer in more ways than one,” says Suvir Saran, a Michelin star chef and educator who has been on a culinary mission to introduce Indian cuisine to mainstream palates since the mid-1990s in New York City. How we eat and what we eat can be a form of resistance against Sinophobia–this is who we are, no different from who you are. There is nothing to fear.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the decimation of Chinatowns and family-owned Chinese restaurants in cities all over the world. The fear that we are contagious bat-eating people to blame for the coronavirus has all but boarded up the busiest of shops, but to what end? It is an impossible thing to reconcile, that the general population can cherry pick the perceived “best parts” of our culture and ignore the fact that our entire community is hurting in immeasurable ways. The effects of this are far reaching, beyond the obvious reasons–the death of culture, livelihoods, heritage or legacy. One of the more unfortunate effects is the lack of availability of nourishing, affordable, and familiar food in the Chinese communities going forward. Historically, the precedent for affordable Chinese food was set in the mid-1860’s, when Chinese restaurants were established to serve the railroad workers who were making two-thirds of what their white counterparts were making. The low prices were meant to acknowledge and accommodate their plight. To this day, there is still a conflation of cheap Chinese food with lesser quality or craftsmanship, which was never the case–Chinese workers simply made less money and restaurants (and society) never seemed to evolve past that. Today, in every city, anyone who is tight on cash can head to Chinatown to eat nutritious food, filled with vegetables and noodles or rice, both for the vegetarian or carnivorous palate, with plenty of leftovers to spare. This food is for everyone. Yet, we are constantly made to feel like we are not a part of the collective. The future of Chinatown and the survival of its food establishments now hang in the balance. Will any of them exist after COVID-19?
The individual choices that we make can add up. The choice you make to be proud of what you eat, what your community eats, is not a small, insignificant act; rather, it is these singular choices that spur you to make bigger, more confident declarations about who you are and the things that you stand for. There was a full year after my Strange Meat Sandwich Incident where I only ate Cheeze Whiz on Wonder Bread for lunch so I would never have to be put in an awkward situation again, although at the time, I would have simply told you that processed cheese was just something I was really into during second grade. Trust me–no one loves Cheese Whiz that much. Every time we put something in our mouths, every time we order takeout, every time we consult a recipe, we owe it to ourselves to be more mindful of the choices we make. What are we eating? Who are we buying from? Who created this recipe? And why? Is there something truly strange and scary about people who are different from you or is their culture worth exploring, beyond the easy surface tokens you like to pick and choose from? Chinese culture is more than aesthetic concepts selectively taken and GOOP-ified to make more palatable for the wider world. Our history is intricate, and our cuisine can tell a million stories. In place of perpetuating othering, oppression, and erasure, if the world chooses to walk the path of acceptance and understanding instead, we would discover, at the root of it all, that we are not that different from each other. We are what we eat. And we’ll have a place for you at our table when you’re ready.
Please lend your support to Chinese-owned businesses in order to support the community through this pandemic. If you’re considering takeout, consider ordering from your local mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant. Most importantly, always be proud of who you are and the things you eat.
Photography by: Apoorva Nisbood
 Ho, Soleil. “Let’s Call It Assimilation Food”. Taste. June 26, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2021. https://www.tastecooking.com/lets-call-assimilation-food/
 Nierenberg, Amelia. “The Campaign to Redefine ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’”. January 16, 2020. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/16/dining/msg-chinese-restaurant-syndrome-merriam-webster-dictionary.html
 Saran, Suvir. “Racism in food? US, North European cuisines enjoy a privileged status, while others are named ‘ethnic’”. September 15, 2019. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/food-drinks/why-is-our-food-called-ethnic/articleshow/71130768.cms?from=mdr
 Prois, Jessica. “We Pay Low Prices For Chinese Food Because Of Racial Biases About ‘Cheap’ Labour”. May 26, 2017. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/cheap-chinese-food-labor_n_5927075ee4b062f96a34c9cc?ri18n=true