I’ve been told that I’m “not really Asian.” Sure, I have monolid eyes and black hair and both my parents and all my grandparents were born in China to Chinese parents — but, like, I’m “basically white.” The only thing Chinese about me, apparently, is my appetite for “exotic” cuts of meat: chicken feet, jellyfish, shark (yes, I know about the ecological devastation this causes; no, I don’t eat shark anymore).
So following that logic, of course I would visit MoCA’s exhibit on Chinese food in America (“Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America“). That was last month; it’s taken me a while to write this post, despite having already written two essays on food, because I’m still trying to figure out how to creatively write yet another think-piece on food and identity. So here’s me, trying yet again.
I grew up with a complicated connection to my culture. I spoke pidgin Cantonese with my parents and nanny. I attended Chinese school every Saturday morning for four years, learning to speak, read, and write my mother tongue. I wound up dropping out after third grade to play rec soccer (I lasted one season — a girl on the opposing team pushed me, I fell dangerously close to a pile of goose poop, and that was the end of my budding sports career).
We exchange lai see and feast on Chinese New Year but don’t eat mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival or visit our relatives’ resting places for Tomb-Sweeping Day.
I don’t know how to speak Chinese.
So when I watched the interviews with all those Chinese and Asian-American chefs — when I listened to Grace Young, who wrote the cookbook I immediately recognized from my childhood; and Danny Bowien, who connected to a culture lost to him through food — in the heart of Chinatown, where I so often keep my typically too-loud mouth shut so no one knows I can’t speak Chinese… I felt like I understood for once.
This is a wannabe think-piece, so of course it’s not just about food. It never is. It’s about who you make food with and eat food with and experience food with. I can’t necessarily speak with my grandma, but I can watch her make jook and lo bak go. I don’t know if I have jade jewelry to inherit, but I will get my grandfather’s pure cast-iron wok.
I read a post once which noted that Chinese people don’t really have recipes — not in the traditional sense. You don’t use a teaspoon of soy sauce or a tablespoon of white pepper powder. You do it all to taste. My mom makes her steamed egg with a top coat of soy sauce for color and a bit of salt; my aunt throws in browned meat and scallions for texture and substance. To cook Chinese food is to know a person, to adapt their tastes with your own.
So I’m cooking a love letter to my parents, my grandmother, my family; folding in curiosity and good intentions into the rice along with lap cheung and scrambled egg; saying, “Here, try this. Did I get it right? Am I learning the forgotten parts of myself correctly?”