It’s Not Them, It’s Us

The whole Francis Lam, Eddie Huang discourse on immigrant cuisine is exactly why I got into food writing.

” I think it’s great to develop cuisine. The problem though is that some people will go to Kin Shop, misunderstand its place in the canon and anoint that as the standard in Thai food.

This may not seem like a big deal, but I’ll tell you… A huge part of the reason I opened Baohaus is because everyone thought Momofuku pork buns were the original and it pissed me off. I’d been eating them since I was a kid, I knew they were from Taiwan and no one stuck up for us so I did. If you don’t defend the things that matter to you, no one will. Why do Asians like myself care so much about their food culture? It’s all we have to be proud of in this country! A lot of these ABCs don’t even speak Chinese, they’ve lost their tongue, all they have is this food. It matters. It matters a lot.” - Eddie Huang in Gilt Taste

A huge part of the reason I started writing about Chinese food is because everyone I knew in New York thought cream cheese wontons was real Chinese food and it pissed me off. A lot of people don’t realize the intricacies of Chinese food. They can’t tell the difference between Shanghainese cuisine and Sichuan cuisine. Heck — Sichuan food has become synonymous with Chinese food.

I agree Huang and Lam 100%. And as a fellow Taiwan-ren, it’s a sad reality that these people who have no connection to our culture are representing the Asian culture. I respect them though. I respect Andy Ricker, Travis Post and Rick Bayless.

But they shouldn’t be the ambassadors for Thai, Yunnan and Mexican food. When I interviewed Post for a piece (to be posted up soon…) he admitted he’s never even been to Yunnan.

The problem isn’t these “white chefs” (and I say the term reluctantly) though. It’s “us.” It’s the people who have the ability to take control of our culture but don’t. It’s the people who grow up with a immigrant background and know the language — but disown it because they are ashamed of the culture.

Heck, I grew up in a roughly 70% Taiwanese town. If you look at my baby videos, I speak English with a heavy Chinese accent. I was born in America. But as I grew up, there were moments when I was made fun of being Asian, and even within my Asian group of friends, to act “fobby” was weird. I began to disown my culture, shun Chinese, refuse to speak Mandarin to my non-English speaking parents. I moved to New York for college because it was the furthest away I could get away from my heavily bubbled up Chinese community.

But recently through food writing I’ve begun to realize the value of owning up to your culture. I see it as almost a duty. A duty to make Chinese food “cool” and interesting. Most importantly, a duty to make the real intricacies of the cuisine accessible.

What shocks me is how little people know. The Chinese culture is one of the oldest in the world and some of the dishes have histories that date back to the first dynasty of China. It’s history that’s recorded (albeit in Chinese) but forgotten here. What we know as Guilin rice noodles is actually a noodle dish that dates back 2,000 + years and sprouted out because of a military invasion (article to be posted later). Or take handmade noodles: so much history, so much geographic varieties.

People can eat what they want. But what matters is education – educating people on what authentic immigrant food is, letting people know the history and the background. Anyone with a computer can google “Taiwanese beef noodle soup,” but even the English historical background online is so limited.  Where are the Chinese speakers? Where are the representatives?

There needs to be more people like Eddie Huang and Francis Lam who represent their cultures with full force. It’s not these culinary imperialists who are the problem — it’s the people who have the background and capability to represent, but don’t.

Related pieces by me on authenticity:
Clarissa Wei: American-Chinese food is real Chinese food
(CNNGo)
10 Classic Taiwanese Dishes (LA Weekly)
L.A.’s Idea of Taiwanese Food vs. What Taiwanese People Really Eat (LA Weekly)
Why Pork Chop Over Rice Isn’t Classically Taiwanese