If you can talk about food and if you can talk about football, you can have a good long talk with at least 75 percent of all Americans. That’s a theory of mine, and while I don’t have the science to prove it, I hold on to it tight. Talking to people is important. As a writer, the stories I love writing most are the ones I find, told to me by people who entrust them to me. It’s my work and passion, talking with people. But it wasn’t always—maybe isn't ever—easy.
When I was on the cusp of high school, my cousin, always more popular but just as yellow-skinned as me, told me, “Girls aren’t really going to want to talk to you, because you’re Chinese. You gotta deal with that.” (Then he showed me to how throw some Jersey swagger into my walk. I practiced in front of a mirror for days.) For the next four years, whether because of my race or my culture or my weak-ass walk, getting girls to talk to me was a failing extracurricular.
Through those years, I held on to what my cousin said, because I’d been having some version of that conversation for the first two decades of my life. I remember another older cousin, talking about the mysterious otherworld of
If you can talk about food and football, you can talk with at least 75 percent of all Americans.
college, telling me that all those frat parties I saw in movies were filled with people who “wouldn’t invite you to the party.” I remember, when calling my grandfather to come pick me up from school, I’d first walk down the hall, around the corner, to the payphone by a long-abandoned thatch of lockers so that no one would have to hear me speak to him in Cantonese. I didn’t want anyone to hear me, Chinese and talking.
I got over those hangups, eventually, and I guess I did it with a vengeance when I became a writer who is really mostly a talker armed with a notebook. Because whatever “talking to people” meant on the surface – getting phone numbers, dates, or interviews for stories – it always means something else underneath: That you belong.
And talking to people about food is a great way to establish that you belong. Because food is often so personal, so much about memory and family and what you were raised with and what matters to you, it's a pointed way to get to know people that’s also broad enough to let strangers into conversation easily. For all those same reasons, it's a powerful way to talk about culture—not from up in the academic tower, but in details that matter on the ground, in peoples’ lives.
So here’s something I say a lot: I eat food because I love food. I cook food because I love food. But I write about food because I love people. I love talking with people. I love belonging with people.
I am an American. There’s no “joining” here. It just is what it is.
That’s not an uncommon story; you don’t go very long in conversations with food writers before someone says that food is “all about coming together.” I appreciate that. But what you don’t hear enough of is also how it’s not all sweetness and light. Our relationships with food are as complicated as our relationships with ourselves and each other, which is to say: really goddamned complicated.
One day, somewhere around 10 years old, I was at my parents’ Chinatown shop, reheating some pork and pickles for myself—delicious leftovers from the lunch my dad bought for me—when a Very Important Client came in. The first words he said, in a haughty British accent dripping with disgust, were, “What in God’s name is that awful smell?” I looked down at my plate. I pretended to be mortified, too, and threw it away. That’s how I learned about shame. Anything as powerful as food can do just as much harm as it can good.
All of this, I admit, is a long way to get back to a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Eddie Huang—the chef/owner of BaoHaus in New York and a friend—about what it means when food that “belongs” to your culture gets cooked by someone else. We talked for a long, winding time about what it means to cook someone else’s cuisine with or without respect, and we ended with a disagreement on it means to call something “American.”
I said that I want a broad definition of “American,” one that actively includes the contributions of its immigrants and celebrates them. Eddie resisted, saying, “we have come to see America as a processing plant that imports materials and people from all around the globe, chews them up, and spits out something new that bears the blood, sweat and tears of something foreign, yet claimed and branded American. It's not fair.”
It’s a fair disagreement, one based more or less on whether you think “America” is a concept—a noble ideal of strength in diversity, connected to a country that constantly reinvents itself—or whether you think it’s just a place, one that sells you a false bill of goods. What can I say? I’m in the first camp. Maybe I’m soft. I want to believe in the good.
I eat food because I love food. I cook food because I love food. But I write about food because I love people.
I thought about all this again when Eddie went back to the subject the other day on his blog. Like most Huang joints, it's intended to get you thinking, maybe rattle you a little bit. In it, he writes that life in America is all about conflict: “America is an adversarial society…Your life begins as an American when you recognize and accept that nothing you have will be given to you; it’s taken.” Later, he writes, “As much as I love Francis Lam, his ideas about aspiring to ‘join’ America lead to the loss of your culture…” He uses the word “assimilation” to describe what I’m talking about.
I learned a lesson in assimilation that day I threw out my lunch. I wanted to get rid of the food the Big Important Man found disgusting, wash myself of my uncouth ethnicity. (Sure, he was British, but when you’re feeling like a foreigner in our country anyway, Brits are like UltraAmericans.) I wanted to blend in. I wanted him to extend his acceptance, or at least stop scrunching his face at me.
Years later, in 7th grade, I learned again about assimilation, hearing that word for the first time. Assimilation is what the “mixing pot” is all about, my social studies teacher said—people coming to America from all over the world, shedding their old cultural skin and taking on the language and culture of what they found here. It’s about giving up to blend in, and Eddie makes this point furiously: “you lose everything you came with in exchange for false moral approval.” I think of my friend’s Italian immigrant grandfather, who refused to eat garlic his whole life, terrified it would make him smell “too ethnic.”
But then my teacher said something I’ll never forget: “That’s how we used to think of it. Now, we can think of America more like a mixed salad, where all the ingredients are different, but they add up to a whole.”
It was both the goofiest and most important analogy I’d ever heard. It took me years to learn that lesson into my bones—remember, even after this I still hid so that other kids wouldn’t hear me speaking in Cantonese— but it’s the basis now of what it means, to me, to be an American: I AM A PART OF YOUR SALAD. (That really doesn’t sound any better, even 20 years later.) And the corollary is just as important: YOU ARE A PART OF MY SALAD. (I’m being serious, but it’s impossible to say that with a straight face.)
Whatever “talking to people” means on the surface, it always means something else underneath: That you belong.
I don’t really understand what it would mean for me to “defend my culture” if that culture is supposed to be “Chinese” or even “Hong Kong Cantonese”. I grew up in what I can only call a seriously immigrant household—we ate “Chinese” food every night in that there was a bowl of rice at every setting and we spun food around on an aspirational-fancy lazy susan once we could afford the Lucite one instead of the brown plastic one. But on that spinning wheel of delights would be greens stir fried with garlic and ginger (traditional), beef stewed with tomatoes (traditional, but tomatoes came from the New World to begin with), and sautéed porterhouse steak, served sliced but whole on the bone (not traditional, but on special at the Shop Rite). We ate soy sauce chicken from Chinatown and fried chicken from Roy Rogers.
So this is what I’m saying: Roy Rogers is a part of my culture. Supermarket steak is a part of my culture. But just as importantly, stir frying is a part of your culture. Eating with a bowl of your rice as the focus of your meal is a part of your culture. Whether you do these things or not, whether they are done “the right way” in your experience or not, whether you understand them or not, they are a part of American culture, your culture. Because I am an American. There’s no “joining” here. It just is what it is.
I like to talk, now, in the language my parents grew up with, even when I’m in public. I don’t throw away my food anymore if you think it smells strange; I might offer you some, and I will talk with you about it. And I’ll talk with you about what it is that you’re eating, or what language your parents grew up with. I’m a pretty good talker. I can crack a few jokes, listen and pay attention and ask you questions. Maybe we’ll have a good time, and maybe we’ll walk away from each other, because it’s not always easy. Eddie talks about how you have to “take” your culture, to “make your own America.” This is how I take it, how I put my stake in the ground. I talk with you. And, in talking, we belong together.