Food as a Way Back Home
a short story by Ella Ip
Dear Asian Youth,
As an Asian-American, I am not living in my native country. Asia is quite far from where I live right now, so oftentimes, I don’t visit. You can say that I’ve become “Americanized” in a way. I go to a predominately white prep school, and I am not actively in touch with many native-born Asians (besides my family). But something I still retain from my Asian heritage is my taste for food. Since my family is from Hong Kong, I remember frequently heading to busy dim sum restaurants and eating home-cooked meals. I miss sinking my teeth into crispy pork belly (siu yuk) and shoveling heaps of chewy rice into my mouth. When I was small, I remember kids would be weirded out because I’d tell them I ate soup dumplings (xiao long bao) and Peking duck. I mean, clearly, there are cultural differences between myself and Caucasian kids, but I’ve never felt embarrassed by my traditional food. I enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a sense of nostalgia, but I wouldn’t trade it for a delicious bowl of shrimp fried rice. I grew up eating many different dishes from all around the world: Japanese, Korean, Indian, French, Italian … the list of cuisines goes on and on. But I’ve met some people who have never eaten Asian food in their entire life, and I just pity them. My family always exposed me to food outside my culture in order to diversify my palate.
I associate family heavily with food. Whenever we get together as a family at home and my grandfather makes lobster noodles (yee mein) or we go out to the Chinese supermarket to buy groceries for the week, I reminisce about my childhood. I recall going to Chinese school as a child and getting sweet rice cakes for snacks during resting periods. During Chinese New Year, I would munch on sticky rice wrapped in leaves (zong zi) and drink Yakult to wash it all down. I’m glad that my parents didn’t try to assimilate my taste buds to suit America. I’m glad they instill the pride of our native dishes in me. Heritage is an important part of my identity, and it makes me sad to see someone become too wrapped up in “American” culture. No matter how much I change as a person, I can never change my race. I will always be Chinese and I am proud of that. When I was younger, children used to make faces at our ethnic dishes, and now they enjoy them in a variety of restaurants. I’m glad I never let judgment turn me away from delicious Asian dishes and I can still appreciate them with my fellow Asian friends. I find solace in the fact that we can connect through food because we remember growing up eating the same thing.
I would love to travel to Hong Kong and walk the streets, sampling my favorite snacks. I think the locals would be able to tell that I’m a foreigner, but our tastes in food would tie us together. Food is a way to bring a piece of Hong Kong back to America for me. I’m not a skillful cook, so I am hoping time in quarantine can give me a chance to learn some Cantonese dishes. I always reminisce about the fresh taste attached with all the food I had growing up. Hong Kong loves to incorporate seafood into their dishes, so I still love eating protein such as fish and lobster.
My fondest memory growing up was watching my grandfather cook in the kitchen and give me a spoon to taste the food. He always made sure that I remembered where I came from and told me stories of life in Hong Kong. I might have grown up American, but I still have a Chinese stomach. I am glad people of many cultures appreciate Chinese dishes, but I don’t think they will ever have that same cultural connection to it that I do. If you haven’t tried Asian food yet, just give it a try. You don’t really know what you don’t and do like until you try it. Something you might find “odd” or “weird” could be an integral part of someone’s native roots, so don’t be judgmental. A dish might simply be a dish for you. But for me, it is a way to remind myself of my roots.