Dear Asian Youth,
When trying new foods from different cultures we are unfamiliar with, a common question is often posed: “Is it authentic?” But what does authenticity really mean? How does one judge if a food or restaurant is authentic or not? And who has the right to give out stars of approval for authenticity? People often ask me when trying out a new Chinese restaurant if the food there is authentic, which triggers a sort of imposter syndrome in me. How could I possibly know if this is authentic Chinese food? I didn’t grow up in China. I grew up eating Panda Express like all the white kids around me. Of course, my grandparents would cook me Chinese dishes sometimes too, and we would go out to dim sum with family; but this in no way made me an expert on authentic Chinese cuisine. I have been schooled by others on what authentic Chinese food is supposed to look like. But if fortune cookies aren’t authentic, then why did my Chinese great uncle give me fortune cookies every time I would see him? If chop suey isn’t real Chinese food, how come that’s one of the “Chinese” dishes my Chinese grandpa has mastered?
When I was in fifth grade, we studied a unit on Asian geography. At the end of learning this unit, we had a celebration called “The Asian Feast”. Each kid was assigned a country in Asia to research and bring a dish from that country’s cuisine to school for the feast. Obviously, everyone in the class was hoping to be assigned Japan or China since those were the Asian foods they were all most familiar with. To their dismay, most of them were assigned countries they had barely heard of and as one of the only Chinese kids in the class, I got the privilege of being assigned China. In retrospect, I realize that the teachers probably assumed my Chinese mother would make a delicious and authentic Chinese dish for me to bring to the feast. Little did they know, my mother is an entire generation removed from the “motherland” and at this time, could barely cook a breast of chicken let alone an impressive, authentically Chinese dish to feed a classroom of children learning about the cultures of Asia. But when my mother saw me come home from school, so excited to be assigned the most coveted Asian country in the class, she knew she had to try her best to make it work. She asked me what Chinese dish we should make for the feast, and I decided the best Chinese dish we could make would be beef and broccoli. Yes, beef and American broccoli. Like Panda Express beef and broccoli. In fact, I’m pretty sure we just googled the recipe and directly replicated the Panda Express beef and broccoli, and I was pleased because that was the goal. Now imagine my white teachers’ and classmates’ dismay when the Asian Feast came around and my mom and I walked into school carrying a giant steaming tray of Panda Express beef and broccoli. It was not exactly the authentic Chinese meal they had all envisioned when assigning China to the Chinese kid.
The point of this little story is not to bash beef and broccoli, but to question what we consider authentic and why. Authenticity becomes a complicated concept when talking about Asian American culture or any diasporic group for that matter. Many of us are multiple generations removed from Asian countries and all we have left to hold onto is the bits and pieces of culture that have been passed down to us by our parents and their parents. Asian culture does not live in a vacuum and neither does Asian food. When my grandpa first immigrated to the U.S. he worked in his family restaurant. Since his family was the minority, they wanted to serve foods that would cater to the majority white community in which they opened their business. This meant a lot of the foods served in this restaurant were American diner foods, like chicken fried steak, hamburgers, and pie, but also Americanized Chinese food, like chop suey, because that was what was in demand from a Chinese-owned restaurant. Through these conditions, my grandpa became skilled in making these Americanized Chinese foods while holding onto his favorite cultural dishes from back home as well.
My grandpa is not the only example of this. One of the first Asian American Studies classes I ever took was Asian American History with Dr. Kelly Fong. In this class, I learned about material culture and modern archeology used to study people from the past. As an example of this, Dr. Fong showed the class a picture of a crisco corn syrup bottle found at the residence of Chinese immigrants. While some historians would see the Crisco and take it as a sign of assimilation, Dr. Fong noted that it is actually much more complicated than that. As it turns out, the Chinese immigrant who lived in that residence worked as a house cook for a white family who enjoyed food with Crisco, therefore he began to incorporate it in his own diet. This Crisco bottle was not as much a sign of assimilation as it was a symbol of this young man’s experience upon arrival in the U.S.. Many Chinese immigrants had jobs cooking in restaurants or as house cooks for white American families as a means of survival upon moving to a new country. Instead of seeing these new dishes and ingredients they utilized as an abandonment of their Chinese roots, we can see it as necessary adaptations when creating a new life as Asian American migrants.
Even though my ancestors back in China probably never made or even heard of chop suey, I still consider it an authentic part of my family’s cultural history. Why? Because my grandpa immigrated to the U.S. under conditions in which making chop suey helped his family stay afloat and make a new home in the U.S.. The same could be said for dishes like beef and broccoli or fortune cookies. All of these foods have complex histories that often include Asian American immigrants working incredibly hard to survive under conditions in this country where the odds have historically been against them, whether that be due to lack of opportunity, legislative restrictions, or plain old racism. Migrants often try to preserve their homeland culture and incorporate it into their new lives, but they also inevitably integrate new things to create new and unique cultural traditions. My grandpa has passed down so many dishes in my family, from jook, black bean pork, and lap cheong, to chicken fried steak, teriyaki beef, and turkey gravy. I truly consider all of these foods a part of my culture, because they all have their place in my family’s history. The beauty of Asian American culture is all the rich histories that have influenced what it has evolved into. So, when someone asks me what authentic Chinese food is, I really don’t know what to say. Truthfully, it can be completely different for each person. All I can tell is my own experience as a Chinese American girl raised on Chinese American beef and broccoli.
Cover Photo Source: @alternatecyborg on Twitter