Earlier this year, I saw a protest sign by muay thai fighter Jessica Ng at an anti-Asian hate protest in New York declaring: “Love Our People Like You Love Our Food”. Her words struck me as I felt helpless and angry about the recent rise of anti-Asian racism in the United States. Her protest also echoed the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:39, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Given the long and complicated history of Asian Americans who have been continuously seen as “perpetual foreigners” in this country for far too long, we have felt a selective embrace by dominant culture in how we are deemed “neighbors”. Our “offerings”, particularly food, have been tenuously seen as acceptable currency for neighbor-ship.
Jessica’s protest sign and Jesus’ words remind me of my journey of embracing the AAPI community and my identity as a Chinese American woman.
I am also reminded of my complicated journey of self-embracing my cultural identity, community, and food. As a child, I deemed Asian food unpalatable for my 6-year-old liking. My first recollection of renouncing my Chinese American identification was when I wanted to visit the Golden Arches (McDonald’s) instead of Golden Dragon, the restaurant that my grandparents and extended family frequented. Ahead of a family meal I would declare, “I don’t want Chinese food — I want a Happy Meal!” My refusal to eat Chinese food signaled not only a rejection of culture, but also a metaphor for the many ways I renounced my Chinese American identity while growing up. Nearly three decades since declaring Happy Meals were better than Chinese lobster, I have dedicated my life and career to recognizing, respecting, and reclaiming my Chinese heritage.
This journey has not been a linear or easy pathway. I grew up as a 3.5 generation Chinese American child in suburban Houston, Texas. I attended a predominately white school where there were so few Asians that any time a new Asian student joined, my classmates asked me if they were my relative. Such racist comments further alienated me from my fellow Asian classmates. I distinctly remember one of my Chinese American classmates coming up to me on the playground on her first day of school, speaking to me in Mandarin. She was excited to see a classmate who looked like her. I, however, felt shocked and appalled that she would assume I spoke Chinese, so I immediately rejected her and walked away from her. I felt a double alienation: being with this Chinese classmate would further alienate me from my white classmates, and I also felt alienated by not being able to speak any dialect of Chinese.
Because of cultural confusion throughout my school years, I felt validated and affirmed when friends or peers would say to me, “You’re a twinkie! You’re a banana! You’re pretty much like a white person!” After years of microaggressions from my classmates, I began to internalize the sense of white adjacency as “fitting in.” I actively rejected my cultural heritage until I went to college at the University of Texas at Austin (where approximately 20% of the student population identifies as Asian). I had my first “Asian Awakening” as I met peers who looked like me, had shared experiences as me, and introduced me to new foods and cultural experiences.
One of those experiences was a family-style meal with a few close Chinese American friends at an Asian restaurant in Houston. As the lazy Susan whirled around with dishes I had never seen, yet alone knew how to pronounce, I began to realize I was out of my comfort zone. These were not the foods I had grown up eating, and it showed. My friends began to actively tease me and make jabs about what I ate growing up: “Hot dogs? Spaghetti? Hamburgers?” As tears began to well up in my eyes, I felt a sharp sting of rejection; even though I looked like my friends, from their point of view, I was not “Chinese enough”.
This pain of not being “Chinese enough” was the driving factor that led me to go overseas to East Asia on my first mission trip. During that trip, I experienced a “rite of passage” that many Asian Americans encounter when visiting Asia for the first time — feeling caught between two worlds. Chinese people — “my people” — don’t see me as American, and they certainly don’t think I’m Chinese, so who was I?
Returning from my mission trip, I vowed to return to China to better understand myself and my ancestry. Upon graduating with my Master’s in Social Work, I was offered a position in Beijing at a non-governmental organization. Living in Beijing helped expand my limited palate of Cantonese food. I faced my fears of the unfamiliar, and I began to embrace and appreciate Northern style cuisine, and even the flavors of Northwest China’s Uyghur population.
While working in China, I faced another fear of not being able to speak Chinese. Remembering the childhood classmate I blatantly dismissed for speaking in Chinese, I committed to learn the language. By taking steps to learn the language and connect with people, I recognized the deep longing I always had to reconnect with a culture that felt both foreign and familiar to me. I reached out to my colleagues who spoke only Chinese to practice Mandarin during lunch breaks and in taxi rides around the bustling city. As we gathered around the hot pot table, with a mix of my broken Chinese and their broken English, we shared beautiful moments of realizing that we are not as different as our language barriers might have led us to assume. When we sat around the hot pot table together to immerse different types of food into the same broth, it was a metaphor for how people from different backgrounds can mesh together as well. Through these experiences, I began to see both Chinese food and Chinese people in a new light.
While I rejected my Chinese heritage as a child, my time in Beijing expanded my worldview and led me to appreciate the food, and more importantly, the resilient communities that have passed on recipes for generations. I learned to embrace the satisfaction of making homemade dumplings with my own hands. I realized how important it is to love the food of my people like I strived to love the people — with care, humility, and a deeper understanding of the complexities that go into making food with love.
When I moved back from China, I began working at the Chinese Community Center in Houston with a new understanding of what it feels like to be a foreigner who does not understand the language, culture, foods, or way of life in a new home. With newfound empathy, I started working with immigrant seniors looking for opportunities to find work to support themselves financially.
These days, as Asian American seniors have been living in increased fear of being targeted and attacked, I constantly think about the vulnerable older adults in Houston I worked with. While many older working immigrants live in poverty, they are extremely generous and act in abundance.
Ms. Hsiang comes to mind. When we first met, Ms. Hsiang pleaded that she needed to find work so she could eat. As we saw each other more frequently, I began to learn more about her family in Taiwan through her limited English and my broken Chinese. We bonded over food when she gifted me delicious Taiwanese pineapple cakes from a visit to her family. Her care and love resonates deeply with me as a reminder that even when we may think we have little to offer, we are able to offer much to one another. These everyday acts of love demonstrate the many ways that food encompasses friendship, culture, family, and the coming together to support, feed, and nourish one another physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
While I’ve spent time unpacking what it looks like to love my neighbor, I have not asked myself nearly enough what it looks like to love myself. Since the pandemic, I have been deeply reflecting on this notion of loving myself. Working closely with disenfranchised Asian women, I no longer see myself as a “twinkie” with little knowledge of my culture or my community. From these women, I learn to love myself and where I come from — from ancestors who boldly came into this country as paper sons and railroad workers when Chinese people were excluded, from Chinese women who came to this country not knowing the language and somehow raised children who would go on to college and walk diverse paths. I take pride in my journey in which I have lived in China, worked with low-income Asian American seniors in Houston, and currently work at a national community development organization that advocates for low-income Asian immigrant communities throughout the United States. As I learn to love myself, I am also learning how I have so much more to offer my Asian American neighbors who are hurting.
Food continues to be a source of comfort and connection to my Chinese American heritage. Recently, I traveled with my husband to Philadelphia’s Chinatown to get my favorite barbecue pork buns, and as I stood on the street and stared at the iconic Friendship Gate, I wept. The irony of the name “Friendship Gate” is a stark juxtaposition with the hate, racism, and violence that Philadelphia’s Chinatown is experiencing.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Asian small-business owners and patrons are being viewed as the enemy across the nation. For centuries, ethnic enclaves in America have served as epicenters and welcoming spots for immigrants and low-income communities, and they are also at risk of disproportionate rates of displacement, which the pandemic is further exacerbating. These communities are not just places where I can go and get boba or eat the trendiest new foods, while Chinese takeout restaurants are closing at higher rates during the pandemic than other restaurants. Asian-owned businesses are facing a myriad of challenges and discrimination still, and they need ongoing love and support. Throughout the pandemic, my husband and I have made a point to talk to the restaurant owners and workers when we pick up our takeout Asian food. We ask them how they are doing and how their business is managing. We make sure to tell our friends to support them, and we make sure to tip generously. These small acts are ways we love our people like we love our food.
Asian Pacific American Heritage month has been over for days now. While the movies, events, panels, and Netflix suggestions of “AAPI stories” may be over, we continue to ask ourselves what we are doing year round to embrace, celebrate, lift up, and love our people. I believe we must check in with one another, speak up against racism, and get involved in our communities. It means we love Asian businesses by supporting them financially, and also taking the time to get to know and understand the people who work and live in the community. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors — our neighbors include the undocumented restaurant worker, the single-mother who works more than 40 hours a week to provide for her children, the small business owner who wants to pass on their beloved restaurant to the next generation, and the senior who is afraid to walk down the street to get groceries. Loving our neighbors means to love our people like we love our food.