Being AAPI: why I don’t write about Asian food

If you can and have the means, I highly recommend donating to Family Meal, a Portland-based nonprofit designed to help food service and agricultural workers during a medical debt crisis. Your help right now is needed more than ever. Thank you.

Happy Thursday and AAPI heritage month! I took the last couple weeks off, but I knew I had to start the month off by actually contributing. Isn’t it funny how fast time can go by, yet also agonizingly slowly? That’s how this last term of college has felt… I’m getting by for now, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I am relieved I won’t have to worry about schoolwork anymore soon.

In any case, onto today’s post. This is an interesting title, don’t you think? The featured photo is actually the thumbnail of a video that I decided to not release (for now). With that out of the way, I hope you’re ready for a longer read that I’ve been preparing for a while…

Toward the fact I don’t write about Asian food, you might be thinking, that’s not true, she’s surely written about what initially inspired her to go into food writing in the first place!

Well…. in actuality, not really.

I’ve definitely discussed Asian food, like my work for the Daily Emerald which includes how authenticity is placed on restaurants, breaking down how to order boba, and even recommendation blurbs about two underrated Asian food carts. On this blog you can find me admitting most of my food knowledge is centered around Asian food, that I can’t (and won’t) shut up about Tam’s Place Vietnamese Cuisine, and that I learned a lot in having a bunch of dates at the same Japanese restaurant.

What do you mean you don’t write about Asian food?

Look back at that list, then look back at my entire catalogue of food writing and blogs together. The trend leans toward being centered around Western and other ethnic food, usually. And that (initially) wasn’t on purpose, but as time went by, I went out of my way to avoid it as much as I could…

What happened, you ask? Let me explain.

I noticed a common question I got from people was “where’s the best (insert Asian/Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Other-Asian-Identity) food in Eugene/Portland?” Initially, I didn’t find an issue.

Well, it’s what I’m most familiar with. Of course they’d want my opinion for it, and I would give an answer. Sometimes I’d get nods of approval or even excited “I’ve never heard of that place!” and questions about specific dishes. However, other times I realized that it wasn’t just an ask – it was a test.

“No way, I was told by (other Asian person) that it’s not as authentic!’

“I went there before and it didn’t taste good, where’s a different authentic place?”

“But it seems Americanized, I want a real authentic place!”

Dear readers, when I was a freshman and sophomore getting these responses, I was stumped on how to reply.

How do you explain the definition of “authentic” to people who don’t even realize that different types of authentic experiences can coexist? How do you try to politely explain that if they don’t belong to a culture that they really have no place in placing value on an establishment based on whether or not it is or isn’t “authentic” and to what degree they are of it based on an outsider’s gauge?

And the toughest question: how do you explain that you don’t even know if your own sense of what “authentic” is, actually is authentic?

As an American Born Chinese (ABC) and other first generation/American-born ethnic people, we often question the extent that we are tied with our culture. We cast judgement and doubt on each other for not adhering to what natives can do, from speaking, reading, writing, and knowing the culture and familial histories. I admit I’ve felt deep shame for not knowing how to read and write characters for a long time, and that after I learned I did judge others for their inability. I’m more ashamed that I judged others for abilities that not everyone has access to, but not everyone is aware of the walking hypocrisy that they carry.

I don’t want to continue retelling of how Asian Americans don’t fit in as fully Asian or American, but it is absolutely influential in how we develop our identities. Most of my habits, desires and life philosophies (and other Asian people I know) are shaped because we feel obligated to follow a certain track based on what we know from our families, friends, media, and generational knowledge of our ancestors. It’s why there’s so many stereotypes that persist to this day, and only in the last few years has there been more recognition and acknowledgement that the model minority myth is exactly that: a myth.

So knowing that my understanding of what is authentic is skewed by my Americanness and limited access to the full scope of my heritage while also being questioned of my authority on said authenticity… it has led to a being an anxiety that accompanies my imposter syndrome. A fear that I have left to fester, ignored for years as I became better at replying with non-answers to the dreaded recommendation question, dodged it by doing the bare minimum toward Asian food, and doing my best by using “I can’t just stick to Asian food” as an answer to get out of remaining only synonymous with Asian food.

The root of my fear of being inauthentic was when I was in middle school, at a family event without my parents. One of my aunts had cooked up this oyster and scrambled egg-esque dish, something that I hadn’t recalled ever eating before. I asked her what it was, and why we were eating it.

She looked at me with a look of great incredulousness.

“This is a traditional Teochew dish, have your parents never made it for you?” (Context: My family comes from a small southern Chinese province called Teochew) Her eyebrows were raised as high as they could, her eyes skimming my face as feelings of discomfort and embarrassment crept into my face and body language.

“How could you not know of this food? Your dad loves it, that’s so weird you haven’t heard of it. It’s a classic Teochew dish!”

I remember squirming under her pointed expression.

When I was reunited with my parents at home, I asked about said dish. My mom replied that I’d had it when I was younger a lot, and that it wasn’t surprising that I had forgotten since we ate such a wide variety of foods. My mom reassured me it was alright, because many Teochew dishes required ingredients that were difficult to acquire in the US and “wouldn’t taste the same if we made it at home, anyway.” When I went to bed that night, I was haunted by the question and grew more suspicious of what exactly I did know of the food from my heritage.

To this day, I can clearly imagine her face, the condescending, partially disgusted undertones behind her question. In retrospect, she is more of a dramatic person so I may have interpreted this entire exchange more dramatically than what actually occurred, but it left an everlasting impression on me nonetheless.

While this was a huge moment in my life, this is a concern that occupies many American-born ethnic people. My insecurity of not being “authentic enough” is not mine alone, but shared amongst people all over the US. This insecurity was what led me to study Mandarin when I entered UO, to make sure I could absorb everything I could about my parents’ cooking and ways around the kitchen, participate in things that I didn’t even want to just for the sake of keeping up the impression that I was “authentic” enough. That somewhere in me, by proving I was knowledgeable enough, that I fit the qualifications of being authentic enough… that I could eventually find a way to fit into both worlds that I felt so othered by.

So we move into the present. I continue to dodge questions about Asian food, barely. I start a blog, I start food writing for the Daily Emerald. And it’s only been in the last year that I really sat down and was honest about why I don’t actually write about Asian food, despite my love of it:

I don’t write about Asian food because I’m scared shitless thinking of how much I don’t know about Asian food.

There is so much about the different cuisines that I love and revere so much, that to write about it with all this doubt in my mind makes me fear that my ignorance will spoil my writings on it. I feel so much pressure to get to get it right, when I had to recode myself to tell myself that literally no one has that expectation of me. The process has taken a lot of reassurance that I’m not an inadequate Chinese person for not knowing all the names and translations of foods, that I’m enough with baseline or general knowledge. That being an expert was me trying to come to terms with wanting to silence the imposter syndrome that has haunted me, and all that cooking knowledge was never something that was intensely drilled into me anyway, so it wouldn’t make sense to need to be an expert.

I’ve been trying harder to blog about Asian food more, to be honest. I have so many half written drafts, they’re almost painful to look at because of how much I have to internally argue with whether it’s good enough, researched enough, because to be inaccurate is incredibly scary. No one Asian person is an authority on any one or even the multitudes of Asian cuisines that exist, but in being questioned and asked spun me into a nervous wreck thinking about what exactly where I stand and what I’m willing to speak up about… and it was always easier to shy away from Asian food.

So here’s to me trying to be better about this imposter syndrome, this fear that mercilessly follows me, and embracing my Asianness as complete and authentic in its messy, difficult to define confines. To my fellow AAPI folks, I hope you are able to find some reassurance in your own identities, continue to shine in your amazing ways, and love your roots regardless of how far from them you are, not just this month, but always. If you haven’t gotten there yet, just know I am happy and rooting for you.

As the legend Sandra Oh herself said best: “It’s an honor just to be Asian.”

In which I am way too personal in my blog, again! I hope you enjoyed this tale. Sometimes when I put my personal stories out into the universe that I’m never quite sure how they’ll be received… I don’t think my storytelling is bad, per se, but when you put something so personal out there that you can only hope it gets received well. And since this is my personal blog, I don’t have someone else’s eyes or mind to bounce whether or not the writing is grammatically correct all the time.

Anyway. Thank you for taking the time to read about one of my biggest fears. Though it seems small when I talk about it, the reason it remains so large in my mind is because it can spiral in a million different directions. Actually writing about it has helped. Will I regret posting it for the entire Internet to read? I can only hope I don’t.

As always, if you have thoughts about anything I would love if you left a comment, liked this post, and even connect with me over social media. Catch up with me on Twitter by Tweeting at me or following and commenting on my Instagram, I love to know your thoughts and any other feedback, questions, you name it! If you want more of my writing, I wrote an advice piece about how to navigate dating as a graduating senior and how to live with someone with a different tidiness level, plus some great spring drink specials in Eugene, And check out the latest Chowdown Comparisons video I hosted below!

Stay safe and wear your masks out there!!

Have you eaten yet? If not, don’t forget to!


Chowdown Comparisons 2: The Pizza Battle

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