As a Chinese-American myself, who has built a career out of writing about Chinese food, the frustration that Chuen expresses in her post is all too familiar.Chinese food was never fascinating for me; it is simply a part of who I am. My family would make annual pilgrimages back to Asia and growing up, the fluorescent streets of Tainan in southern Taiwan, rich with some of the best food in the world, were as much of a fixture in my life as the blistering hot pavement of Los Angeles flush with drive-thru burger joints. After school, my mom would take me to McDonalds for a Kid's Meal and for dinner, she'd cook us three-cups chicken (chicken legs slow-braised with one part rice wine, one part soy sauce, one part sesame oil), a steamed whole fish, a motley assortment of stir-fried vegetables, and pair it all with a cauldron of steaming hot white rice.
When I look at the repertoire of work that White chefs and restaurateurs have built on ethnic cuisine, it feels in a way, dehumanizing. White people are able to establish outrageously successful careers for being experts and authorities on the stuff that racialized folks do every day simply by existing. But of course, people of colour will rarely, if ever, be called experts on how to simply be themselves. It's as if racialized folks and their ways of life are objects to be observed—study material, of sorts—rather than entire countries, cultures, and individual complex lives.
I hold myself to high standards when it comes to writing about Chinese food, yet I live in a world that can be quite insensitive in their approach to the cuisine.For example, many writers (especially on the East Coast) still use the Wades-Giles spelling of Chinese locations, a phonetic system that was invented by British diplomats Herbert Giles and Thomas Wade. It is a dictionary that is largely outdated and widely inaccurate in its representation of Chinese phonetics. In the Wade-Giles system, Sichuan is Romanized to Szechuan. Nanjing is Nanking. Beijing is called Peking. These writers are the same people who still refer to Guangdong province as Canton.For his work, Giles won an award from the French Academy. Meanwhile, the Chinese laughed. Chinese scholar Gu Hongming declared that the Giles dictionary is "in no sense a dictionary at all. It is merely a collection of Chinese phrases and sentences, translated by Dr. Giles without any attempt at selection, arrangement, order or method." To add insult to injury, Thomas Wade was a British soldier who fought and likely killed Chinese people in the First Opium War.Our food is still largely looked on upon from the sidelines as a mysterious cuisine of antiquity. Only certain dishes like noodles, dumplings, kebabs, and rice bowls have been normalized. The majority is still largely stigmatized because, bluntly put, white people have not decided they like it yet.
Only certain dishes like noodles, dumplings, kebabs, and rice bowls have been normalized. The majority is still largely stigmatized because, bluntly put, white people have not decided they like it yet.
I tell people I love the texture of jellyfish head and still get weird looks. I pop bamboo shoots like candy and people stare at me like I'm eating bark (which, for the record, Chinese people do eat, but in medicinal stews).When Taiwanese-American Cathy Erway, the author of Food in Taiwan, made the first round of pitches for her book, all the initial publishers declined."They didn't get the 'why' of this book," she says. "In a couple meetings it was fairly apparent that most people had no concept of where, what, and who was Taiwan. I fell in the awkward position of giving a geography as well as history lesson just to broach the topic of this book. It seems that publishers are shy of taking on a book that really has no precedent with which to make a reasonable estimate of sales figures."
"The truth is that editors are more drawn to pitches by recipe developers and writers that are more like them."
People also tend to lump Chinese cuisine into one large category, unaware of the vast regional differences.
Please, think about who you give the microphone to.
"A good researcher and writer may be able to winnow out that backstory, but it will be third-person, as opposed to a writer who has lived that culture, who can write from a much deeper personal point of view," says freelance journalist Grace Hwang Lynch, whose work focuses on Chinese home cooking."I don't believe that only Chinese people can write about Chinese food, as there also many good Asian food journalists who could do a fantastic job covering French pastries. But Chinese-American writers who can cover Chinese food should be sought out for their personal insight and the humanity they can bring to these narratives."I don't air these grievances in a vain attempt of recognition, as a Chinese woman who writes about Chinese food. I write this because history has a way of erasing our role in our own food.In California, when Chinese farmers first arrived to the swampy shores of the Sacramento Valley in the 1850s, the story is that they looked at the land and cried. Eventually, with the help of the Japanese, they were able to convert the area to a productive piece of land.Land prices increased four-fold. Property values soared, and soon bankers and land companies rushed in. Rice became one of the most profitable agricultural industries of the state—the new gold.But a backlash arose as more established Americans began to vilify the Asian settlers who had created this industry and, in their opinions, could steal jobs that were rightfully theirs. By 1913, this ongoing discrimination caused California's Alien Land Law to be passed, barring most Asian immigrants from starting their own farms by prohibiting non-citizens from owning property. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian tenant farmers were forced to lease land from white landowners, yet still produced most of the rice at that time.Today, the California rice industry is $5 billion business and Chinese people have, to no one's surprise, largely been erased from its history.So yes. Food is political for us; it always has been. It is time we give Chinese people the recognition they deserve.Start by letting us tell our own stories.
History has a way of erasing our role in our own food.