Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more. World-renowned chef, author and Emmy winning television personality Anthony Bourdain visits Los Angeles' Koreatown in the next episode of "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," airing Sunday, April 21, at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the show on Twitter and Facebook. This story ran in 2011, and we're sharing it again as Bourdain explores the role of food in Asian-American identity.
Sundays are for Dim Sum. While the rest of America goes to church, Sunday School, or NFL games, you can find Chinese people eating Cantonese food. As a kid, there were a lot of Chinese traditions I couldn’t get into, but Dim Sum and Johnnie Walker were okay in my book. We’d wake up, put on our hand-me-down Polo shirts, and as Dad did his best Bee Gees on the Karaoke machine, we got ready for Dim Sum.
Although we ate Chinese and spoke Chinese on the weekdays, we were Americans for all intents and purposes. We couldn’t help it. Between work, school, and the three major sports, there wasn’t much time for Chinese culture. Despite my parents’ best efforts, we strayed from our core. It wasn’t conscious or intentional, but it was definitely sad.
Every once in a while, my Mom would say something to me in Chinese and I’d have to ask what it meant. I could see her face turn. Sometimes she’d yell at me and other times, she’d just internalize her disappointment. I looked like her, I sounded like her, I had a temper like her, but there was a chasm. I’m an ABC, American Born Chinese. Even after being here over 15 years, they’d talk about moving home to Taiwan.
“It’s not too late, Louis. They can still learn to read and write.”
“Ahh, what’s the difference? They still speak Chinese, eat Chinese, what’s done is done. Nothing wrong with being American.”
“But they are Chinese! They don’t look American. They’ll never be equal here. In Taiwan, their kids can be politicians or CEO! Here, no matter what, they don’t look American!”
The issue becomes: are we Americans with a full deck of cards? The question seems to have a very obvious answer: “Yes, of course! You have all the same rights and freedoms.”
But, any astute and honest American knows my Mom is posing a very real question here. Yes, I can vote and I have the right to bring suit if I feel someone is infringing on my freedoms, but am I an American in the Jerry Maguire sense? Can a Chinese brother obtain “the kwan”? Furthermore, how do we deal with duality? Are we Americans in the way that other people are?
First, my mother’s question about the bamboo ceiling and “kwan” is irrelevant to me individually, but extremely important to Asian America as it was to Italian and Jewish America before us. I mean, what was the Godfather Trilogy about? There may never be a Senator Corleone or Honorable Eddie Huang, but the world has enough politicians. It could use a few more opera singers and pork buns.
Fighting the ceiling is something we face as a community, but not something that bothers me as an individual. I live within it and don’t deny its existence. This experience is something America has seen the Kennedys, Corleones, and now Huangs face: a social salary cap.
Then, the more personal question, can I be Chinese and American? As immigrants in the DMV (that's D.C., Maryland and Virginia) and then Orlando, we literally led two lives: there was the society and culture that awaited us outside the home in classrooms or after school programs, but there was another world too. There was the community at Dim Sum, the Chinese School we went to on Sundays after lunch, and the bi-weekly pot lucks and karaoke parties.
My parents and their friends tried hard. Just through grassroots organization, they rented space at the University of Central Florida and hosted Chinese School every Sunday. We’d have speech practice, writing, reading, and even some cultural lessons. Our parents fought hard so that we could maintain our culture and identity. They never let us forget where we came from and I thank them for that. I’ll always be Chinese first. It probably isn’t politically correct to say or something that the majority understands; I can change my shoes, I can swap my passport, but, I’ll always have this face.
I’m proud to say I’m Chinese, and I’ll always be Chinese in the sense that I prefer soy over dairy and beer makes me fart. This is who I am; I can’t change it nor would I want to. It’s been a strange experience growing up in a place where you’re constantly reminded that you’re different, but I’ve accepted it. No matter what, at least in my lifetime, I will always be the “other” in this country. When I go back to China/Taiwan, I’m different there as well and realize that it’s an immigrant, not American, thing to be this aware of self.
But, with all pain comes progress and I’m thankful for this awareness. Maybe in a few generations when we’re all mixed up like Cuban-Jamaican-Chinese house special fried rice, we won’t be able to tell the difference.
I’ll always be American in my world view and allegiance. American in the naïve way I go to other countries and tell them how they should treat their poor or clean their water. American in the way I prefer goopy, thickly breaded, deep fried General Tso’s over the watery, authentic, Taiwanese version. But most importantly, I’m American in my choice to be around “difference”.
Whether you realize it or not, we choose to be here and it says something about us. We choose to live in a country of immigrants and beside a few out-to-lunch people who still want an official language, we choose to have a country that doesn’t technically belong to one “peoples.” Economically, politically, and in reality, it’s a different story, but at least on paper and in theory, it belongs to all of us.
We just hope that one day we live up to that piece of paper called the Constitution because it’s still just an empty promise for now. I firmly believe we’ve made progress the last 3 years and I hope it continues. I choose to be American, I choose to live in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I choose to have Puerto Rican/Jewish neighbors, and I choose to maintain my Chinese identity.
As much as my parents love Taipei or China, I’d never meet people like Rafael Martinez, Jonathan Marks, Captain Jason Morgan, or Kenzo Digital across the water. Arbitrary lines demarcating cities, states, countries and continents aside, I love America for the people. These are my homies, this is my country, but Sundays? Sundays are for Dim Sum.
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