“Funny, do you eat bat soup along with your Asian food as well?” My friends erupt into peals of laughter, and high-fives are exchanged across a lunch table not far away from mine. That particular day in elementary school, one of my classmates brought a home-cooked meal consisting of classic Chinese dishes: jiaozi (dumplings), doufu (tofu), and baozi (steamed buns). Most sitting near her innocently looked at her meal with genuine interest while others, my companions included, immediately started to poke fun at it. Because I was young, I didn’t know how to speak up and help her defend my culture, instead focusing my eyes on my own dish. Although they were just joking around, those fourteen words stuck with me, forever lingering in the back of my cluttered mind.
My parents immigrated from China to the United States years ago, hoping for more opportunities for themselves and their children. Growing up as a first-generation Asian-American, I never had to deal with the difficulties of assimilating to a foreign country, yet the feeling of isolation was common for me. It was hard to balance embracing my heritage and trying to fit in at the same time even at a young age. A constant need to truly “Americanize” myself nagged at me, and I faced internal battles when it came to how people judged me. Ever since that moment in elementary school, I have become subconsciously aware of the stigma associated with Chinese food, almost ashamed of my culture at times.
When I was slightly older, I wondered why racist tropes on these dishes even exist. Savoring a piece of sweet and sour pork, I glanced at the guests sitting around various table at a local restaurant. Friendly bits of conversations set the mood for a joyous evening, and my lips tug up at the scent of chives from plates of dumplings set in front of me. How could someone spit upon such a beautiful culture?
We have worked so hard to bridge the gap for our community, but injustice continues to be rampant. Almost every Chinese-American has been the recipient of at least one comment on eating dogs, bats, or mice, and the media targets our specific minority, describing us as “dirty” carriers of disease. Despite the fact that I am American, my appearance will immediately be stereotyped unfairly due to misperceptions of my heritage. This is what it’s like to be on two sides, never feeling completely included nor accepted in either country.
During the surge of coronavirus, old xenophobia was reignited, adding fuel to the fire. The virus is being contained, but racism is not. An old video of a Chinese woman holding a bat with chopsticks recently went viral, and the general populace reacted with outrage. Although research has shown this clip was filmed long before the pandemic and not even in China, some people still do not hesitate in blaming our own eating habits for causing this virus. This bat soup myth represents the irrational fear circulating around, leading to violent acts of hate.
What many forget are the delicious soups we Chinese enjoy every day. The tangy smell of freshly cut tomatoes coupled with the nostalgia of seasoned eggs stirs up lost memories from my childhood. A dash of salt and a sprinkle of pepper adds just enough for it to simmer, letting out a delightful aroma that wafts through the kitchen. As I sip a bowl of tomato egg soup, my personal favorite, it nearly scalds my tongue but sends a shudder of warmth down my spine. My father smiles lightly at the thought of traditional chicken soup, a dish he has loved for years. Perhaps piquant Chinese recipes like these have been reduced to a mere scapegoat for prevalent racism, dating back to centuries ago.
Does eating food from my culture make me uncivilized? Definitely not. Is Chinese cuisine unclean compared to others? They should not be seen that way. Regardless of how much discrimination Chinese cuisine fights through, we continue to enjoy it. From Beijing Roast Duck to Chow Mein, everything will always be welcomed in our little community. During the Lunar New Year, niangao (a sticky rice cake) is often consumed, symbolizing prosperity and wealth. People love yuebing (moon cake) on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, as it stands for family unity. Food is still a connection that holds my culture together.
In order to take steps forward, we need to debunk culinary misconceptions for not only the Chinese but also every culture. Whether people are Asian, Black, Middle Eastern, Latino/a, Native American, Native Hawaiian, European, White, or part of any other ethnicity, they have their own unique style of eating with varying reasons, and we need to embrace everyone. Every country may perceive it in a different light, but at the end of the day, it unites us. Food has the power to transcend all boundaries, to truly remind us that we all have much in common. We eat to stay alive. We eat for our health. We eat for pleasure. We eat because we can.
When I came home from school that day, in fear of the same humiliation that girl faced, I considered asking my parents to allow me to buy hot lunch rather than bring homemade meals. Despite the little voice in my mind, I ultimately decided to continue bringing the food my mother lovingly prepared. No matter what others believe, there’s a certain pride I have towards my culture that can never be erased.
Every time I purchase a chunk of doufu from the neighborhood tofu store, I’ll think about the stories we tell, and don’t tell, about us Chinese-Americans. Every time I crimp dough for jiaozi, I’ll smile, reflecting on the barriers we’ve overcome. Every time I take a bite out of a freshly steamed baozi, I’ll cherish my ethnic identity and welcome my friends with love.