People | Arts & Culture | Comic

When Food is the Only Narrative We Consume

Chinese culture can’t be made bite-sized for mass consumption.

In elementary school, I watched my mother floss every night, even as I refused to do it myself. I was mesmerized by the rocking motion: She would work the thread deftly into her gums in a curved line, the stringy filament hugging each slope of tooth, before emerging, repositioning, and moving on to the next gap. So practiced and thorough was my mother’s care, it was no wonder to me that she had beautiful teeth.

Later, I learned my mother had gotten veneers when she first followed my father to the United States with all her life packed in a single bag. My parents never fail to remind me how little money they had at this time for food, housing, and health care, so the procedure must have been considered a necessity for my mother. She arrived knowing only a handful of English and impressions were everything. Here, at least in the American films available to them, success had pearly white teeth. And more often than not, the owners of those teeth were white to match.

In middle school, I, like many preteens, became more aware of my body and perceived defects. As a solution to my yellow teeth, I started wearing whitening strips every day. After fifteen minutes, I’d lift the strips to reveal little to no change, a familiar disappointment. One night, disregarding the manufacturer’s warnings, I put on whitening strips before I went to sleep. I intended to keep them on all night. I woke up a few hours later, my nerves on fire. I wish I could say that after that instance of excruciating pain, I stopped trying to lighten my teeth, but instead, I just learned to bear the hurt.

  Literal or otherwise, I was quietly ashamed of any kind of deviation from whiteness. Most of my friends were other East or South Asians, and we all kept score of our assimilation. The most apparent was what came out of our mouths in class: our grasp of English. At home, my parents and I only spoke Chinese, so I usually encountered new English words from reading. This meant I’d mispronounce things constantly. As time went on, I bleached my conversations of Chinese. My Mandarin became interspersed with more English, until eventually, conversations with my parents were in diluted Chinglish. Nowadays, my Chinese stutters. Although I retain my understanding of Mandarin, my vocabulary remains at a third-grade level.

After leaving home for university at age seventeen, I naturally lost the practice of everyday conversation. The only times I ever speak in Mandarin now are when I am in Chinese restaurants. It feels fraudulent—referencing characters I don’t recognize and replicating the memorized sounds. But with non-Chinese friends, I make a point to do it. It’s the one place my identity feels like it has any authority.

Few non-Chinese friends have talked to me about anything culturally Chinese other than our food. Not that I expect them to. I haven’t met many white people or diasporic peers who consume current contemporary mainland Chinese entertainment. Perhaps in part because the diasporic Chinese experience fundamentally differs from the mainland Chinese one.

Chinese food is often the average American’s only exposure to the country outside the persistent “MADE IN CHINA” reminders on nearly every item we own. Chinese takeout is a common dinner option, and most of these dishes differ enormously from mainland cuisine. Some well-known items, such as the famous fortune cookie, were in fact conceived of and made in the United States. For most of my childhood, the only representation of China that I saw was limited to food. In Friends, the cast eats Chinese food eight times, and only one Chinese side character (Ross’s love interest, Julie) appears for a brief subplot.

In Breaking Bad, Marie has a brief monologue about Chinese food when she leaves a message for her sister, Skyler: “I don’t know, I just feel like Chinese. Do you think that people in China ever just feel like American? They go out and get little takeout boxes with mashed potatoes and meatloaf and try to figure out how to use the little knives and forks?” That the Chinese used chopsticks over forks was a common playground insult of my childhood, “proof” that Chinese people were underdeveloped and crude, never mind the dexterity required of chopsticks. And it’s not even true—the Chinese have been using forks since 2200 BC, two thousand years before the first recorded fork was found in the Byzantine Empire. I understand that Marie’s monologue is just meant to be an offhanded, off-color comment by a character without a filter. But it isn’t an isolated instance. Chinese food and its implications about Chinese people and Asian Americans more broadly continue to appear in shows and movies to this day.

Throughout the past decade, it’s been a battle to feature stories written by and about the wider Asian diaspora. One of the stories that made it to TV was 2015’s Fresh Off the Boat, a sitcom inspired by chef Eddie Huang’s memoir about growing up as a Taiwanese American. My first encounter with Fresh Off the Boat was not on the screen. On a particularly long bus ride in high school, my Chinese friend recited the entire pilot episode to me from memory. When I finally sat down to watch it, I found his recitation of the lines uncannily accurate. He said the memorization came from rewatching. I recently asked him why he had liked it so much:   “Haha I mean I think it was mostly cuz Jessica wang is so iconic  “But also I guess it was the first time I saw so many hyper specific but also hyper accurate parts of asian-am culture   “and like . . . w/o making it about diversity?”

While the show is about a Taiwanese family, many of the conversations they have about identity resonate with the Chinese and wider Asian diaspora. Back in 2015, having any coming-of-age sitcom about an Asian family was a win, even if parts of FOTB have become tired Asian American tropes due to later media oversaturation. In FOTB’s first episode, Eddie has a “lunchbox moment,” a term that describes the experience of an “ethnic” student bringing a packed lunch to school, only to have white peers disgusted at the look, smell, or idea of the dish. Many other memoirs, articles, short films, and children’s books have addressed the same microaggression.

Jaya Saxena, in an article for Eater, argues that not every immigrant experiences this shame, and to only tell this story normalizes white food as the norm and “ethnic” food as the other. Saxena also notes that the drama is satisfying for people in marginalized groups and palatable for white consumers:  “Most of the time, the lunchroom drama is a story with a satisfying ending for both parties. The food in question is often now more widely beloved, so the immigrant narrator is no longer directly bullied; at the least, they’ve grown stronger and more self-assured. And white readers can pat themselves on the back, knowing they’re too open-minded to totally dismiss another culture’s cuisine. Confronting racism becomes as easy as ‘try new food.’”  In my primary school years, I attended three different schools and experienced the lunchbox moment twice. I understand how satisfying it can be to band around the shared hurtful experience. But telling only this story has its limits.

While the lunchbox moment began as an earnest account of lived discrimination, it now dominates the Asian American narrative, drowning out other experiences of violence, particularly in regard to class or economic background. Without varied stories of injustice and joy, the “lunchbox moment” and similar food narratives simplify what shouldn’t be simplified. Withholding rude comments about someone else’s lunch doesn’t make a person a hero.

In other media about and by the Chinese diaspora, many representations of food replace complicated diasporic narratives in order to make the media palatable for a white audience. Chinese Canadian animator Domee Shi’s 2018 short film, Bao, illustrates a nuanced mother-child relationship, highlighting a common struggle for immigrants and diasporic families. In Bao, the child is literally an edible baozi for the majority of the film’s runtime. It’s become a common (and commonly criticized) animated trope to turn characters of color into animals or something that is nonhuman.

I don’t discount the importance of food as a part of culture. Food and language are two forms of intimacy in the same mouth, and the former might be a more accessible option for some people. Language and art require time to understand, but food can be eaten tonight.

 There is no inherent issue with Domee Shi (or other creators) using cuisine as a stand-in for a larger cultural conversation. I loved the short’s empathetic approach to a mother-child relationship through the allegorical narrative. I also believe the film deserved all the accolades it received.

However, it does feel insidious and reductive that studio executives, festival programmers, award panelists, publishers, and other “higher powers” (that are, notoriously, mostly white) encourage the same digestible approach to many “ethnic” stories. Chinese culture can’t be made bite-sized for mass consumption. The number of films about different cultures may be increasing, but their depth often remains limited to what’s palatable for white audiences. It’s time to examine who we’re really making these narratives for.

Moving forward, I’d like to see more Chinese stories that aren’t explicitly linked to food. We don’t stop living in between meals. I also hope that more and more, Chinese diasporic creators are allowed to bring their own personal, nuanced experiences to their narratives without the burden of teaching or appealing to white people. These new stories shouldn’t be expected to represent the diaspora as if it were a monolith. Nor should they be told for the sake of expanding a Western audience’s worldview. I’d like diasporic creators to be able to finally center themselves. Recent films such as Everything Everywhere All at Once are showing us what that might look like.

Nowadays, I no longer wear whitening strips until my nerves burn, and I’ve stopped bleaching my conversations of Mandarin. When I go in for a dental cleaning, I no longer close my eyes. Instead, I look up to the light, where my reflection is surprisingly clear.

As the dentist scrapes my mother’s recipes off the surface of my teeth, I think about digestion. It all begins at the mouth: teeth cleave through food, and saliva dissolves through stories that never make it out. In the past few years, I’ve seen the same food-related narratives about mainland and diasporic Chinese people. They’re growing stale.

 I’m tired of the shortcuts. I want to tell new stories. I want to get specific without worrying about what others can stomach. Maybe not everyone can digest every story, and that’s okay. I’m just hungry for something new.