Growing up, the fluorescent streets of Tainan, rich with some of the best food in Asia, were as much of a fixture in my life as the never-ending, blistering hot pavement of Reseda Boulevard. In elementary school, I excelled in reading class, yet, certain words were always pronounced with a heavy Mandarin accent, an innocent feature of being my mother's daughter. Vanilla was va-nee-lah. Hamburger was ham-bao-bao.
My diet didn't consist of pot roasts or casseroles or even Thanksgiving turkeys. It was "bubble tang" -- the nickname I gave to the ginger chicken broth my mom would make, rich with meaty shiitake and enclosed in a clanky clay pot. It was "ji" -- chicken legs slow-braised with one part rice wine, one part soy sauce, one part sesame oil; my family's rendition of three cups chicken. And for special occasions, it was "huo guo" -- an annual smorgasbord of fish balls, thin flanks of beef, mizuna, napa cabbage, and imitation crab legs that we would throw in a large hot pot with wrinkly dates that bobbed up and down in the soup like red buoys in the ocean.
I was born, raised, educated, primed and prepped in Los Angeles. But behind my fluent English, my American brain, my citizenship, my philosophies, my outlook on life... is a child who was raised by the Taiwanese. I am my parents' daughter and Chinese culture runs through my blood. Always.
Of course, I wasn't always this amorous toward my heritage. Adolescence, after all, was a decade-long culture shock. The mannerisms and customs my classmates subscribed to were radically contrary to mine and I didn't understand why I, born and raised in the same land, acted so differently.
And so without consciously doing so, I rebelled, opting for spaghetti and meatballs instead of pork pottage with thin vermicelli... choosing to bring Sprite to school over the grass jelly drink I loved at home. I neglected the Chinese songs and poetry I, at the time, had memorized, and slowly the lyrics drifted from my consciousness. Just like I wanted them to.
The only proof of my Chinese competence is hidden somewhere in the dusty piles of VCRs somewhere in my home. There's a video of me, at three, singing and jumping around naked in unbridled delight. "Mei mei!" my mom would shout. The Chinese word for little girl. And I'd respond, answering in a Mandarin song.
That image breaks my heart... because at one point I decided that that little girl -- that plump obnoxious Chinese kid - wasn't good enough for me. She was the subject of bullying and held me back, socially. And so I put her in a box, stripped her of her language and instructed her to never, ever come out again.
It took living in China for four months to realize what I had done.
I've come to realize, within the past five years, that my ethnic background is a beautiful blessing in disguise. Within me is thousands of years worth of cultural knowledge. My tendency to bow slightly when I see older Chinese folks, the way I can speak to a Chinese chef and get him to tell me about his passions and recipes without suspicion, my ability to blend in seamlessly in Taiwan and China -- this all comes naturally. These habits, these small cultural adjustments I'm able to make in the right context, they are the gifts my parents passed down to me.
These days, I'm adamant on storytelling and getting the West to see just how rich Chinese customs and food can be.
Now to the untrained eye, a Chinese restaurant is usually manned by a quiet immigrant couple who started their business just to make ends meet. Wrong. Chinese folks are notoriously great at humble-brag and playing down their skills.
These people are bad ass.
Watch how they fold a soup dumpling. Figure out how they're able to create perfectly spherical balls of dough and stuff taro paste inside. Learn how they're able to make a plain piece of tilapia taste spicy, numbing, and sour all at the same time. The culinary skills of some of these people rival the celebrity chefs of mainstream. Yet no one knows about them. They're hidden because it's culturally reprehensible to march around applauding your own culinary skills. Being able to cook is as ordinary as being able to sweep the floor. It's not a glorified position.
And so, to be able to explore the Chinese culture in depth is like being handed the keys to an exclusive treasure room. Not many people get to go in there.
I feel as if it's my job to show the world how beautiful it is inside, how many riches there are, how much knowledge and history and wisdom there is. I want to write it all down, bind it in gold and show it to the Western world. And not in a kitschy "Oh Asian food is so unusual and exotic," but in a "Wow, look at the knowledge and historical background here. These recipes and cooking methods have changed my perspectives on how this ingredient can be used."
The Chinese view of the world is polar opposite to what we, Americans, are accustomed to. In the States, throwing food on other people's plate is considered rude. In China, it's a symbol of generosity and love. In the West, you eat three square meals a day. In Taiwan, food stands are everywhere and you grab and go as you go about your day. In the West, you tell your children straight up "I love you." In the East, you say it by lecturing them about school work.
The West doesn't make sense to the East. And the East doesn't make sense to the West.
I've grown to love this odd dichotomy and the theatrics of it all. It feels like I'm watching a silent comedy; it's funny and tragic all at the same time. But I love it because it empowers me to know that I, a product of both the East and West, have the ability to give it sound.