In British English, a lot of words do not mean what they do to Americans. In our dialect, we say “chips” while they say “crisps.” When we say “fries,” they say “chips.”
Just as there are differences in British and American English, there are also differences in the lived experiences between East Asians in America and East Asians in Britain. Unclever metaphors aside, I had the great privilege of traveling to Europe during spring break and decided to go to London, a city I’ve always wanted to visit. It was an amazing experience to witness the fusion of new and old architecture and historical sights, along with the vibrant nightlife and welcoming people. It was everything I expected from such an iconic city — except that I was one of the only East Asians.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t expect to come to London and find myself in a city filled with diversity — I mean, this is still Europe we’re talking about. But I also didn’t expect the sheer lack of Asians in a city that takes pride in being a “melting pot” and is home to a thriving Chinatown. Instead, I was greeted with a city that boasted a large assortment of Asian cuisine but not Asian culture. Restaurants focused on serving authentic Asian cuisine were everywhere, with chains such as Wasabi and Itsu being a dime a dozen. But where were the Asians?
The absence of Asians made me concerned with the distinct differences I felt as an East Asian and more specifically as a Chinese person, in London than I do back home in Los Angeles.
Food can serve as an excellent metaphor (I know, enough with the metaphors!) for the immediate cultural differences I felt between the two cities. In London, Asian food seemed mainstream, palatable. Sushi, pad thai, curry — all these commonplace and inoffensive dishes were available for anyone to enjoy. Instead of McDonald’s and Chipotle, they offered Wasabi and Itsu. Truly “authentic” Asian cuisine was much harder to pin down. It felt like instead of options that were true to my heritage, London’s food scene only offered mainstream choices that appealed to the non-Asian majority. To put it bluntly, London felt far more “whitewashed” than my Southern California hometown.
In California, there are very few popular chain Asian restaurants that haven’t been Americanized. Instead, there is a plethora of authentic Asian restaurants serving food that may be a bit more exotic to the Western eye. But, of course, not to mine; this is the food I grew up with, this food I love to eat. Although the food may not be as mainstream, it still exists as a culture, as a community. Here, Asian food and culture remains distinctly outside of the white mainstream (for the most part, excluding ramen). London and Los Angeles’ different food scenes are reflections of their different demographic makeups as cities. One is more homogenous yet muddled, while the other more exclusionary yet distinct.
Now, it seems pretty obvious that minorities would have different experiences across cities and countries. But these different experiences are so important to the nuances of fairly and authentically representing Asian American identities.
I spend a lot of time analyzing and dissecting my own Asian identity and how I interact with the world as a result. Yet I am still only able to do so within the extremely narrow scope of my own experience growing up in Southern California. I was blessed to grow up in communities with substantial Asian populations, but even then, I often felt like an outsider.
Considering there are vast differences between growing up in Southern California and growing up in say, the Bay Area, I can’t even fathom what it would be like to live in the deep South or East Coast or any other region for that matter. And especially not in London or other European cities.
As I continue to explore the intersections of Asian identity, I realize that I’m extremely limited by the restraints of my own experiences. There’s so much variation within the Asian experience that to even begin covering it all would mean living more lives than I am capable of. Visiting London, even for the short time I did, made me realize how it was arrogant of me to talk about “universal themes” of the Asian experience without taking into consideration the true range of identities that exist across the world.
Though I won’t discount my own views, I hope to be able to experience more of the world — after all, there’s always something to be learned from new experiences.
Albert Qian is a junior writing about Asian American identity. His column, “Analyzing Asian,” runs every other Wednesday.