My roommate is a lovely person. He grew up in Pittsburgh, was raised Catholic, is one of four brothers and describes himself as “40 percent Irish, 60 percent German.” But when I asked him what his favorite Asian food was, he replied, “General Tso’s Chicken.”
I’m not going to lie — General Tso’s Chicken is pretty damn good — and I find the pretentiousness surrounding the authenticity of Americanized Asian food to be extremely annoying.
When I’m eating a $14 Dynamite Roll from Wokcano, I don’t particularly care if “real Japanese sushi doesn’t use cream cheese;” I go to Wokcano for sake bombs, not authentic sushi. Regardless, having General Tso’s Chicken be your favorite Asian food was a little questionable to me. Does he even know how much great Asian food there is out there?
Turns out, he didn’t. His knowledge of Asian food entirely rested between two freezers in the Target frozen foods section. He had never tried, and sometimes hadn’t even heard of, all my favorite foods. While this initially shocked me, after thinking about it for a while, I realized that this was actually a pretty common theme among my white friends.
Forget about pig intestines and cow tongue — these were people who had sometimes never even tried pho, to which “BCD” meant nothing more than three consecutive letters of the alphabet. The number of times I’ve had to grit my teeth and choose Denny’s over BCD Tofu House has been soul-crushing, particularly because I hung out with a predominantly white friend group in high school. The people who thought cracking a raw egg into boiling soup was “unsanitary” were also the ones consuming raw cookie dough by the bowl and eating off the same plates as their pets. Yes, I am bitter.
I have a deep love for Asian food. I would gladly spend the rest of my life eating exclusively Asian food if I could. Yet, like every other Asian American in the country, I grew up wanting to hate it. In an attempt to gain recognition from my white classmates and friends, I denounced the Mapo tofu and Singaporean rice noodles that often made their way into my lunchbox. In their wake, I boldly proclaimed my love for Smucker’s Uncrustables and Olive Garden.
This universal experience of being ashamed of the “exotic” food in our lunchboxes has already been the subject of many illuminating thinkpieces, each reflecting the shared ideas of not fitting in, of those scrunched up noses and judgmental gazes. As I continue into adulthood, I see this patronization of Asian food taking a different form. Thankfully, it’s generally considered rude among adults to be openly condescending toward ethnic cuisines.
Now, the condescending attitude toward Asian cuisines must be expressed in much more subtle terms. It materializes through wanting to spend $40 on a plate of pasta, but having Chinese food that costs more than $10 be “too expensive.” It creeps into our lives via long-winded tirades on how amazing it would be to eat Michelin-star quality French cuisine in Paris, but how the main appeal of eating in Thailand is just how cheap everything is!
It appears in unsolicited advice on the benefits of going vegan with no thought whatsoever about how entire cuisines essential to Asian culture rely on meat and dairy for cooking. It says, “I’m not saying Asian food is inferior … I’m saying that European food is superior.”
Yet, moving forward, I don’t think that the best way to go about this is righteous bitterness. Sharing food is one of the most joyful methods of cultural exchange. Since finding out he’s had essentially no Asian food, I’ve taken my roommate to get pho, Chinese hot pot, Japanese curry and more. He approaches food with an open-mindedness I consider almost remarkable for a white person; he’s even been willing to try some of the more uncommon foods, which he eventually grew to love.
Though not everyone I know will be like him, I will still unhesitatingly extend my invitation. It’s not my job to introduce people to new foods. In fact, some people might even say doing so is problematic, a symbolic gesture of submissiveness to the people who made me hate the food of my own culture.
There’s some validity in that anger, but in the end, it’s just so much fun to introduce people to new foods they’ve never eaten. If I can convince even one person to open their mind to new cuisines they’d never considered before, it’d be worth another 99 trips to Denny’s (but don’t quote me on that).
Albert Qian is a junior writing about Asian identity. His column, “Analyzing Asian,” runs every other Wednesday.