“Be Your Own Dumpling” is an illustrated thought piece on the ways we police authenticity in what we eat and who we are, as seen through the eyes of one Hapa American.
“Do you eat chicken feet?”
“Do you speak Chinese?”
“Can you fit into a petite?”
“Wow, you’re Asian?”
In my mid-twenties I discovered that I liked congee, Chinese rice porridge. This was a relief because it’s cheap, salty, low calorie and great for keeping out the cold. But what made me happiest is it’s one of those dishes, like chicken feet, that are considered deeply, authentically Asian. And I’ve never felt authentically Asian. There aren’t Buzzfeed lists that say, You Know You’re British-Japanese-Chinese-American if….
Recently, an activist I really admired responded to questions with, “This isn’t for white people.” Was it for me? I’ve been told I’m not really white. I’ve been told I’m not really Asian. If I’m a person of color, then it’s a faded color that no one seems to want.
The world is full of lists saying: if you’re this then you know you’re that. What does that mean for those of us who can only check part of the list? And as great as gifs are, do we need to hold ourselves to these tests?
I have Chinese friends who are insecure because they don’t speak the language. I have friends who are 100% Asian but felt excluded because their parents came from two different countries. I know girls who worry that they’re letting down their roots by dating a white person.
The Chinese food I loved most as a kid was the cha siu bao, a fluffy white bun with sweet red barbequed pork inside. Unlike the crab rangoon or the fortune cookie, it originates in China but is accessible, easy to eat, innocent looking. Unlike the hooks of duck feet or the slosh of congee, it doesn’t make for a good test.
Food like this can seem like an easy exoticism, an easy way for a white person to say, “Oh but I love Chinese culture.” A pork bun doesn’t mention the Californian antimiscgenation laws written to ensure the men who built America’s railways didn’t screw white girls. Sushi doesn’t describe Hiroshima or internment. Pad Thai doesn’t force you to consider the global force that made the peanut, an American plant, a staple of Thai cuisine. A love of cha siu bao proves only a tolerance for meat and gluten. But easy doesn’t mean insignificant.
As a preteen, I went to a boarding school where I was so badly bullied, I eventually stopped speaking. I ran away on pretty much every school trip. Each time I went back to school, my mother packed me off with a box of bao. The box was slightly too short so their tips left steamy kisses on the lid. My roommate was significantly cooler than me. She was one of those girls whom puberty blesses. I suspected that the only reason we’d been put together is that she was Asian and that she resented me. Outside of our room she avoided me and even in our room, she only talked to me with the lights out. But when I came back with the box of bao, she’d sit next to me on the edge of my bed. I’d give her one and she’d tear it to pieces, eating it from the inside out. She might then offer to do my make-up or tell me about some boy who wouldn’t stop calling her. It wasn’t much, an hour or so but it made things bearable for another day. It was a thing we had in common and it was easy.