The New Americans

On David Chang, honesty, and what it means to be Asian American

Netflix

The first lie I remember telling was mouse-sized and hid well in the large house I grew up in. I had broken a picture frame hanging from the wall. I blamed my brother. My brother, two years younger than me, learned to keep his hatred behind his eyes as my parents chastised him for something we both knew wasn’t his fault. But the lie lived. And I learned from the lie that I could live in two worlds—the world I knew and the world everyone else knew—and that I could move in between these worlds if I wanted to. After that, I lied more often.

I didn’t expect to see everyone around the table raise their hand when David Chang, in his scathingly comprehensive Netflix series Ugly Delicious, asked a group of Asian chefs and food writers if they wanted to be White as kids. I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Asians outnumber everyone, with White people coming in a close second, the Native population reduced to a statistical metric, forced to relive their displacement from their lands and their histories again and again and again. All my close friends growing up were Asian. But looking back we already knew, though we were all we saw, that the world didn’t belong to people who looked like us. At least not the world that seemed to matter, the world of beautiful thin White folk who were the heroes and champions of our imaginations and our televisions. I first heard the term “pathological liar” in my junior year of high school. It was around the same time that my best friend, who was Japanese, started saying he hated Japanese people. He was joking, of course. And the joke was small and it skirted down the open corridors of our high school and lived.

In my first year at The Evergreen State College my roommates learned that there were two Brians living in the subterranean dorm we were to call home. Our house of five quickly came to distinguish between the two of us by calling me Asian Brian. A year earlier I had attempted college at the frigid University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. There they just called me Hawaii.

In an earlier episode of Ugly Delicious, Chang recounts how being a first-generation Asian American means existing nowhere. In the US, Chang is seen as a Korean first, even though he grew up in Virginia. And despite all the Korean food he might have cooked and eaten as a kid, he doesn’t speak the language and is treated like an American when he travels to Korea. His cooking is a product of his alienation from both worlds. It seems to say, “If I can’t be anything, then my food can be everything.” Still, Ugly Delicious puts an emphasis on the world as much as it does on David Chang’s ornery idiosyncrasy. The fried chicken episode sees David pilgrimaging through the South asking difficult questions about who chicken was historically fried for and by whom. A close friend of mine who watched it with me noted that the White people in the episode talked a big game about honoring the culture fried chicken came from. But only Edouardo Jordan, a Black chef with two restaurants in Seattle, used the word slavery. The local food I grew up eating was the result of plantation workers who were forced to live together as they toiled in the sun. Wikipedia lists David Chang’s style as “New American.”

On May 31, 2018, HuffPost published an article titled “On Dating Apps, Casual Racism has become the norm for Asian Men.” The article, written by Brittney Wong, chronicles the nuances that have led to Asian men being less-than-desirable compared to everyone else. The men she writes about are chiseled, broad-shouldered, strong-jawed, well-groomed hunks. The men she writes about have been the recipients of backhanded compliments like you’re cute for an Asian guy. The men she writes about describe representation as one possible answer to racism. “When working with clients in San Francisco, Hsiang recommends they (Asian men) actively seek out modern movies and TV shows out of Asia that feature leads who look like them.” The men she writes about say things like, “We attract what we are or want to become, so if you are negative and resentful, you’ll only attract it and then it will become your reality.”

When people called me Asian Brian, I suddenly remembered that I was Asian. It was never something that distinguished me growing up in Hawaii. Watching Ugly Delicious, I realized that being in the majority in Hawaii sheltered me from the constellating, reclaiming language that other minorities sometimes share. Instead a lot of Asian kids formed local identities, modeled ourselves after a culture handed down by the mixed-plate meals of plantation workers. Some of us who had inherited the tongues of our parents absorbed a bit of the culture our parents left behind, becoming more Asian than American. Most of us ended up half-there, half-not, our English a mix of mannerisms and slurs we had learned at the dinner table, school, the mall, the beach. The same friend who made anti-Japanese jokes commented on his frustration at barbershops. “All the haircuts they have in the books there are worn by these handsome White men,” I remember him saying. “It’s not gonna look the same on me. I’m fat. And Japanese.”

Wong’s essay on Asian men includes popular examples of anti-Asian legislation. What is missed in her essay is the fact that many Chinese immigrants post-1960s came from wealthy, educated, and cultured backgrounds. Hawaii looks the way it does because White plantation owners needed workers to cut sugar cane. They imported Chinese laborers, then Japanese, then Koreans, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos. Many Asian families in Hawaii trace their lineage back to these workers who toiled together under the gaze of overseers on horseback. Then there are families like mine, who immigrated after the 1960s: families who are educated, wealthy, and—in the upwardly mobile American-economic-striving sense—White.

The role Asian Americans, especially upper-middle-class Asians, play in the ongoing struggle between White and Black America is often understated. And so is the position we occupy. Think of Elaine Chao, wife of Senator Mitch McConnell, who in 2017 defended her husband, famous for his obstructionist partisan polemics, from immigration protesters, saying of both McConnell and the President, “I stand by my man . . . both of them.” Chao is an immigrant from Taiwan. So are both of my parents.

Perhaps the most audacious and seductive thing about Ugly Delicious is David Chang’s see-sawing grumpiness. But underneath his constant devil-may-care attitude toward tradition is a deep reverence for food—what it represents and has represented to people from all sorts of histories and backgrounds. Ugly Delicious is a portrait of our complicated American palates, our messy lurching histories, and the colliding intersections that create and destroy new flavors, new intimacies, and new forms of intolerance. It’s a rallying cry against purity, at least when it comes to food. What makes it stand out as an important narrative event for me, though, is its honesty. Later, in the fried rice episode, one of Chang’s friends, Serena Dai, interviews a Chinese chef whose menu caters to the Americanized Chinese palate: General Tso’s chicken, beef and broccoli. Dai asks the man, “This isn’t what you grew up eating. Why do you cook food you don’t eat for people who don’t look like you?” The man doesn’t miss a beat. “This is what White people want to eat, so I cook it. If Chinese people come in and want me to cook something that isn’t on the menu, I’ll cook it. But this is what White people want to eat. So that’s why it’s on the menu.”

Seeing David Chang among a group of Asian men and women who openly admit that at some point they wanted to be White shocked me the same way hearing myself called Asian Brian shocked me. I realized the lie that lived, lived not in the large childhood home of my youth but in the collective funhouse mirror I called my identity.Watching the Asian chefs in Ugly Delicious admit to themselves and each other that they knew being Asian was undesirable killed the lie. Being Asian American means navigating a smoky and uneven terrain. Some of our parents’ stories range wildly. Others don’t. But the lie does not live in the fact that we are incompatible with Whiteness. The lie is that some of us grew up wanting to be White and know, deep down, we never can be. In another episode of Ugly Delicious, Chang learns how to make dumplings from an elderly woman who reminds me much of my grandmother. I hated dumplings when I was young. I hated how they were boiled and I hated the scallions in them. Like my brother, I wanted simple, American food—burgers and fries. But now, I remember the affection that accompanied the food. I remember my grandmother’s concern when I pushed the plate away. I wanted hamburgers, not dumplings. And yet she would always push the plate back in front of me. “Please eat,” she would say, “I know you’re hungry.”

Learning to think about race and representation in America when you are neither White nor Black nor totally brown requires navigating a topography of stories the storytellers themselves are unaware they are telling. What does it mean to be Asian American in a time when Japanese pop culture is becoming more and more mainstream? When Shogun World is a brief and dangerously sexy sub-narrative to HBO’s Westworld? When our sushi craving is wiping out troves of fish from the ocean? (Notice: it’s all Japan.) It’s not enough to recognize the way Asians are situated in our romantic economy: Asian women are fetishized while straight Asian men are desexualized. We also need to be honest about how Whiteness (and the desire to be White) changes us, changes our palates, changes our dreams, and changes how we see each other. We need to be honest about the place Whiteness affords us in today’s surging racial landscape and conversation. It means being able to look in the mirror. It means dragging the small lies we learned to tell in order to be safe out from their shadows, out from the way we like to rap Wu-Tang in the car, out to the way many of the Asian men I know and call friends like to say the N-word as a form of affection, who aren’t afraid of the word, and resort to blithe yo, man, I ain’t White when they are confronted for their behavior.

I want to know what it means to have your style be called New American. Not just when it comes to contemporary dining, but when it comes to living. Chang feels particularly brave to me in the paradoxical way he romantically pursues flavor knowing that his alienation means he will never be an accepted devotee to authenticity. Also, he admits, this makes him kind of an asshole. Ugly Delicious is a study of his journey through the culinary world, and if the late Anthony Bourdain has taught us anything, it’s that food is never just about food. In Chang’s show, top chefs share the spotlight with old grandmothers making dumplings in the mountains. David smiles with joy whether he is eating a ridiculously expensive piece of marbled duck or a homemade bowl of fried rice. He sits next to actors, comedians, writers, people from all kinds of histories, people with all types of stories to tell. In one instance, when a particularly grouchy David won’t eat donkey meat, his friend David Choe chastises him, insults him, and grabs a bite of donkey to eat next to him anyway. They are all teaching me how to eat.

I’m not saying Chang’s culinary odyssey is a solution in any way to the problems that lie at the heart of race issues in America. What it does is frame certain problems in a new and hopefully livable way. Ugly Delicious finds a chef confronting what it means to be himself and what it means to be Korean American in a time where we are asked for all sorts of reasons to compartmentalize ourselves according to our ethnicities and the stereotypes that come with them. The scale is here to stay. But watching Ugly Delicious finds me thinking about what it means to be Asian American apart from all the commercialization, fetishization, and racialization of the Orient. It has me thinking about how excited I am to take anyone I love to dim sum. It has me thinking about the way I don’t really know where I’m speaking from when I speak about race. It has me thinking about what it means to be male and resentful about the fact that I am getting the short end of the stick in the world of romance because I am Asian and the consequences to living and thinking that way. It has me thinking about what it means to participate politically as an Asian American, to claim that identity for myself, to claim a right to that community, in a time where race politics and immigration policy continue to offer up disenfranchised minorities and communities of color as scapegoats for our collective problems. It has me wondering about the well-being of friends who might be asking questions about their gender identities and the pressure they face from their parents and the culture their parents come from.

There was a time when my little brother refused to speak Chinese with me and our parents around the dinner table. He knew before I did who he wanted to be and what he wanted to eat. He watched Tony Hawk videos. He loved Boston-style pizza. He listened to Immortal Technique and Eminem. He bought Nikes. His Xbox gamertag at one point was Gook-faced killer. When he pushed away our grandmother's cooking, steamed eggs, sauteed shrimp, cucumber kimchi, she would always push the plate back in front of him. “Please eat,” she would say, “I know you’re hungry.”

Now, his Chinese is better than ever. He spent a few years working at a predominantly Chinese boba tea cafe in downtown Honolulu. His girlfriend is first-generation Asian American. He sometimes works for her parents’ amazing Szechuan restaurant. In an elevator in Taiwan recently, he excitedly pointed out to me the difference between the up and down characters. We are both Mandarin-illiterate. He is now less so.

I began this essay in 2016, inspired by a close friend as we huddled and laughed and riffed on Ugly Delicious in the living room of our house in Olympia, Washington. A lot has happened since then. I moved to Portland in the summer of 2018. In 2020, the coronavirus, the presidential election, George Floyd’s murder, and the Black Lives Matter uprising forced the whole nation into reckoning. 2021 gave us Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, and then the Atlanta spa shootings. As James Baldwin wrote in 1962, “One is attempting to save an entire country, and that means an entire civilization, and the price for that is high. The price for that is to understand oneself.”

Trying to think and reflect on being Asian American continues to be a difficult, complicated affair. But it isn’t a lonely one. There are other heroes of mine who continue to do the difficult work of examining what it means to be Asian American. Here, I think of the poets George YamazawaFranny ChoiOcean VuongJake Vermaas, and Alex Dang, to name only a few. We cannot ignore the history of Asian American activism, with heroes such as Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama. We also have a lot to learn from others, not just from Asians. I am a student of Hanif Abdurraqib when he writes in his essay “Searching for a New Kind of Optimism,” “Even now, I’m not as invested in things getting better as I am in things getting honest.” The truth is, a lot of us have excused ourselves from the table, from the work of honesty, especially when it involves deciding “to be honest about not loving the spaces we have claimed as our own.” Abdurraqib asks, “Who is going to be brave enough to ask where home is, and seek out something else if they don’t like the answer?” The lie I have been telling myself is that I can live without asking what it means to be Asian American. The lie I have been telling myself is that I am full when I am not. I am hungry. My grandmother would be happy to hear it. She would tell me the dumplings are ready.

Comments

No comments yet.

Add a Comment