Simmering acceptance: Embarrassment over cultural cuisine isn’t always easy to swallow

In any gathering of Asian people, there will always be food.

This past summer, I was selected to play Fredericka from Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” with Mu Performing Arts, a nationally recognized Asian theatre company in the Twin Cities.

At Mu, the diverse culture of each actor is portrayed through the sharing of cultural foods. The first time I shared food, I brought something I knew everyone would enjoy: Egg rolls.

Soon enough, I was asking my mom to prepare another dish to share. But when I looked at the food steaming in the pot, I was dismayed.

My mom had cooked Indonesian curry with yellow turmeric rice.

This is one of my favorite dishes, but for anyone unaccustomed to Indonesian culture, they would be shocked by the neon-yellow rice and the curry that looked as if a cow had regurgitated it.

For the longest time, I’ve had a fear of people judging the food I eat.

Ever since I began school, I brought lunch from home. My meals usually consisted of the standard white rice with stir fry vegetables, fried noodles or fried rice—and that was my problem.

They are stereotypical Chinese meals, and that bothered me. I had seen plenty cartoons of short, black-haired people with lines for eyes and chopsticks in their hair, slurping up noodles and saying something in stunted English.

I was embarrassed by how my race was portrayed, and I didn’t want to fit the stereotype. It didn’t help that I was publicly humiliated for eating my “chinky” food up until middle school.

One memory from elementary school stands out. For the first day of third grade, my mom had packed a simple meal of fried rice, but added a bit too much fish sauce—not that it mattered to my seven year-old self.

When I opened the top of my lunch thermos, I smelled a tasty blend that reminded me of home. But the other kids who were unaccustomed to the smell of pure Chinese food and some extra fish sauce recoiled.

I remember my own best friend, who used to pay little attention to the food I ate ever since we became friends in first grade, turn to me with an incredulous-almost-accusatory look. “What is that?”

I didn’t notice the underlying disgust in her voice, but I did notice the slight shift of her lunch tray.

Away from me.

My need to reject being Chinese reached its peak in middle school. I used to swap meals with another student for her school lunch so I wouldn’t be seen eating “chinky” food. Not only did I lose part of myself by rejecting who I was, but I also suffered through cold turkey sandwiches, goopy pasta and pizza dripping with grease while someone else enjoyed my mom’s still-warm and savory cooking.

As I entered high school, I simply stopped caring what people thought about the food I ate. I still encountered situations where I was called out for eating “very Asian food,” but it never bothered me as much as it did in my middle school years.

But to my horror, as I sat in the makeup room of the theatre, I found myself debating whether I should bring my mom’s food out at all. I was going through the same struggle I thought I had gotten over.

Then I realized, to truly accept myself means being proud of everything that makes me who I am, including the food I love to eat at home. I hadn’t ever accepted the fact that as a Chinese girl, yes, I ate Chinese food.

Partially because I wanted to prove something to myself, and partially because I wanted to get rid of this fear once and for all, I mustered up my courage and put the rice and curry on the table.

I sat on a nearby couch, and despite holding a fascinating John Grisham book in my hands, I tensely watched my castmates hover and take small tastes. Their faces ranged from shocked, to confused, to ecstatic.

Yet one after another, the 12 adults came up to me and expressed how much they loved my mom’s cooking. I felt a wave of relief rush through me with each compliment. I never had anything to be embarrassed about in the first place.

After all, my Chinese food is a part of being Chinese. No one had the right to look down upon me for being me.

That day, I went home with more than empty containers. I left with a heart full of pride to be who I am.

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