By: Juliana Clark
As an adoptee from China, I was not raised with Chinese parents who knew the ins-and-outs of Chinese cooking. I did not go to school with a packed lunch of Chinese food but rather with a sandwich, fruits, and vegetables. That’s not to say that Chinese kids didn’t have those as their lunch options too, but I noticed enough people who would bring home-cooked meals with them from home to make me feel left out. Even now, living away from home in a dorm, I notice the different foods and recipes that people bring with them that remind them of home. Fascinated, I ask about them, yearning to learn more about something I’ve lived without: family/cultural food traditions.
My lack of knowledge on the food of my own culture often resulted in naïveness when it came to being asked questions about Chinese food or be looped into a conversation where the topic of Chinese food was mentioned. I would be asked what a certain term was, what was in a certain dish, or how to pronounce the name of something and I would be at a loss for words. Not only was the taste unfamiliar to me but so were the titles of the dishes themselves. Needless to say, this gap in my knowledge left me eager to learn and I am still learning after each and every experience.
Instead of being raised on home-cooked Chinese food, I was exposed to the Chinese food that was made in various establishments throughout New York City, where I grew up. Being in a big city, I am sure that at least some of those establishments produced food more similar to the recipes that would be passed down between Chinese families through generations, but I still knew there were things I was missing out on.
When I was younger, I would go over to some of my Asian friends’ houses where I would try the home-cooked traditional food that them or their parents would make. For them it was the norm but for me it was a whole new experience. It had a whole new taste to it than the Chinese food that was served in the eating establishments I had been to in the city. While from the outside, my excitement for trying the food would be taken as me just being a “good eater”; my excitement really stemmed from the fact that I felt like I was finally included in the food aspect of my culture.
I watch (and taste) as Western culture tries its hand at what they view Chinese food to be. At some points it’s structured based off cultural assumptions and stereotypes, while others are run with great care. For me, I have experienced both ends. Both the tolerance and intolerance that Western society can have of Chinese food (as well as food from other cultures) can be contradictory and messy. I’ve heard opinions stating that Chinese food is overall, unhealthy due to the seemingly immense amount of oils that are used in the cooking process. I’ve also seen times where Chinese food is considered a treat or delicacy of some sort; with consumers eating it on special occasions and snapping photos of the takeout boxes that they sometimes come in. With this being said, the authenticity of the Chinese food produced in the Western hemisphere compared to the food in China itself, can be argued.
While I am aware of the modifications made by Western culture to make Chinese food more appealing to the average Westerner’s taste buds, I am conscious that as an adoptee, I do not truly know what those modifications are in contrast to the Chinese food that you would find in China. As I am writing this on my University campus, I’m even thinking about how it must feel for International students from China and other countries to see their food being served in a Western setting, knowing that it most likely isn’t the same as what they’re used to at home.
While the differences among food of other cultures served in the Western Hemisphere may only be known to those who grew up with said food of their own culture, it is important for the rest of us to take into consideration that although we may serve food from another culture, we are not taking ownership of that culture. This includes being careful with how we present and advertise any and all aspects of other cultures, noting that we are merely guests showing appreciation for the wonderful things that other cultures have to offer.
Juliana is in her second year of her undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph in Canada. She is the Online/Social Media Chairperson on the Adoptee Board for the organization Families with Children from China which centers around Chinese adoptees and their adoptive families. In her spare time, Juliana enjoys reading, writing, painting, and visiting cat cafes 🙂 !