As the kid of immigrants, I grew up in my parents’ Chinese restaurant, watching all the Southerners “explore” the novelty of Chinese food.
Outside of those walls, people looked at my Chinese face and assumed I couldn’t understand English, that somehow I was inferior to them and their ways. Inside the restaurant, I relished the cultural one-upmanship I had over them. Not only could I use chopsticks, I knew how to eat food that went beyond the simple flavors of salty, sweet, and fat. My armor of umami, fortified with the breath of the wok, made me feel strong. Like Popeye, I ate my spinach – and bok choy, and cabbage, and earwood mushrooms, and other ancient Chinese secrets.
It’s not much of a brag, to go around saying that you eat lotus seeds while they eat Cheerios. Even if I did say those things out loud, the local community would have only heard “cat” and “dog” not bitter melon and bird’s nest soup. I learned not to say anything at all. Just stayed quiet with my inner power, fueled by noodles.
Then, I went to Hong Kong, where my accented Cantonese immediately signified that I was an outsider. The locals there turned their noses up at me and gave me reasons why THEIR food, THEIR culture, THEIR language, was all better than mine. Topped it all off by listing endless reasons why I’d never fully comprehend the depths of what it is to be Chinese. Forget my Chinese face, it was not a valid membership card, because I am American. I was a confused, being told that I was NOT something that I had been told, all my life, that I was.
In response to being on the flip side, within a very loud, very vocal collective who enjoyed pointing out my deficiencies, I said
“Well…I can make pumpkin pie.”
A friend let me into their commercial pastry kitchen one evening, and I made a bunch of pumpkin pies. This was before Starbucks and Pumpkin Spice had taken over the world, so it hadn’t been offered as a mainstream Instagrammable-Must-Have yet. This autumnal combination wasn’t in Hong Kong’s run-of-the-mill flavor vault of taro, lotus seed, or red bean. Hong Kong doesn’t even have an autumn season to associate a flavor to it. This was American. And THEY LOVED IT! They ate it up. Asked for more.
I loved introducing them to the pleasures of pie. Cultural one-upmanship – touché! I even enjoyed the fact that in Chinese they say the English word “pie”, because they don’t have their own word for it. Would they ever understand the depths, the history, or the etymology of a word that isn’t even part of their language?
Of course they can.
But I let myself enjoy that little moment of victory. Just a Chinese-American girl sharing some American traditional flavors with others, and everyone being open to sharing. The victory! For that moment I was accepted for who I am and what I can offer, regardless of what my face looks like, or how accented my speech. It nudged opened a door to myself. A place where I could just BE without being deficient in either one culture or the other.
Self -Acceptance Pie looks and tastes different for everyone. But when I sliced and shared it, it was more powerful, and enjoyable, than being hunched over my bowl of silent noodles.