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How does Asian cuisine perform America in my household? Oscar Chou

Abstract

I chose this topic of research because my dad went to trade school in China as a chef, and while he doesn't work as a chef anymore, he cooks and prepares a lot of different dishes from all kinds of cultures almost weekly. From the preparation to the cooking to the final presentation, chefs really are almost acting out a performance, and I've realized that, after taking this course, there are a lot of elements to cooking that make it a very complex art. I know that weeks can go into prepping different meat for cooking, and the final presentation of a food on a plate or a bowl varies greatly from place to place. In this essay, I will compare how my parent's performance in the kitchen and the dining table is a symbolization of their American dream and culture.

Essay

Through food, many cultures’ traditions and characteristics can be observed. It is a universal art that has been practiced and perfected for a long time. For my dad, he first learned to cook in China, but his life in America has shifted his perception and experience of different cuisines, and this can be seen in the way he performs his food to guests. Like many others, he came to America looking for better opportunities, and the influx of different cultures affected him just like other immigrants and citizens of America. One of the ideas that sprang from this gathering was the American Dream, a belief that someone can accomplish their goals and find success through their own hard work. My parents' cooking is a performance that closely resembles an American dream. It has been shaped and grown by various American cultures, but the purpose of the meal remains the same: to share his experiences with guests so that they might enjoy the performance.

My parents grew up in China but moved to America in 1991. They first moved to New York, where they lived in a small house owned by a friend from China, and my dad worked as a chef for a small restaurant. In 1997, they moved to L.A., where I would be born a few years later. While my dad no longer works as a chef, food is still a passion that both my mom and dad deeply enjoy sharing with other people. Growing up, my family would usually have guests over every other weekend for dinner, and my parents would always prepare a large meal with a variety of foods from different cultures. Over time, dishes from different places around the world have been added to the meal. Some could argue that this has reduced the authenticity of the food, making it less Asian and taking away from my father's heritage as a Chinese chef, but I believe everyone has to grow to accommodate what they learn in life, and moving to America has just given my parents more chances to be exposed to different cultures. There is no obligation for him to assimilate into American culture and force his food to taste or be presented a certain way, and he can make what he thinks tastes the best and what the guests will enjoy the most. Although this may not be true for everyone's interpretation or manifestation of the American dream, for my dad, learning more about different cultures has benefited his performance.

Preparing a meal begins a few days before the day of the meal, with my dad going grocery shopping at local Asian markets and Costco. He visits Asian markets because that’s where most of his experience lies: in Asian Cuisine. He knows how Chinese people like to preserve meats and the preferred ingredients that Chinese dishes usually use. However, his choice to shop at Costco also stems from his upbringing: finding the best foods for the lowest price. Costco also offers a wider variety of food that allows him to make food from other cultures.

For the actual cooking of the food, my mom and dad will work together throughout the morning and afternoon. There will always be a variety of dishes from different cultures that my parents draw inspiration from. My dad learned how to make paella, a dish unique to the Iberian peninsula, because my mother’s family lives in Spain, so she rarely gets to visit them.

A Spanish dish called Paella, my dad made this because my mother's family lives in Spain, and this is an iconic dish that is usually only found in Spain and Portugal.

When relatives or friends are coming over, my parents will often make traditional Chinese dumplings because they can be rolled up a few hours before dinner and everyone can sit around a table working together. It helps create a bond between everyone knowing that the food they eat was made with their own hands.

One of the most recognizable Asian dishes is the dumpling. While they can be steamed or fried, both versions are very common and contain a balance of both protein and carbs.

My dad’s favorite food is seafood, so he is always extravagant with lobster and crab preparation. He knows exactly how to chop and split up the lobster so that guests can appreciate both the aesthetics of the food and eat it without much difficulty.

My dad's favorite food is seafood, so there is always some type of fish, crab, or lobster in our meals when a guest is over.

Since we eat a lot of Asian food, my parents also learned how to make Italian food. My mom makes a simple salad, while my dad mixes Asian and Italian noodles together into a nice blend of both.

This is my parent's take on an Italian meal: a simple chicken salad with Italian pasta made with Chinese noodles.

After so much preparation, my parents will finally be ready for the presentation of the food, bringing out one dish at a time to the dining table. My dad sits down last, at the head of the table, where the older guests sit. In Asian culture, seniority and interpersonal relationships are very important, and my parents still follow that tradition when we sit at the table.

During the meal, my dad also likes to present his wine cabinet, offering a large variety of different drinks for guests. There are Italian wines, Mexican tequilas, Chinese Maotai, and more that he collects from all over the world. He is really passionate about presenting the best things for his guests, so he pulls out bottle after bottle, letting all the adults try what they want. His performance is focused on pleasing his guests and making sure they enjoy their night so that he leaves a positive impression on them.

My dad loves his alcohol, and while he no longer drinks as much, he has amassed a large collection over the years. He loves to share this during meals for guests to enjoy.

Not only is the food part of the performance, my parents make sure the setting and atmosphere around the table is perfected for the meal. In traditional Chinese fashion, there is a large china cabinet and amethyst rock that add to the “feng shui”, or luck, of the area. The decorations around the table were handpicked by my dad, from the fancy lighting to the embroidery on the napkins. His diligence in making sure all the household items is notoriously strict for me and my sister. The room is a combination of both Chinese and American culture, just like how cultures are "assimilated" in America. However, while assimilation is bad in certain contexts, I believe the combination of cultures in the setting of the dining room has a more positive connotation that implies my parent's appreciation of the beauty in both cultures and hope to share that in the room's decoration.

A traditional Asian practice is to display their fine china in cabinets close to the dining table. However, they are rarely ever used because most are family heirlooms or souvenirs.

Finally, the finishing touch to most meals will be my mom’s cake. Purely a hobby she took up to spend more time in the kitchen with my dad, she discovered her creative talent in baking after spending some time experimenting with bread and snacks. She spends whole afternoons practicing on wax paper to make sure the decorations on the cake are done right so that the guests always love her desserts.

Since my dad spends so much time in the kitchen, my mom recently took up baking to accompany him. She manifests a lot of her creative ideas in her cakes, and they accompany my dad's main dishes as the dessert.

From the dishes to the decorations, it is easy to see how my parent's cooking is a performance that combines different cultures. Their performance emulates many aspects of the American dream, and just like the idea of a utopian dream, while most of it is positive details, there are always caveats. My parents always work very hard for a meal, and while the dishes usually taste amazing, it is at the price of my parents' energy. Sometimes, the stress causes disagreements and arguments between them, and at other times, the tiredness and constant stress can be visibly seen in my parents' body language. While the face they put on for the performance is always inviting and happy, I can see the toll that working so hard on weekends has taken on my parents. Although my parents' attitude toward guests is not fake, a performance is a performance, and the happier attitude they entertain guests with is not a completely genuine reflection of their lives. In an article by Kristine Nodgaard-Nielsen, she delves into the very complicated American culture that outsiders dislike. In an apt analogy, she compares Americans to peaches and other nationalities to coconuts. One is soft on the outside and hard on the inside, but the other is hard on the outside and soft on the inside. Similarly, Americans seem to be nice on the outside, but are hard to understand and truly get to know better. Other nationalities describe Americans as insincere, since they pretend to act so friendly. Although American culture is definitely not that simple, it is easy to see how someone not familiar with American culture may be put off by the classic American phrase, "fake it till you make it". While I do not believe my parents fall into this category, since they work very hard to be able to make such extravagant dinners, their performance, which is so similar to the American dream, could definitely be described by some as fake.

Some may also argue that my parent's cooking has become assimilated into American culture. They could say that their cooking is no longer representative of their heritage and have lost their cultural identity. However, I believe that food is an expression of the chef's experiences. While some foods may represent a culture, like the American burger or Italian pasta or Taiwanese soup, when a chef cooks, he is putting his own experiences into the food, and he is not merely making food that comes from a certain culture. I am not arguing that assimilation is good, but that a chef's food is more than just something from a single culture: it is what he thinks tastes the best based on the food he has tried before, whatever culture it may be from. In Terry Heick's article "The Assimilation vs. Accommodation of Knowledge", he states that assimilation of knowledge is like adding to pre-existing knowledge, while the accommodation of knowledge is how that pre-existing knowledge can be shaped to fit new information. In the context of cooking, when a chef learns a new dish, he is assimilating that knowledge, but when he decides to modify a dish or add that dish to his repertoire, he is accommodating that knowledge. Just because he learns a new dish does not mean he has to cook that dish every time, he can decide what he thinks if best for the meal. In this way, I do not think assimilation is bad in the context of cooking, it is merely a chef learning new foods from more cultures that he can use to benefit his performance.

According to Stuart Hall, representation depends on both the person presenting the information and the person interpreting the information. Since the person interpreting the information might be different every time, the most you can do is present the best version of your performance every time. My parents’ performance is meant to represent their desire to create positive relationships with people so that my sister and I can have a better web of connections to build off of. While they hide the occasional accidents and disagreements, they are genuine in their attempt to make friends and build relationships with whoever the guest may be. They make sure that every little detail of their performance within their control is perfected, so that the few hours the guests spend at our house is a good experience representing the best of what our family can offer.

America has been transformed by the countless cultures that have migrated here looking for better opportunities. The American dream is a popular idea born from those looking to create their own success with their own hard work, and while it is not always a success, it shares the idea that your own efforts can make a difference in your life. While many artists have tried to capture this idea, my parents represent the clearest version of the American dream to me. They came to America looking for opportunities, and although they found success in their jobs, they resemble “Americans” the most through the meals they prepare. The large mixture of cultures that they combine in their foods and the purpose behind their performance of food defines, to me, the dedication that goes into an American dream.

Bibliography

Hall, Stuart. “What Is Representation?”

Staff, TeachThought. “The Assimilation vs Accommodation Of Knowledge.” TeachThought, 28 Oct. 2019, www.teachthought.com/learning/assimilation-vs-accommodation-of-knowledge/.

Nødgaard-Nielsen, Kristine. “The Paradox of American Friendliness.” The Aggie, 16 Mar. 2015, theaggie.org/2015/03/16/the-paradox-of-american-friendliness/.

Reflection