How Are Overseas Asians Are Fighting Racism Through Food?
Throughout the history of the Asian diaspora, Asian food has been many things to many people—morphing, shifting, and incorporating new influences and environments to both comfort those yearning for a taste of home in a foreign land, as well as introducing novel and 'exotic' tastes to locals of the host country. Though Asian restaurants today are part and parcel of the urban fabric across the US and the UK, Asian food has become an area of contention and identity politics in our current era of social activism—hardly a month passes by without allegations of cultural appropriation on the part of non-BIPOC individuals seeking to 'elevate' Asian cuisine.
"Americans may love Chinese food, but they don't love the people who make it," summed up Eater's Jenny G. Zhang of the complicated relationship between Chinese-American communities and American society at large. "They treat Chinatowns like playgrounds, their residents like backdrops for photos. They reach for the products of Chinese labour and with the same hands knock them down on the street."
In the wake of anti-Asian sentiment exacerbated by a recent spate of hate crimes—including the tragic killing spree of an Atlanta gunman who targeted Asian-operated spas—Asian food has come into its own as an avenue of resistance, as anger within the community boils over. Capturing the ability of food to act as a source of healing as well as a potent vehicle of culture, food lovers across Instagram have been baking elaborate cakes and penning illustrations featuring protest slogans, dedicating them to the parents, elders and peers whose sacrifices paved the way for the flourishing of Asian immigrant communities around the world today.
In particular, the slogan "Love our people like you love our food"—first spotted on a protest sign by muay thai fighter Jessica Ng at a New York demonstration in February—has since become a rallying cry for the Asian foodie community, asking for the same respect to be afforded of them as the dishes they create.
British-Chinese illustrator and tattoo artist Georgina Leung elaborated on this sentiment via an Instagram series unpacking her family's history operating a Chinese takeaway restaurant, writing: "British Chinese food today as we know it was born from a need to survive. Its many reiterations and adaptations were originally created so that it suited 'western' tastes. The result was some delicious food that we have all eaten, MSG and all. People who travel to Asia for a holiday, people who love anime or manga, enjoy listening to K-pop, those who eat Asian food from takeaways and restaurants ... You don't get to enjoy all this and stay silent. You don't get to ignore the hate we have faced over decades and pretend white privilege doesn't exist."
Joe Tong, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, summed up this sentiment even more succinctly with his illustrations superimposing Ng's slogan onto bottles of Sriracha and Kikkoman soy sauce, under which he wrote: "Think of the duality of enjoying Asian foods—can you choose to consume a culture’s flavours and not choose to stand up for its people?"
"Being a home economics teacher and university professor teaching life skills through food as a medium, it’s always on my mind," Tong explained to Tatler Dining. "The home economics profession is rooted in colonialism and a huge part of my work has been to train foods teachers to teach beyond the recipe and see food as a highly complex story versus a cultural stereotype."
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Others still have tapped into their own encounters with racism and expressed them through the medium of baking, where the contradictory combination of pastel food dye, delicate fondant toppings and heartfelt messages of defiance have certainly struck a raw nerve among netizens. Slogans written in icing and ringed by buttercream piping—"Fuck Racism", "Hate Is A Virus", "Stop Asian Hate"—suddenly became the perfect, Instagram-friendly vehicle through which to express the disquiet in the community. These cakes perhaps serve doubly as a commentary too on the widespread expectation both of and by overseas Asians that racist aggressions were to be silently endured, much like the ability of marzipan to nullify the potency and desperation of the messages.
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Half-Chinese, half-American actor Lauren Hugh similarly took Ng's slogan and laid it using letters made of pastry atop a jumbo-sized egg tart—an image which subsequently became viral. "When the pandemic hit, I was pursuing my career in New York City, but decided it would be best to move home to Minnesota, since it didn't seem like there was an end to the pandemic in sight," she recounts. "I started a food blog with my newfound time and eventually stumbled across an account called Bakers for Change, which does bake sales to raise money for incredible causes. With the rise in Asian hate crimes, I knew I had to take part in the bake sale for Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC)."
The tart raised US$1,300 in total, adding to the US$19,500 that was raised for AAJC; while a stop motion video Hugh made of the decorating process garnered 26 thousand views by the time of writing. "There have definitely been people making negative comments on my posts, but the positive reactions far outweigh them, which gives me hope that through raising more awareness, we'll be able to make lasting change to tackle racism in this country—and hopefully, globally as well," Hugh says.
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Yet among all the cakes on Instagram, first-generation Filipino-Canadian and second-year college student T. Aranda's strawberry cream cake stands out for its simplicity, devoid of any slogan and swathed in an elegant coat of pure white cream. It was, she explains, inspired by a post on the Facebook group, Subtle Asian Baking, asking for volunteers to bake a cake to honour one of the victims of the Atlanta shootings, Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, who was killed the day before her birthday. "Instantly I wanted to make one, because the victims are not only names on a news article—they are people, and I could not help but think about my own family and myself," explains Aranda.
"In a way, this piece of cake is a little bit like a representation of people coming together through food. Despite all the hate that is going on, this movement gives me hope, because it shows just how much love and support is around."
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