Thursday, May 29, 2008

The authenticity trap

One of the things I loved about being in San Francisco is the amount of Asian food I got to consume.

Let me amend that: authentic Asian food.

But how does one judge "authenticity"?

I usually go for word of mouth and recommendations from friends whom I know to be either foodies or who grew up eating that particular cuisine. Of course, I want to toss out a caveat--which is that, I think people should eat what they want to eat. Meaning, if you grew up on what author Mei Ng calls "gringo Chinese food"--that greasy suburban take-out style Chinese food, then more power to you. You should not feel ashamed of your childhood tastebuds. And it's understandable if you prefer General Tso's chicken to "bak jam gai" (this wonderful poached chicken that comes with this amazing ginger-garlic dipping sauce!) I grew up putting Log Cabin syrup on my pancakes and waffles and the first time a friend from Vermont served me *real* maple syrup I nearly gagged. I'm sure this shocks all my foodie friends, but it's true. To this day, I keep Log Cabin in my kitchen (but never Aunt Jemima--just can't do THAT).

Another indicator of authenticity seems to be if the clientele of the restaurant matches the ethnicity. This is imperfect, I admit, but lets face it--we all do it. We are more inclined to believe a Mexican restaurant is "authentic" if we see lots of Latino faces inside. And especially in an ethnic neighborhood, like Chinatown, a Chinese restaurant with lots of Asian faces and people speaking either Mandarin or Cantonese seems to be a good bet for real deal Chinese food.

I admit to falling into this trap. And I say it's a trap, or perhaps more accurately a catch-22, because the truth is, I'm always questioning my own "authenticity" when it comes to my "Asian-ness."

On the plus side of my Asian credentials is my face (I look Asian), my background (I have two immigrant Chinese parents, albeit one is an immigrant from Jamaica, so really, I only get to count my Dad in this column since my mother's heritage does problematize the authenticity bit). I grew up in the SF Bay Area in a suburb that was not majority white. I had grandparents who lived in Oakland Chinatown.

On the minus side there's my mother's complicated Jamaican heritage (and all those pesky Chinese Jamaican mixed-race cousins of mine), the fact that I didn't grow up speaking either Cantonese or Mandarin (I do a very bad version of restaurant Chinese in which I know the names of certain dishes but my pronunciation is atrocious), and I have dated predominantly non-Asian men (for the record, one Korean American, one Filipino American, and sadly only one Chinese American--sad for my father, who secretly holds out hope for a Chinese American son-in-law one day).

[I am obviously being tongue-in-cheek with this checklist, btw]

So that brings me to dim sum.

I went with my cousin "E" and her husband "J" and of course, I was accompanied by "Southern Man" who had his first taste of dim sum when we were in Toronto for my cousin's wedding this summer. The chinatown restaurant we went to, New Asia, was authentic both by its recommendation (my aunt and uncle take my cousin and her husband on a regular basis) and because it was chock full of Asian primarily Chinese people, most of whom were speaking Cantonese (a few Mandarin speakers were in the mix). A quick scan showed that "J" (who is of the Caucasian race) and my boyfriend were one of half a dozen non-Asian people in the entire restaurant (which looked to have 100+ patrons).

So it should not have surprised or annoyed me that when the dim sum women (they are always women...there's probably a certain type of sexism involved in Chinese restaurants over this--waiters are almost always men and dim sum cart pushers are always women--in fact, I just wrote "dim sum cart ladies" automatically because that's how I'm used to thinking about them) came by our table, they switched from Cantonese into English and then launched into a detailed explanation of the dish.

Why was I surprised and annoyed? Because both "E" and I grew up going to dim sum restaurants and eating Chinese food. "E" even speaks Mandarin. But we were instantly marked by our white partners--and for me, as a non-speaker, I am doubly marked. And I was annoyed that we were seen as "inauthentic." And the truth is, I understood that for everyone in the restaurant, we were.

But what does it mean to be authentically Chinese American?

Perhaps, what it means, is to face encounters like the one above and to realize that authenticity isn't just a recommendation for a great dim sum restaurant but to also recognize the problematics of trying to figure out real vs. fake, when everything is so gray and when Log Cabin maple syrup is more widely consumed than Vermont's finest.


Nicola said...

I actually read the dim sum experience differently. I get frustrated and annoyed when someone assumes I speak Cantonese when I'm in my home town. Where I grew up I'd pick up the phone, say "hello?", and get yakked at in Cantonese by a political campaigner or someone trying to sell something because our family last name is recognizably Chinese. It got to the point where I'd respond in French to them and the Jehovah's witnesses that came to the door so that I could at least enjoy their confusion.

Depending on the context, it can also be seen as disrespectful here to speak in one language with a subset of a group when you know that you are excluding others from the conversion.

If I'm at dim sum with a mix of people, I expect to be addressed in English so that everyone in earshot understands. I'm not as annoyed in that context if there's an assumption that I speak Cantonese. But I want the table to be treated as a table with English as a common language first - and then if another language facilitates service and we've got speakers of the language, that's fine.

I don't care if we are not seen as "authentic". I'm at the restaurant because I'm showing appreciation for the food they serve. And what I care about is awareness of the staff to serve us in English as much as possible and our awareness that for a lot of the staff, English isn't necessarily their first language.

There's way too much diversity in this city to assume anything about anyone. And the question of authenticity isn't in my mind as much because you can get reasonable sushi at a restaurant run by Koreans, for example - and because I'm used to subverting expectations without even trying.

A co-worker recently told me that she had fun telling her friends about going to my birthday dinner last year. Gal with Chinese Jamaican background, partner's background is Estonian/British Isles, celebrating St. Patrick's Day at an Egyptian restaurant in the Greek area of town. That doesn't even include the diversity of the others I had dinner with.

Sara no H. said...

You know, I've struggled so much with the notion of an "authentic" identity - Pinay, for me - that I think I've really just burned myself out on the whole ordeal. I used to keep those kinds of checklists - +1 for knowing how to cook all of my family's traditional dishes, -1 for not speaking Tagalog, etc. - but it's just become more stressful than anything else. I can't help but think, does it really matter? My experience is real, regardless of whether it makes me more white or more Pinay, or some weird little halo hybrid, and I think I'm finally learning to be okay with that.

But I do appreciate it when the dim sum cart ladies (and yes, they're always women where we go too!) take the time to explain the various foodstuffs on offer - I can recognise anything that can be found in the frozen food aisle at our grocery (mostly mainstream stuff like shu mai and pork buns - and desserts, I can always recognise desserts), but everything else is, well, foreign to me. My white partner, on the other hand, is familiar with most of it because he goes there all the time ... and while I used to fret over the fact that he was clearly more "Asian" than me, now it's just - well at least someone can explain to me what I'm eating!

Jennifer said...

Nicola & Sara no h,
Thanks for your comments and observations. Nicola, I appreciate the different spin/perspective you have on dim sum. I freely admit that my own prickliness has to do with being back in SF for the first time in a while--being back in a place where there is a critical mass of Asian Americans and Chinese Americans. And then feeling like I'm being condescended to at a Chinese restaurant--when it was clear, since my cousin was speaking mandarin, that we were Chinese American.

I think that I do appreciate when I get an explanation at a restaurant when I'm not sure about the dish. But I didn't feel like I was getting an explanation so much as being "sold" on the dish. I can't quite explain it--I have been other places where dim sum ladies give the English explanation and it didn't rub me the wrong way--there was something else I thought was going on, and maybe I'm being oversensitive but I linked it to the fact that we were two Chinese women sitting with two white guys--we were a very conspicuous table at this restaurant, and one table with some younger Chinese/Chinese American teens/twenty-somethings were giving us the stink eye for a while.

And again, maybe this is my oversensitivity from being at UCSB and being called a banana and a sell out while walking with my white boyfriend, but I do feel like within the Asian/Asian American community there is a type of censure that happens towards Asian American women who date "out"--and especially who date white guys.

It's complicated--the inter-racial dating thing. And I can't ignore the ways I've absorbed media images and cultural values and therefore am complicit in some things.

Sara no h, I absolutely agree that getting mired in the checklist of authenticity is taxing and ultimately not helpful. I think that's why I wanted to write this post--to admit that as much as I KNOW that doing this is not productive, there's something seductive about doing it--something we (or at least I) find myself doing--evaluating "authenticity" in others, in myself. A losing proposition, I know, but one that I think is easy to fall into.

s-fizzle said...

yeah i get the people that always assume I'm Chinese and fluent in Chinese. It's funny though Korean people are much more hesitant with me and speak to me in English all the time .......until they see my mother and they start rattling off in Korean.

Jennifer said...

Interesting that your mother changes the way that people interact with you in these situations. Which just goes to show, that a lot of times it's all about context.