“You are What You Eat”: The Intertwined Nature of Food and Identity – Eunheh Koh

America is a nation that is worldwide famous for being built on immigrants; in the history of America, the efforts of immigrants from Europe allowed them to reach success, causing America to become an icon of hope. This image of America persisted over the years, leading to large waves of immigration to the United States, with many immigrants leaving the comforts of their homes and coming to the United States, in the hopes to fulfill their dreams. With this big move to the United States, they brought new ideas, recipes and customs from their home culture. Unfortunately, Americans began to exhibit negative feedback to the growing “differentness” that was occurring all over the nation as more immigration occurred. Although it was hard for Americans to accept the foreigners, over time, food was something that the Americans loved about the introduction of these new ideas, especially after the most of the recipes were modified to match the American tastebud which fueled it to become an integral part of the American culture. These new foods incorporated both their roots and the influences of their new environment, fueling the creation of a new type of food, like Chinese-American food. Through generations, these ideas were passed on and have now become a large component of the lives of many immigrants and their families. The Chinese-American food became integral in helping people, particularly those are of Chinese heritage, embrace their multi-faceted identities; this is a prevalent phenomenon created by the immigration of new ideas from many cultures to the United States.

When thinking about the motive for immigration to the United States, the American Dream cannot be left out of the conversation. The American Dream fundamentally grew from America’s history in which the hard-working efforts of immigrants granted their success. This was an essential concept that was followed in the Declaration of Independence, that promised Americans the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Hanson 2). From these core values, America became famous for its fulfillment of prosperity, which instilled a great deal of hope for many future immigrants. Despite the difficulties of leaving the familiar customs of home and family, immigrants made the difficult travel across the ocean to get the “Land of Freedom.” However, as more and more foreigners came to partake in the American Dream, they were faced with more discrimination. The Chinese immigrants, in particular, experienced a great deal of discrimination in the United States. At first, during the Gold Rush in California, Chinese immigrants were incorporated into the labor force to help in the prosperous search for gold (PBS). However, as the economy worsened in the United States after the Gold Rush, Americans became concerned with the few number of jobs that were available in the job market, causing the Chinese to experience much more discrimination. This hatred took a multitude of forms, including anti-Chinese attacks, leading to the Chinese aggregating in neighborhoods, which were known as “Chinatowns,” to allow people to take safety in numbers (Goyette). Chinatown quickly grew to become a haven for Chinese immigrants as the discrimination continued to increase, especially with the oppressive legislation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese residents of America to obtain their citizenship and restricting the new immigration of Chinese immigrants. As a result, many organizations began to offer programs in Chinatown for people whose immigration status were at risk with the new law (Goyette). Thus, Chinatown grew to become an integral aspect of the Chinese-American culture, as it became a haven for large community of Chinese-Americans, and in this safe space, they were able to celebrate their culture through food, as many people opened Chinese restaurants in Chinatown.

However, as time progressed, restaurants began to make two versions of their menus. One version utilized more traditional recipes from their hometown Canton, as most of the first Chinese immigrants were from Canton. On the other hand, the other menu had dishes that incorporated regional ingredients to their traditional recipes and were changed to tailor to the American palette, by becoming sweeter and more heavily deep-fried (Rude). For example, a popular American-Chinese dish, broccoli and beef, includes broccoli whereas the Chinese equivalent utilizes a Chinese broccoli called gai lan, which was likely changed because the gai lan was not available to Chinese chefs when they immigrated to the United States (Wong). Over time, the American-tailored menu overcame the more traditional Chinese menu in popularity as more and more Americans loved the food. The popularization of Chinese food was also positively impacted through the canning and freezing of Chinese meals, making them an affordable, yet delicious choice for dinner (Liu 50).

However, as these foods got more popular, the dishes began to veer much more from its roots, catalyzing the birth of Chinese-American food, which has now developed into an integral aspect of American culture. According to Jennifer Lee, many dishes of Chinese-American foods do not even exist in China. For example, the iconic, ever-famous Fortune Cookie that we always receive at the end of a meal at a Chinese restaurant, actually traces its origin to Kyoto, Japan, where there are many shops that carry the recipe through family lineages (Lee). These fortune cookies are not even recognized by the Chinese, as seen in Jennifer Lee’s TedTalk, when Chinese people are asked what the cookies are and have a hard time recognizing them (Lee, “The Hunt for General Tso”). These fortune cookies from Japan were brought to San Francisco, and were then incorporated to become an essential part of the Chinese-American menu (Wong). Chinese-American food, like all foods, is constantly changing; particularly, as Chinese chefs moved to different regions of the United States, they began to make new regional variations of Chinese-American dishes. For example, in the Midwest, cream-cheese wontons were created, which is now known as the popular crab rangoon while the chow-mien sandwich was developed in New England (Wei). The development of these regional specialities is another example of how American influence with the introduction of new ingredients, like cream-cheese, has shaped Chinese-American food more, and thus, making it into its own unique food type. It became what Americans considered to be “Chinese food,” especially since more authentic versions of Chinese dishes were introduced in the 1960s-1970s (Rude). These foods have become an integral part of the American culture, as they were adopted into American traditions over time. For example, the Jewish community often frequents Chinese restaurants on Christmas, not only because they are one of the only restaurants open on Christmas, but also because the cuisine matches well with Jewish law by not mixing milk and meat. This tradition started when the Chinese and Jewish people were the largest, non-Christian outsider groups in the 1900s, which connected the two communities, but has since developed and upheld to become a cultural tradition of many Jewish-Americans today (Chandler). Culture is ever-changing as well as food, which has led to the creation of Chinese-American food and its integration into American culture.

P.F. Chang’s., the restaurant chain, has become an interesting point of comparison of Chinese-American food to Chinese food. P.F. Chang’s was designed in 1993 by Phillip Chiang, a chef who aspired to create a chain restaurant that brought a more authentic dining experience, preserving the atmosphere of sitting down and eating, rather than takeout food, of Chinese culture. In China, the culture of bringing of people to eat together and developing deeper connections through food is very highly valued, which was lost in the eventual development of Chinese food into a popular option for takeout during the economic boom after World War Two (Great Big Story). The recipes for the dishes in P.F. Chang’s were authentic, as they did not purposely change the ingredients or flavors to tailor to the American tastebud (Liu 131). They included five major Chinese regional cuisines from Guangdong, Hunan, Mongolian, Shanghai and Sichuan, whereas American-Chinese food mainly came from Cantonese cuisine, which is the Guangdong region, because that was where early Chinese immigrants were from (Liu 131). At first, the restaurant experienced many comments of backlash, as Americans did not like the saltier and oilier dishes, which are the more typical flavors of the Chinese palette, but over time, the appeal for the more authentic Chinese dishes grew and the popularity of P.F. Chang’s grew. P.F. Chang’s began in a mall outlet in Arizona and spread all over the United States. Now, the chain has grown to make an international impact (Ell). In 2018, P.F. Chang’s opened their first location in Shanghai. To the surprise of many, the fast-food chain is advertised as an “American Bistro” on the logo, contrasting the “Asian Flavors” advertising in America, and is very popular in Shanghai (Ell). This contrast in advertising, however, indicates that some of the authenticity of the dishes on the menu may have been influenced by American customers, even though the mission of the restaurant is to not diverge from the traditional recipes. This is confirmed by a quote of the CEO of P.F. Chang’s, Mr. Oslanoo, as he describes the Chinese appeal as “‘[the Chinese] love the concept that it’s an American bistro, serving some of their favorite American dishes for an American-style palette, which is heavy protein’” (Ell). Thus, even though the original aim of the restaurant was to create a menu that was similar to an traditional Chinese menu, the American palette still influenced how many of the dishes were cooked, as chefs became aware that their customers preferred the heavy protein dishes of their foods. In this way, the food has become foreign to the Chinese, as they consider the dishes served at P.F. Chang’s as “American” for these changes like the heavier protein content that are not typically seen in the Chinese dishes, even though these dishes originated from traditional recipes.  The juxtaposition between the advertisement as an “American Bistro” in China while as “Asian Flavors” in America demonstrate how the Chinese-American food served at P.F. Chang’s is truly unique in its own sense. It stemmed from Chinese dishes, but was also heavily influenced by the environment of the United States, as chefs were receptive to the palette of the customer. While this may have been a more subconscious change, as chefs at P.F. Chang’s hoped to align with the restaurant’s mission of serving authentic food, the dishes served inevitably changed, as shown by the Chinese not recognizing these foods as Chinese, but alternatively considering them to be American. This brings up the question of authenticity: is P.F. Chang’s truly authentic? In what ways? In what ways is it not? What type of food is served at P.F. Chang’s? American or Chinese food?

Ultimately, P.F. Chang’s serves Chinese-American food; it is not purely Chinese or American, but is heavily influenced by both countries’ palettes and has become its own type of food. In this way, Chinese-American food is often criticized by people for its lack of authenticity. Many consider it to have stemmed too far away from its roots, as many of the dishes that are popular in Chinese restaurants in America are not recognizable to the Chinese in mainland China, as they have been heavily influenced by America’s tastebuds, like seen with the fortune cookie (Lee, “The Hunt for General Tso”). Thus, the definition of authenticity must be considered to further this analysis.

In her article “Rethinking the Meaning of Authentic Chinese Food,” Elena Zhang, a second-generation child of Chinese immigrants, considers what the true definition of authenticity is. When she originally thought about Chinese-American food, she did not think it was very authentic, as it was so heavily impacted by the foreign (American) influence, but the more she considered this definition of “purity from foreign influence,” she realized the extent to which foreign influence had truly affected Chinese food (Zhang). In particular, she mentions how in 3000 BC, wheat was introduced and now is a quintessential ingredient in many Chinese dishes (Zhang). Thus, even many of the foods that are considered to be authentic in China are still subject to foreign influence. As a result, she steered away from that definition and as she thought more about the dishes she considers to be authentic, she noticed they were the ones that she ate at home. As she continued her analysis, she then “realized that [her] mother was doing just what other Chinese chefs, chefs of any nationality really, have been doing throughout history: preserving tradition, while adapting to the times” (Zhang). Zhang argues how authenticity in terms of food can also be defined as foods that are passed down from generation to generation; it is the food that your family finds comfort and connections to home with (Zhang).

Thus, when considering this more accepting definition of authenticity and applying it to Chinese-American food, Chinese-American food has developed to become its own authentic cuisine. It may not fit into the distinct categories of being truly American or Chinese as it has diverged from its Chinese roots and made changes based on the American palette, but it has also developed into its own cuisine, and it becomes authentic based on its rich food history and how it is passed on over time. Chinese-American food incorporates ingredients of America, and thus is able to “adapt to the times” (Zhang). By substituting broccoli for gai lan, Chinese chefs were able to bring their favorite dish to America, but also make the necessary changes, as they lacked the gai lan (Wong); over time, these recipes with these changes are passed on through generations, from mother to daughter. Authentic food is the food that becomes important to your family and to your background, and it is flexible as it is able to embrace multiple facets of its own identity of its Chinese roots and American influence. The food served as P.F. Chang’s is a good example of this; both the Americans and Chinese view the food as foreign for its foreign qualities, however, the food itself has become its own authentic genre of cuisine that have become an important part of both cultures, as they both love to eat it. So while it may be perceived as foreign, it embraces both aspects of the Chinese and American cultures. These ideas of flexibility and fluidity of food are concepts that can also applied to identities; we, as people, are heavily influenced by our roots but also by the environment we grow up in, which ultimately impacts our identities. Our identity is not set in one category or the other – someone is not Chinese or American and we are able to adopt multiple aspects just like food. Identity is heavily shaped by our family, our heritage, our cultural values, our experiences with our friends and classmates, and our growing up experiences; we are constantly changing and learning throughout life, and as we grow up, our identities are also influenced by our changes.

Many people undergo the complex process of determining one’s identity, particularly many descendants from immigrant families undergo the struggle of being comfortable and accepting of our complex identity while growing up. We are tempted by the idea that by adopting only one identity, we are able to be a part of a strong community which may cause us to want to get rid of another aspect of our identity. However, as more time passes on and we learn more about ourselves and our core values, we begin to realize how special and important each aspect of our identity plays in our lives, especially as we begin to meet more people who are from similar backgrounds and undergo the same struggles of balancing and embracing both cultures.

From my personal experience, I have struggled my entire life accepting my identity as a Korean-American, from both sides of the spectrum, of not wanting to be Korean to not wanting to be American. When I was little, my parents had separated to allow my sister and I to grow up in a school environment that was more fostering to our dreams in America, moving us away from the cutthroat, competitive school experience that was prominent in Korea. As a result, I attended an elementary school that did not have as many Korean classmates as my pre-school classes in Korea, and from the moment I entered my homeroom classroom, I instantly realized how much I stood out because no one else looked like me.

The first day of elementary school brings particularly memorable memories that I can still remember to this day. In particular, my homeroom teacher was checking the attendance, and went down the list and called out a name that no one responded to. It was a very unique combination of sounds that I even thought to myself, wow that sounds like quite a different name from any of the American TV shows I watched. However, I quickly realized everyone was looking at me, and a few moments after, I looked up and she asked me to pronounce my name. I immediately flushed as she phonetically wrote the pronunciation of my name in English. I felt an overwhelming feeling of outsiderness and embarrassment; it was so evident how much I did not fit in, whether it was the color of my hair, skin, and even my name. It was a feeling that resonated with me all throughout my grade school experience, as teachers year after year, day after day, struggled to pronounce my name. Thus, all during elementary school, I wanted to become accepted as an American. I desperately wanted an American name to avoid the nervousness and embarrassment I felt during role call.

Unfortunately, role call was not the only time I felt like the outsider. Nothing quite beats the infamous incident that occurred during my first day: lunchtime. All of my classmates sat together at the lunch table in the cafeteria, just like I had seen in the TV shows, with their lunch boxes and perfectly made sandwiches, as I sat with my rice, seaweed and side dishes, happily munching away. I knew that I did not like the taste of sandwiches; they were quite bland in my opinion, and I was more than satisfied with the lunch my mom had made me. Unfortunately, unlike the meal I usually happily enjoyed in the comfort of our home’s living room, the lunch table was accompanied by mixed reaction, including stares of fascination and glares of disgust. The girls in front of me held their nose and made it clear how “weird” my food smelled, and I instantly blushed. I shoved my food back into the bag, and did not eat the rest of my lunch, which was something that had never happened to me, as I had a large appetite as a child. When my mom saw my lunchbox when I brought it back from school, she asked me if there was a problem. I began to cry as I debriefed her about my day, and asked if I could buy my lunch from the school cafeteria instead, to eat pizza and mac and cheese, just like the rest of my classmates. Over the years, I began to ask to do more activities that were more similar to my classmates, like Girl Scouts and horse back riding, rather than go to piano lessons, which was a more typical activity of my Korean friends from home.

However, after I began to visit Korea more and more often, I had the opportunity to develop closer relationships with my grandparents. I also had the chance to try so many more dishes of Korean food, in particular, my favorite dish (naengmyeon or 냉면). However, an inverse type of embarrassment came upon me; instead of being labeled as “Korean” and “different,” I was now seen as the “American” and “study abroad student” who could not speak a word of Korean to my grandparents. I began to heavily dislike this “Americanized” side of me.  I felt so ashamed by the fact that I threw away so much of my heritage for the want to fit in with my classmates to the point that I could not speak a word of Korean and that I was so unfamiliar with Korean food and its culture. As a result, I desperately tried to become “more” Korean, by watching Korean TV shows, eating primarily Korean food, and only speaking Korean at home. This dislike of my American identity grew, and was particularly prominent during my first year at Emory. At Emory, I was not the only Asian student in my classes; in fact, I was one of many, which was something very unique to me. I finally met and had the opportunity to make friends who were of a similar identity as me.

However, a very unique situation happened to me last year that I had never expected before in my life. A classmate of mine told me that I was “not even Korean, [I was] just American.” With that one statement, I felt my entire heart shatter; even though I had spent the last few years attempting to become more Korean, to the international students, I was not even Korean as I was purely American. I was not able to shed my “American” identity, no matter how hard I had tried. I was extremely disturbed by the fact that someone could so easily throw away one of the most important aspects of my identity; my Korean identity was the one that connected to my family, heritage and home culture, which are all things I have grown to incredibly cherish over the years.

In retrospect, I know that my identity is my own – my identity is heavily influenced by my own life experiences and no one has the right to truly determine my identity. However, this instance did catalyze my questioning of my identity; if I told myself I was not Korean growing up, but then threw away my American side all during high school, who am I? I am currently still trying to figure this out, but am on the road to accepting my Korean-American identity; it has been a difficult journey, but the more I learn about myself and what I value, the easier I find it to appreciate both aspects of my identity. For example, some of my core values have stemmed from my American education; my high school placed a large emphasis on environmentalism, and it has greatly shaped the way I view the world and has had a big influence in determining one of my primary academic interests, food waste. On the other hand, my respect for elders is one of the core values that has stemmed from my Korean heritage. By being at Emory, I have been able to find people of similar identities of me, which has helped me feel much more comfortable in my own skin, as we talk more about our similarities in our experiences of growing up.

However, while finding this group of people has been important in my path to discovering that identity, something that has also played a significant influence in this acceptance is food, which is more of a recent realization. Through the context of this class, I have been analyzing dishes that are particular to my home and family culture and even in my favorite Korean dishes that are important to me because of the memories they bring, they in fact incorporate American aspects to them. For example, one of my favorite dishes is the 부대찌개 (budae jjigae or army stew) that includes spam, vegetables, and ramen noodles. This dish is particularly special to me as my grandfather would always make it for us whenever we visited our grandparent’s house, because it is one of his favorite foods. Thus, whenever I eat the dish, I always think of my grandfather and my childhood in Korea. However, this dish is not only important to me, but also to the history of Korea and its cuisine. The army stew originated when the Korean War led to food being scarce in Korea, so the processed meats from the American military bases became an essential ingredient in the meals of the soldiers, and the army stew was born (Ro). Thus, every time I eat this dish, I also am reminded about the hardship of that Korea faced during the Korean War. Food is able to tell stories and connect us to home, even if it is thousands of miles away, and we are able to appreciate that story telling whenever we eat the dish.

Food has also served as a pathway for me to generate a great deal of pride in my identity, particularly my Korean heritage. This is also a similar sentiment shared by Zhang, who writes how even though it has changed from the traditional dishes, “her rich cultural heritage is able to live on” through Chinese American food, and that is something she is able to take pride in (Zhang). She is proud of the fact that throughout time, it has persevered and become such an essential part in American culture, especially despite all of the discrimination Chinese people faced in American history. Similarly for me, as Korean food becomes more popular in America, especially with the popularization of kimchi, I am able to eat the food I grew up with and share it with my friends by going to Korean restaurants and showing them some of my favorite aspects of my heritage. I used to eat the food in shame like at the elementary school lunch table, but as I become more comfortable with my identity, the food I eat is such an integral aspect of my lifestyle as I begin to cherish more foods for the stories they tell and memories they hold. It is a way I am able to show my pride for my roots, as I know how deliciously captivating the flavors of Korean food are, and I am so happy that I am able to display these with pride.

Finally, the immigrant experience has led to the creation of new identities that originated from the hopes to achieve the American Dream. These new identities are influenced both by our family’s roots and our growing up experiences, as they heavily shape our values and ultimately, who we are. This phenomenon is also true of food; the food we eat has also been shaped as it has been brought from our family’s hometowns through our parent’s meals at the the family table and has been adopted over time to include the regional ingredients of our new environment, which we also incorporate when we learn how to make the dish and pass it on to our kids. Just like Chinese and Korean culture, the importance of these dishes is the meaning of these foods to our family and heritage, rather than how free of foreign influence it is, making them authentic. Food is able to carry so many stories and memories with it, which is how we place value on certain dishes. As our world undergoes more globalization and the sharing of new ideas, this continuous change in recipes is inevitable and will continue to occur. Food is a flexible entity, just like our identity, and ultimately, they are constantly intertwined. The food we eat and cherish is tied to our roots, but as we are exposed to new environments and new cultures, we begin to incorporate what is important to us, which is also happening to our identity. Our palettes are heavily influenced by the foods we eat while growing up, which is ultimately the outside environment. The phrase “you are what you eat” not only applies environmentally, but also to the food we eat at home, as it embodies the story of our roots and our growing up experience, which are both important aspects of our identity.

Works Cited

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Wei, Clarissa. “8 Truths About American-Chinese Restaurants That Nobody Talks About – American-Chinese Restaurants Have Their Own Regional Distinctions.” First We Feast, First We Feast, 1 June 2018, firstwefeast.com/eat/2016/07/american-chinese-restaurants-truths-revealed/regional-distinctions.

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