For Shame.

When you make fun of someone’s food, you make fun of them.

The shrill echo of a school buzzer demarcating the beginning of lunch hour hurtles the gaze of my mind’s eye to a childhood memory I’ve yet to forget. The musty whiff of the elementary school cafeteria creeps back into my olfactory memory. My vision passes through hallways, doors, and stairwells until it finally lands in the lunchroom. Its doors are open revealing a blue sky and the basketball court.

There’s a group of grade 6 boys at the bench tables inside. All of them happen to be ethnically Chinese - some Vancouver-born and others hailing from Macau, Hong Kong or Taiwan. Chatter commences as they sprawl half-seated, some with one leg out, boyishly bouncing while impatiently waiting for others to finish their lunch.

Out of the doors facing the basketball court my buddy’s mom appears through the midday glare. With a neatly tied plastic bag in one hand and car keys in the other, she hurries over, placing the bag in front of him. Speaking in hushed Taiwanese Mandarin she touches the back of his neck, smiles at all of us and, as quickly as she came, disappears through the same door. I remember his eyes tracing her departure and when out of sight immediately turning towards us. He pushes the bag in the direction of my friend and I. “You guys can have it. I’m not hungry.” He gets up and heads out to the court, disappearing into the same glare of the spring sun.

My friend and I tear into the bag, our sticky hands clicking the plastic lid open, releasing a nostalgic aroma and familiar sight - a generous pile of shui jiao (boiled dumplings). Some of us, including me, had already scarfed our lunches and definitely weren’t going to turn down more. We’re growing boys, of course. Sitting flush inside is a smaller Tupperware container housing the vinegar. We were anxious to play ball but also equally as stoked on homemade dumplings. His mother timed it perfectly, they were piping hot and hadn’t been out of the boiling water longer than 10 minutes. She wanted to make sure they were just perfect for him. We stuff them into our mouths foregoing the chopsticks, sucking cold air through our teeth between bites to offset the very real risk of scalding our tongues. The comforting flavours of ground pork, ginger, and jiu cai or “Chinese chives” (a notoriously fragrant species of allium ubiquitously purposed for dumpling fillings in Chinese cookery) floods my mouth and nostrils. It’s so god damn good. We laugh and grind our shoulders into each other, jockeying to grab as many as we can. As I pop another into my mouth I catch a blonde haired figure in the corner of my eye. She plugs her nose while pointing in our direction, squinting her eyes and theatrically gagging, snickering to her gaggle of friends. At first, it didn’t process why or what warranted such a reaction. As I made the connection the feelings of embarrassment and self-disgust drew my eyes back down to the lunchbox. This is one of my earliest memories in feeling ashamed about my food.

I get that we were young. I understand the context of lunch hour childishness - some dumb kid was making fun of me for eating stinky Chinese food for lunch. Big deal. Despite how innocuous and pointlessly innumerable exchanges like this may be, I’ve allowed myself to internalize them into adulthood. They’ve unfortunately informed how I recreate my cultural foods as a business owner and chef.

I own and operate a frozen handmade dumpling company out of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Every week I fold thousands of dumplings by hand, freeze them, and deliver them personally to my clients all over the city. This three-year hustle has unintentionally evolved into a business with a community of people who simply appreciate my elaboration on a Chinese staple. It’s nothing new or special. I’m a glorified hawker with an iPhone and a website, but I really give a shit about what I do and the messages food can communicate. 

I’m also a mixed-race Chinese-Canadian, born to a father who immigrated from Hong Kong and a mother of British expats in Canada. I belong with many others to the generation of hapa kids who were the byproducts of mixed-race couples in early 1990’s Vancouver. I grew up in a predominantly white and Chinese neighbourhood. Despite this, I never felt a particularly strong sense of belonging to either. I was always in-between. I didn’t always feel included with the Chinese kids because I couldn’t speak Cantonese. The white kids would sometimes use my otherness as low-hanging target practice for their juvenile and unoriginal teasing. I didn’t look like either. In all honesty, a sense of resentment grew towards both groups because of this. Through Chinese food, however, was how I felt I could create a sense of belonging for myself. While growing up, eating and watching the preparation of the dishes my grandmother and father cooked at home was how I felt the most connected to what it meant to me to be Chinese and participate in its culture. Through my study of Chinese culinary tradition and turning these understandings into a business has turned out to be my salvation in self-worth and identity. I don’t know what I would be if I couldn’t cook, eat, think, live and share these traditions. I don’t even want to consider an alternate reality of how my life could transpire. When my food is attacked or mocked for being disgusting, off-putting, unclean or cheap hurts and deeply upsets me. 

There are endless examples that bubble to the top of my social media feed where these values are perpetuated - some noteworthy ones being the disappointing case of Lucky Lee’s, Andrew Zimmern and his "horseshit" opinions on Chinese American food or whats-her-face who couldn’t put her finger on the name of those “really gross little Asian mushrooms that you get when if you’re at a really shitty Chinese restaurant”. She also blocked me on Instagram (I presume with many other people) when I answered her question about the mushrooms and corrected her poor choice of words (lmao).  It’s the continuation of these values and ideas, especially when disseminated throughout our global culture, that both perpetuate and re-affirm a shame and self-consciousness around cultural foods.

While growing up when we treated some of our non-Chinese guests for a meal in one of Vancouver’s many exceptional regional Chinese restaurants, I remember my dad saying we shouldn’t order certain dishes for guests because they were just too Chinese. Though he said it in jest, this awareness of having certain foods rejected or unfit for non-Chinese diners made an impression on me. 

It was only but a couple of months ago when an acquaintance asked for recommendations on where to find decent Chinese food in the city. The conversation was brief over the phone, but I was proud to give my suggestions. However there was only one caveat -  they weren’t to be “too Chinese”. Those two words jolted me. I laughed in passing, conflicted in how I was to respond to these criteria. I also, for some reason, knew exactly which restaurants to eliminate in my mental checklist of places to hit up. After giving her a shorter list I hung up, holding my gaze at my living room wall while unpacking to myself why I didn’t say anything and why I chose not to include certain restaurants in my recommendations. I thought about those dumplings in that elementary school lunchroom all those years before. 

Even a handful of members who belong to Vancouver’s minuscule hospitality community have left immature and veiled racist comments about the cleanliness of the pork I source from my Chinese-owned butcher shop that has been operating for over 47 years.

I also regret, in certain cases, how I’ve sold my business and what I offer to clients in the past. I research the regionality of ingredients and cooking styles of China and Taiwan, digging through photo libraries of my time spent backpacking and living in these countries. Reading books, testing in the kitchen, then putting it into the form of a familiar and unthreatening dumpling is how I’ve been able to introduce new things to new people. I know some of my clients, if not most, will not be familiar with these ingredients. Some say they’re not here for a certain flavour and that’s totally cool. I cherish this level of honesty from my customers. I can’t please everyone and I don’t expect myself to. But I have to remind myself that just because they may not be into it doesn’t mean they dislike or think Chinese food is gross. I sometimes catch myself when describing my cooking to those unfamiliar with self-deprecation or warnings about how an unfamiliar ingredient or flavor would taste. This backhanded way of describing the food I live for is weird and kind of sad. I feel like I’m the fat kid in high school asking out the hot girl with self-deprecating jokes to win her over (true story).

I’m learning to own it and not to apologize or warn people before giving them my food out of fear of being too Chinese. Ironically one flavour, now a permanent fixture on my menu, places jiu cai at the forefront in its flavour. And people love it. We already have enough reasons in this world to dislike each other. My hopes for those who read this small piece of writing is that we check ourselves before we speak lesser of other peoples’ foods. The sustenance of our heritage - their preparations, tastes, appearances and stories around it reflect back to us the most candid portrait of what a people values. Food is our last ditch effort to finding commonality in each other. Be proud and eat some shui jiao. Peace and love.

Matthew Murtagh-Wu