Photo by Hakan Burcuogu of The Curatorialist

‘Cultural Appropriation’ Is Complicated When You’re a Mixed-Race Chef

Passing as white makes my life easier at times, but to some people, it also delegitimizes my qualifications to cook Chinese food.

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Jun 21 2018, 4:48pm

Photo by Hakan Burcuogu of The Curatorialist

“The one dumpling to gentrify us all. This marketing project for some Eurasian kid trying to find his roots is cute and all but don’t play kid you are firmly entering the domain of Chinese grandmothers everywhere.”

Those were the inflamed words scrawled into the comments section of a reputable publication plugging my first ever pop-up restaurant. My stomach dropped as the familiar pangs of self-doubt and uncertainty came echoing back into my chest. At 1 AM, I was prepping ten gallons of pickles for a party and a comment like that was the last thing I wanted to read.

I run a food delivery business on my own. Every day, I fold kilos and kilos of pork belly into dumplings, freeze them, then deliver them to my customers all over Vancouver. Throwing a party to introduce myself seemed to be a good idea. But “gentrify” and “appropriation” are two buzzwords that currently hold what seems to be an immovable place in our global culture. Seeing any sense of myself or my craft associated with those terms angered and disappointed me on so many levels.

The language you speak and the way you look affects your sense of self as a child, and this otherness is something I would later learn is my greatest source of strength.

Growing up mixed-race, I never really felt like I was enough for either side of my heritage. Born to a father who immigrated from Hong Kong in the 60s and to a mother born to British ex-pats in Canada, the only way I felt I could truly connect with my Chinese identity was to eat, and to know as much as I could about my culture and history. No one could or can ever take those things away from me, be they Chinese or not. I don’t really look Chinese and grew up with a limited command of Cantonese (my father’s native tongue and predominant dialect spoken by overseas Chinese in 1990s Vancouver), but through my education and self-study, I now speak Mandarin. The language you speak and the way you look affects your sense of self as a child, and this otherness is something I would later learn is my greatest source of strength.

The author with his parents.

Passing as white makes my life easier at times, but to some people, it also delegitimizes my qualifications to cook Chinese food.

Let’s unpack the words of Lords of Gastown Enthusiast, posted February 8, 2017 at 1:41 PM.

To some extent this person is right. I sell dumplings which, in the Chinese culinary tradition, is no-frills fare that’s enjoyed at home (usually made by your grandma) or bought at a grocery store for a discount. I sell mine at a premium, and I add value by making them all by hand, delivering them myself to my clients, and sourcing my pork from a butcher which has been Chinese-owned and operated in Vancouver’s Chinatown for over 40 years.

It’s a testament that was not lost on me. As the Chinese adage goes, 'A family’s wealth is lost in three generations.' No, not me. Never.

Yes I still sometimes feel shame. I remember an old high school friend, whose family is from Hong Kong, ordering my dumplings to be delivered to his parents’ place. My anxiety grew as I closed my car door, grabbed my cooler bag, and walked toward the house. “Wow, your food is too expensive,” his mother said. I didn’t know if she was just an old miser, or if there was something to be learned from how you are perceived by the older generation. I retreated. “It’s guailo [foreigner] food, I sell to white people. They pay,” I told her. She smiled mercifully, handed me my cash, and closed the door. At that moment, I felt like a dumb hipster overcomplicating something that was a simple Chinese staple.

Under a certain gaze, my very business IS a case study of gentrification: taking something nostalgic and affordable and, through branding, Instagram, and higher-quality ingredients, making it (upper) middle-class. The half-Chinese guy gets the product from the hood, cuts it up, then sells it to white people. There was, and still lurks from time to time, a guilt (a white guilt, perhaps?) for doing this. Is my journey of engaging with my cultural identities for commercial gain acceptable? It all depends on how you do it. There is nothing wrong with making your 50 cents, and part of me feels the hustle of what I’m doing is the most Chinese thing ever—taking something inexpensive and simple, and elaborating on it. Flipping it and making a buck on top of that; this to me is a partial continuation of the immigrant hustle my father and his family committed to, the determination to climb to a place of financial security. It’s a testament that was not lost on me. As the Chinese adage goes, “A family’s wealth is lost in three generations.” No, not me. Never.

Rather than a “marketing project” as my dear pen-pal expressed, my business has been a rediscovery and celebration of myself. I am connecting with something which has seemed nebulous and unattainable to me for too long. I feel more comfortable with being mixed-race than I ever have before—and it’s through the creation of my food and the very practice of commercial enterprise, I have felt more Chinese than ever, too.

Since I have started selling dumplings off Instagram, I’ve made it my goal to engage with food on as many levels as I possibly can—telling my stories and experiences, feeding people well, and hopefully seeing my work resonate with them. I’ve received some flack (mostly in the comments sections), but my food has been overwhelmingly received with pride and trust by people responding, “I feel the same way, too.”

Photo by Hakan Burcuogu of The Curatorialist

I’ve got to give my friend’s mama credit. She told me what she thought straight to my dumb, mustached face. I appreciate that. Thank you.

People in Vancouver’s Chinese, Taiwanese, and mixed-race populations, and even just my fellow cooks, have told me they identify with my storytelling and cooking. It’s an affirmation that I must believe in and that helps me stay true to what I’m doing. The self-consciousness around my ethnicity has pushed me to overcompensate by building a brand centered on hybridized experiences as a Chinese-Canadian and on proving that I’m not what this comment says I am. On demonstrating that I understand my traditions, cultures, histories, and that I can communicate it all in a way which is all relatable.

At the end of the day, no cuisine is truly owned by any one people no matter how furiously you fill the comments sections with protest or how many aggravated articles you write. Those who cook are entitled to engage with any culinary traditions of any people at any time. You can try to recreate the classics or elaborate—but of course, you must do it respectfully. What is universally underlying in a successful attempt is if the cook’s food tastes honest. I can’t put it in any other way. If it’s not, let the cultural appropriation/gentrification witch hunt ensue. It won’t end well for anyone, I promise.

Exemplary cases in the modern day culinary pantheon do exist: Chefs Fuchsia Dunlop, Danny Bowien, and Andy Ricker are all not of the descent of the cuisines they adore and cook. But they do it every day, and we believe in them.

Like any creative process, it is all case-by-case. Hopefully, this small piece of writing can express wishes that when we see something we might not like in food, we take a moment to hear the person out. Taste the food. Your expectations might not meet the reality of your experience. Then think, react, and feel. My clients did the same for me.