COMMENTARY: Ask, don’t tell us who we are

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Dan Wu of MasterChef. (Photo from Dan Wu Facebook page)

When I tell people that I cook for a living, I get, on multiple occasions, “Do you make sushi?” or “Do you work in a Chinese restaurant?” And those who aren’t perceptive enough to note my accompanying eye roll will eventually ask, “Why not?” I often brushed these questions off as coming from misguided but genuinely curious people. I’ll tell them where I work, they’ll be pleasantly surprised, but then, other questions follow.

Am I good at math? Do I absolutely love Hello Kitty? Are my parents stoic and strict? Am I a terrible driver?

Do I watch K-dramas? They never end, and are similar in nature. For many, my life story has been written out in their minds just by one look at my face. And with all the times I’ve brushed these off as ignorant stereotypes and the more I’m faced with these fast assumptions, the more I’m aware of how widespread these assumptions lie.

For the purpose of this piece, I will have to admit my guilty indulgence, and that is a mind rotting combo of reality shows, wine, and Shin Ramyun enjoyed in the quiet hours past midnight after getting home from work. During my indulgent unwind last week, I watched the contestants of MasterChef brace themselves for a dreaded pressure test. This time, it was to make the perfect Spring Roll (the “Chinese” kind, not to be confused with the Vietnamese spring roll made with rice paper) to avoid being sent home from the competition, and that’s when I got that pit in my stomach. I watched as Chinese American contestant Dan Wu stood nervously among his comrades, and I knew it was coming.

“Dan, where were you born?” Joe Bastianich asks him.

“China,” Wu replies.

And then, it hits.

“This is something you’re familiar with,” Bastianich asks, sounding more like a statement than a question.

“I have made them before,” Wu replies.

While Wu eagerly embraced the challenge, he did not make the best spring roll, and boy did he get it from the judges.

“I expected you to give something better, to be honest,” said Gordon Ramsey, “I wanted you to give everybody else in this room a master class, because this is in your backyard.”

Dan Wu was born in the country with the largest population in the world, most of whom have never seen an egg roll. In fact, it’s safe to say that egg rolls are probably as close to Wu’s backyard as the Olive Garden is to Bastianich, a chef who rallies vehemently for authentic Italian cuisine. The generalizations here are egregious, the comments are obnoxiously familiar, but it quickly dissipates, leaving me with the stench of its misconceptions. It’s hard to label these minute race generalizations, pseudo-complimentary (though inaccurate) stereotypes, much less identify them when they’re coming. They’re often subtle farts in the wind, but after so much of this nonsense, I think it’s time to clear the air.

Are these stereotypes harmful? Should I be telling people who assume or expect these things of me that they sound like idiots, or smile and laugh it off? It seems so harmless, but it gets old so quickly and leaves me conscious each time I walk into a room that there are expectations placed upon me that I could not imagine or expect simply based on my appearance.

“You’re good at math, right?”

“Your parents are probably pretty conservative, huh?”

“I bet you like to eat those weird things, right?”

“You must have had a great SAT score.”

These are comments I believe many Asians and Asian Americans face and perhaps laugh off or disregard, but it means that so many of our personal strengths, characteristics, stories, and passions are muted. We hold back from correcting others, we save our breaths, we laugh it off, but what we don’t do is offer a more comprehensive picture of who we are and what we do. It’s a startling epiphany to have while watching a somewhat cheesy and contrived cooking competition show, but that just goes to show, it’s everywhere. Speak up, it’s easy to say and less easy to do, but here, my open letter goes out also to those who have been asking the questions: Let me tell you what I eat and what I cook, what my strengths are, what I’m passionate about, and who I am. (end)

Tiffany Ran is a cook at an Italian apertivo bar in Ballard. She loves amaro as much as she loves bubble milk tea, and likes terrible reality shows way more than K-dramas or anime.  

Tiffany Ran can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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