by Christoph Grosse
A strong, young man cannot develop on white rice and soy sauce alone. In response to my picky eating as a child, my mother once hid a bit of cod in congee she made for lunch, sneaking some nutritional value into my diet. At least the way I liked it, congee was still technically white rice with soy sauce. The fish blended with the broken rice porridge, and I finished my bowl of jūk none the wiser, my aunt Lily and my mother exchanging a conniving look as I did. I asked them if they were hiding something. Upon learning that I had just eaten fish (which was supposedly "good for me") I gagged in a fit of melodramatic trauma.
On paper, we’ve no familial relation, but the intense friendship between Auntie Lily and my parents could be blood. One could consider her my godmother were we a non-secular family. Her family hails from Fuzhou, my mother’s from Guangdong; Lily grew up south of both provinces in Hong Kong. In the mid-20th century, both families immigrated to Manhattan's Chinatown, settling down between the shadows of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. She found a fast friend in my mother, Lucy, a woman who shared her conviction, empathy, and stalwart work ethic. They remain close, all these decades later.
Auntie Lily is astute, unconquerable, and assertive. Her dark eyes are always fixed upon you in conversation, formulating a poignant and well-forged response to what you have to say. She’s the first to tell me when she doesn’t think we’d have a good time at a restaurant that I’ve found on social media, and even quicker to steer us in the right direction. “I’ve had better,” she’ll say. “There’s a place down Grand Street that I prefer. Don’t forget cash.” We’ll transition from trendy Malaysian fusion to nyonya’s rich, red Laksa in a heartbeat. I almost always forget cash. She almost always picks up the bill.
It’s a big, scary, edible world out there, and I grew up in a central position of a cultural compass rose. East and West coalesced in my family kitchen, two distinct cuisines attempting to find common ground in the mind of a mixed kid. Food is canon in both Chinese and German culture - the former sees folk greeting each other with “have you eaten rice yet?” (“Ni chī fan le ma?” 你吃飯了吗?) - and my home dinner table hosted a confluence of both. Despite these tastes of Canton and Bavaria available to me, I consumed primarily white rice with soy sauce. If I was feeling adventurous, I’d sprinkle on some Maggi Fondor, a German all-purpose seasoning salt of dehydrated herbs, onion, garlic powder, and, most importantly, MSG. A potent sodium-laden umami mix of both my cultures - the staple cereal grain of the Chinese, with industrialized German inflection. An infelicitous Frankenstein’s monster of a meal, with none of his brawn.
Humble white rice is an accompaniment to many a dinner table but rarely serves as a meal in and of itself. As a child, this felt like a table I wasn’t Chinese nor German enough to sit at so I grazed from the sidelines. The most surface-level Cantonese foods made up my plate at my mother’s dinner table - rice, pastries, and sweet-sticky charsiu pork. My father’s - Käsespätzle, schnitzel, Wurst, and Bratkartoffeln spiked with caraway seeds (which he used in most everything he’d cook). These Bavarian dinners were closer to the American fast food I saw my friends eating. They were easier for my mind to swallow than the dishes my mother’s sisters would prepare for our family gatherings, like pearlescent, sweet tapioca soup (sai mai lo, 西米露), or sticky rice folded in lotus-leaf (laap may lo mai fan, 臘味糯米飯) like so many presents I left unwrapped on the table.
I benched myself on the sidelines of Chinese cuisine. Meals were cause for dissonance; choosing to eat only one thing helped to quell these feelings of push and pull. In a study published in the National Library of Medicine, researchers found that "biracial individuals are able to switch between their two racial identities, suggesting that they are more sensitive to social context than their monoracial peers." Those of mixed descent may recognize the image of a bifurcated home dinner table. Laura Wolfgang, lead product manager at Food52, discussed the dichotomous diet of Filipino and American food in her childhood home:
“I have been torn between the Filipino side and the white side of my family for as long as I remember. I never really identified with either side. I don’t really look like either of my parents. I don’t look like any of their family. I feel like I’ve lived a life without a real identity that I can trace back through my lineage.”
Now, during our regular catch-ups over breakfast (usually close to her home in Two Bridges), she imparts lucid advice and lived wisdom, oftentimes extending further than our dim sum table, and out to our friends and family. These rendezvous are a study in phenomenology, as we dig deep into the motivations and struggles of those closest to us, to better understand our own experiences.
Lily has known my family a great deal longer than I have. She holds a boon of rich historical context with a raw and uncut view of this family she has chosen. Her observations are objective and fair, expanding my understanding of my loved ones. Over lunch, we’ll explore the experiences of my sister, Caitlin, in her decision to pursue a teaching degree, or of my mother, whose conscientiousness and penchant for altruism drive her forever-full social work schedule.
We round out our understanding of our loved ones while slurping hot broth out of our soup dumplings (xiaolongbao, 小笼包) at our favorite Shanghainese spot. There’s always white rice at the table, but only as an accompaniment to more substantial dishes.
We almost always walk to get something sweet after our meal. Usually, that’s a pastry from a Chinese bakery of her recommendation. I defer to Lily, knowing my position relative to her. She is a sage and pillar of her community, and I am a pursuant disciple. Despite my best efforts, I haven’t yet been able to pay her for any of the flaky, semi-sweet egg custard tarts (daan taat, 蛋挞, a favorite of mine) she’s treated me to. Lily bolsters my nascent knowledge of Chinese culture during these encounters. Whether it’s the food, the topic of conversation, or the streets we walk down as we digest, I am wholly privy to the cultural identity we share. As she points out various details about Chinatown and its inhabitants, I absorb and internalize them with gratitude.
I wasn’t always this receptive. As a child, I resented my Chinese culture. The “small penis” and “dog-eating” jokes started as soon as a group of fellow high school students saw mom drop me off one morning, her jet black hair and almond eyes invoking wanton ostracism. Rather than defend my mother, I shirked my heritage. I longed to tap into my cultural heritage but felt it inaccessible and at odds with the social hierarchy I found myself in.
The dissonance of my childhood diet was a symptom of my “third culture kid” status - a term I discovered recently and was quick to append to myself. The term refers to individuals who are raised in a culture other than their parents or their country of nationality. In general, they are exposed to a wider variety of cultural influences than those who grow up in monocultural settings. My childhood was peppered with monthly trips to Manhattan's Chinatown, my mother's childhood home, and Bavaria, my father's, maintaining a cultural connection for my sister and me (and, in many ways, for my mother and father as well). I never got to meet my maternal grandparents. My parents decided that we would be better off communicating with our living Opa and Oma in Germany. My sister and I spent our Saturdays attending German school as our cousins learned Cantonese or Mandarin.
UNT Department of Psychology researchers examined the relationship between a child's cross-cultural experience and their adult identity. They found that developing "a sense of belonging, commitment, and attachment to a culture" can be difficult for third culture kids (TCKs). These factors play a strong role in one’s self-esteem and identity, as strong identification with a group helps to maintain one’s sense of belonging.
When I moved to New York City after college graduation, Lily showed me which hawker off Canal Street sold the best quality oranges. She let me in on where I could find fresh soy milk if I woke up early enough to get in line before the aunties selling were fresh out. My appreciation for my heritage blossomed, as did a wave of self-directed anger and guilt. There’s an impossible gnawing hunger that stems from stifling one’s true identity. As I learned more about my family history, I lamented the time I’d spent starving myself of my ancestral heritage.
The pendulum swung and I sped toward a culture I’d spent my childhood years hiding from, with food as my exploratory vehicle. I scoured the streets of Chinatown, looking for the best beef chow fun (gon chow ngau ho, 乾炒牛河) a mainstay dish always present during my family gatherings featuring wide noodles, tender vegetables, and meat piled high, coated in soy oyster-spiked sauce and kissed with wok hei. I spent my Saturdays eating my way down Mott Street with Auntie Lily. I bought myself as many egg tarts as I could stomach. I still felt like something was missing.
One of the challenges of being a TCK is developing a rooted sense of belonging, adeptness, and commitment to their culture. I felt wistful when I was unable to join my aunties as they poked fun at my uncles in Cantonese. I found difficulty navigating the menu at Cantonese restaurants I once visited with family, only this time solo and out of my depth. I felt that without almond eyes and jet-black hair like Lily, like my mother, I could never be Chinese enough. I began to ink my body with Chinese iconography. Symbols collected so that I may tout my heritage on my skin and on my sleeve; compensatory in nature, but self-affirming in the way they allow me to be perceived. My mom thinks they are silly - I’d wager Auntie Lily does too.
After so many lunches with Lily, and walks with my mother around her childhood home, I came to realize that neither ink nor jewelry could prove my cultural heritage. I had always been presented with the abundance of two cultures, neither of which ever felt easy to wholly commit to. I’ve leaned into this abundance, finding comfort in an ever-expanding biracial identity and diet. Now, alongside my white rice are mounds of boiled fragrant tripe, salty-sweet gelatinous chicken feet, fish balls bobbing in broth, and soups of winter melon.
I wish I could take my younger self to Chinatown now, and show him all that I’ve learned about us. I’d bring him to lunch with Lily. I’d buy him an egg tart, and point out those details about his mother’s childhood home that I’ve learned from her. He might start to feel proud of our mixed identity as Auntie Lily takes him by the hand as we walk down Henry Street. We would show him how good the cheung fun is at Sun Hing Lung, because somebody’s got to let that kid know there’s more to eat out here than white rice with soy sauce.
From the author: I don’t support the current Chinese state, their systematic oppression of free speech, state surveillance, the genocide of Uyghur peoples, the shunning of Taiwan, and many other injustices. But I, as well as many of my family members, have tried to untangle our pride in our ancestral heritage from politics.
Christoph Grosse is a writer-by-night and advertiser-by-day based in Brooklyn, NY. He is passionate about sustainability, hospitality, and generally cultivating a more hospitable world. His written work explores the intersection of food, climate justice, and his Cantonese-German heritage.