Back when I used to work in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal, we had the world of food right at our fingertips for lunch selection. We were incredibly spoiled. Today could be a sabich, an Israeli pita sandwich made of fried eggplant and hardboiled eggs, or an aromatic jerk chicken served with fried plantains, a composition hailing from the Caribbean. The Mile End is an eclectic community, a rich embodiment of the soul of Montreal — overflowing with street murals, vintage stores and art studios, the two most famous bagel shops in the city, endless nightclubs, microbreweries, brunch locales, and the home of my personal favourite chicken sandwich. To walk the streets of this neighbourhood on a casual stroll to pick up my lunchtime meal was to live and breathe the very essence of the city at large.
If Montreal were a living, breathing, organism, you would hear its heartbeat reverberating off brick and mortar storefronts in the Mile End. Montreal itself is a mirepoix of cultures, races, immigrants, and refugees. The Mile End is uniquely home to a large percentage of Hasidic Jews (a division of Jews who adhere mostly to Orthodox practice)— a characteristic that is distinct from other North American districts, with the exception of cities like New York. The history of cuisine in Montreal owes tremendous gratitude to the influence of Jewish-Canadians, credited with bringing creations like the notorious Montreal style of bagel and smoked meat sandwiches. Eating a babka baked fresh from Cheskie’s, a popular Jewish bakery, is evidence that this immigration and cross pollination of cultures can be a beautiful exchange of worlds. We can be exposed to new ideas, new ways of living, and delicious new foods we had never dreamed of eating.
The intersection of different cultures is fertilizer for a rich foundation from which communities evolve and progress into something greater than the sum of their parts. Food in particular, is a wonderful playground for ideas to be exchanged and experimented on, and where the opportunities for innovation are seemingly endless. Food can be as accessible as home cooking, where domestic kitchen cooks travel the world through the pages of a cook book from far away, as traditional and nostalgic as the food we grew up eating in childhood, as specific as delicacies that are native to our mother cuisines, and as inventive as restaurant chefs utilizing non-traditional techniques and non-native ingredients to reinvent beloved dishes.
In a time when racial tensions feel like they are reaching a boiling point, when hundreds of thousands all across the world have paraded the streets in protest of the slaughter of innocent Black and Brown bodies, when 6 Asian women are gunned down in a shooting in Atlanta because a white man decided he was having a “bad day”, when my own friends tell me they fear stepping outside now simply due to the colour of their skin and the shape of their eyes — food can feel like a bridge between us and the Other. Food can feel like a safe harbour, a port at which our ships return and we find solace as Asian-Americans. Food can be a symbol of solidarity amongst very diverse groups of Asian-Americans — I used to fold Chinese jiaozi with my Korean friend and she would teach me how to make mandoo in return. Both are a form of dumplings, but trading knowledge about the specific fillings and pleats and familial contexts of our food is like telling the other: “you belong”. You belong even when a white man screams at you to “go back”.
On an unremarkable humid summer afternoon, I take my usual walk in the neighbourhood with my colleagues to grab a bite for lunch. We end up at a popular banh mi spot, tucked between other storefronts selling options like shawarma or grab’N’go sushi bentos. When we step into the banh mi shop, what strikes me immediately is how the decor is a stereotypical Asian aesthetic with Asian snacks lining the register and food served in blue & white porcelain bowls, but the staff is noticeably and distinctly white. Completely white. They employed obvious references to Asian culture throughout the restaurant with kitschy Maneki-neko figurines and displays of Pocky (both generic Japanese symbols in a Vietnamese restaurant), while failing to employ anybody who resembled having actual Asian heritage or connection to any part of the entire continent. It is estimated that there are almost 40,000 Vietnamese residents in the city of Montreal and somehow I, a random Chinese-Canadian immigrant from the western coast of the country, was the only Asian in an entire store dedicated to selling banh mis.
I pay $8.00 for my grilled pork sandwich and leave the shop, which is brimming with patronage from other Caucasian looking customers who have the same vaguely hipster aesthetic as the man who served me my banh mi. Don’t get me wrong — the banh mi was as solid as any that I’ve had, outside the banh mis I ate when I actually travelled northern Vietnam. My skepticism about this experience is not that I believe Vietnamese food should only be relegated to the expertise of Vietnamese chefs, or that I believe white people are doomed to forever cooking second-rate renditions of classic Asian dishes. I felt a deep discomfort in the pit of my stomach the same way I felt my insides churn when a well-meaning white friend called the food I grew up eating while living in North America for almost my entire life, “exotic”.
Every time I stand as one of the sole Asians in an Asian restaurant that is owned and operated by an entirely white staff (which has happened more often than my liking), I feel that same deeply seated discomfort. It is a discomfort that sings like a canary in a coal mine, telling me: don’t get too comfortable. You think that your hard work and quiet diligence, your ability to follow all of the rules, your success as a model minority with a university degree and a good job, has finally bought you belonging. But they will never think you belong. It is Black activists who organized, protested, and died for any morsels of belongingness we have in this country. It is white people who mock us for eating foreign, funky smelling cuisines while taking that same food and selling it at a 100% markup to a larger audience of white consumers who will find their take on our cultural experience more palatable than what the aunties and uncles sell in Chinatown.
The cross pollination of food and culture is beautiful and necessary for innovation and progress. Every food we have today is in essence, a product of cultures meeting and merging to form something more inventive and robust than what came before. Every food is fusion. Banh mis and Vietnamese cuisine overall are testaments that fusion food can become canonical in a nation’s narrative of re-birth and becoming, having been influenced by French cooking following the period of French colonization.
It is precisely that — the history of colonization and imperialism and how it has torn Vietnam from limb to limb that makes me feel so uncomfortable when I watch white hipsters preparing and profiting off the sales of expensive banh mi sandwiches. Much of the Vietnamese population in North America originally travelled here as refugees on ships and boats to escape the terrors of the Vietnam War. Many opened up small Vietnamese eateries serving street classics like pho and banh mis and vermicelli noodle bowls because like many other refugee and immigrant groups, they had no other means to survive. The Vietnam War is a remarkable reminder of how white imperialism destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The violent history of imperialism lives on and has been amplified by the current pandemic, highlighting how precarious our acceptance in this country is, no matter how long our families have lived here.
I see a noticeable lack of Asian faces when I peruse the social media profiles of these white-owned Asian restaurants. I see no words of solidarity with the community they borrow from or claim to “honour” when members of that same community are slaughtered in a mass shooting. I see no indication that the owners of these establishments feel any responsibility to protect or ally with the marginalized and vulnerable population whose very food and cuisine and cultural imagery has been commercialized for white profit. When I see video after video of Asian elders being brutally attacked, I want to ask these white hipsters preparing banh mis and Thai curries and Indo satay chicken skewers — do you love Asian people? Or do you only love Asian food?
Modern imperialism doesn’t always live in the form of militia and war on foreign soil for domestic capitalist endeavours. Imperialism lives in our minds and in our food, in platters of noodles and curries and banh mis, served to us by white chefs who care more about preserving our cuisine than preserving our existence. Instead of outright killing us, modern imperialism takes our food and our capital, erases the Asian from an Asian restaurant and bleeds us out slowly until we no longer exist.
If you loved Asian people as much as you loved Asian food, you would consider how your profits are being used to empower the same individuals whose food and imagery and very experience you commercialize. Do you donate to organizations that work to protect those that are most vulnerable in these communities? Do you consider that these establishments gentrify and push out the very people whose culture you sought to honour? Do you take time to engage with the Asian-American community and learn about the unique issues that affect us? Do you care about learning about us as people with rich, complex histories associated with our food you sell?
Do you see us? Or do you only see our food?
I don’t believe that the debate on what constitutes cultural appropriation and when it is acceptable or not to borrow elements from other cultures, is the hill I want to die on when I talk about racism at large. I’m not interested in policing the decisions of others and how they think they are honouring other cultures, and I don’t believe that “ending” cultural appropriation is going to stop innocent Black and Brown bodies from being murdered by members of our law enforcement or Asian elders from being violently assaulted by strangers on the street. But I do believe that the discussion of cultural appropriation and how appropriation pervades familiar avenues of our life like food and media, can provide a comfortable segue into critically examining the insidious machinery of white supremacy. It forces us to pause and ask questions that yield uncomfortable truths about power, oppression, and justice.
Food is one platform to ask the question of who is being protected, and who is being exploited. And while the examples I write about pertain to small businesses that likely do not make egregious profit margins on their food, I do believe that it is perhaps more important that we challenge those who are already local to our communities. In the history of organization and activism, we change the world by first changing ourselves. The political activist and abolitionist Mariame Kaba has said that “everything worthwhile is done with other people.”
Many Asian-American groups arrived to this land with nothing but each other. When we were herded into internment camps or beaten to death by auto workers who believed us to be stealing their jobs, we remember that it was not the white man who loved eating our banh mis and our curries that stood by our side. Our rights to vote, to own property, to exist exist largely because Black activists have understood much earlier on that we’re not free, until we’re all free. We are alive because of each other. To love each other, to love Asian faces and Black bodies, is to fight for each other’s existence.
In that same Mile End neighbourhood, I once sat in a small, cozy kitchen folding dumplings with a close friend who is white. She had never folded dumplings before. I sliced and diced the meat mixture for filling earlier that day, and carted it on the 80 bus up to her apartment. As we sat around her table, she told me stories about the terrible cooking she experienced growing up in the Maritimes. I shared with her my mother’s technique for pleating dumplings, and my stories of alienation growing up amongst white food and white families. Dumplings are commonly made as a family activity amongst Asian families given the tedious labour of folding a large batch. I often invite my friends who have not experienced dumpling making to come make dumplings with me in my home. When we sit and fold, we trade stories about our families and our existence, and what it means to belong. We learn to love each other.
In you’re interested in supporting or learning more about issues affecting Asian-Americans, here are some (local) resources:
Butterfly — Supporting Asian and Migrant Sex Workers
Teabase — A Toronto based community arts space
Community Fridges Toronto Instagram
South Asian Women’s Community Centre — Montreal based organization