When I was in college, I noticed a sandwich called “The Cuban” tightly wrapped in plastic in the prepared food section of the dining hall. In the very white world of a private university in the South, something from my own ethnic background was rare, so naturally this caught my attention. My initial delight deflated as soon as I got a closer look. French bread? Mayonnaise? TURKEY??? IMPOSTER!!! A Cuban sandwich is comprised of lechon asado (roasted pork), ham, swiss cheese, dill pickles, and sometimes mustard in between two slices of Cuban bread and is served after being smashed in a plancha until flat, crispy, and the cheese is melted. And the dining hall was trying to sell me a cold turkey, pickle, mayonnaise, and pork sandwich on french bread and call it a CUBAN? No.
I was a really shy student for most of undergrad who avoided any sort of conflict, but I was irritated—angry even—and so I wrote a strongly worded email to dining services, as a shy, conflict-averse girl would. While a small part of me just felt like being the antagonistic youth, a bigger part of me really was offended. Even though it happened constantly, I still wasn’t used to my identity being erased–I didn’t want to get used to it. The dining hall calling this turkey sandwich a “Cuban” triggered that feeling…and they did it with food. Food played a special role in my own identity development. When I struggled with who I was, food was something I could hold onto. Learning to cook Cuban food was my way into becoming comfortable owning my identity. I may have sucked at speaking Spanish and was pale as Cuban bread, but damn it if I didn’t make the best goddamn flan.
Dining eventually responded to my email, saying that there were many interpretations of Cuban sandwiches and that this version was just their version, but personally I couldn’t swallow it. (Their defense and their sandwich.) Sure, there’s room for interpretation, but you don’t mess that much with a classic. It may seem trivial, but even to this day the thought of my tiny battle with dining irritates me, and reading the quote above from Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, brought me back.
I recently finished Fresh Off the Boat and really enjoyed it. It was an entertaining, honest, and funny reflection on race, identity, growing up, and of course food. It follows Eddie Huang moving to Orlando with his family as a kid, up to his opening of Baohaus in New York City as an adult—with a lot of life in between. Throughout the book, food plays a big role in his coming of age. For example, he recounts asking him mom for American lunch food, and subsequently being called a ch*nk in the school cafeteria while microwaving it. This situation is emblematic of the dissonance he continually faced as a first-generation Taiwanese-American, of not quite fitting anywhere, even when he tried, and of continually being shaken from his own self-perception by external remarks and assumptions.
I’ll never forget what my father said: “They’ll never let someone with a face like you on television.” To this day, I wake up at times, look in the mirror, and just stare, obsessed with the idea that the person I am in my head is something entirely different than what everyone else sees . That the way I look will prevent me from doing the things I want; that there really are sneetches with stars and I’m not one of them. I touch my face, I feel my skin, I check my color every day, and I swear it all feels right. But then someone says something and that sense of security and identity is gone before I know it.
The writing is at turns casual and poetic, but regardless of the moment, Eddie’s voice is crystal clear. I laughed out loud when he described a neighbor’s mom as “pasty, cold, and vanilla, a good look for ice cream, I guess.” And I was transfixed by this passage, where he describes his summer in Taipei and compares the reawakening of his roots to instant noodles:
There’s nature, there’s nurture, and as Harry Potter teaches us, there’s who YOU want to be. Every part of me was something I sought out and encountered. And that summer in Taipei, I looked around and saw myself everywhere I went. Pieces of me scattered all over the country like I had lived, died, burned, and been spread throughout the country in a past life. Here I was coming home to find myself again in street stalls, KTV rooms, and bowls of beef noodle soup. All the things instilled in me from a young age by my family and home, rehydrated and brought to life like instant noodles. They never left, they just needed attention.
As I read the book, I couldn’t believe they made it into a sitcom. I found myself wishing they had at least done something like an HBO series, or any other medium where things could get more real. Eddie’s frustration with the show is well-known, as he’s caught between his story bringing much-needed Asian representation to television and what that representation actually entails. I think the show is important. And it’s actually funny. It has a lot of heart, but I would encourage you to read the book in order to get more of the soul. Overall, while I like the show so far, I still can’t help but feel that they packaged a thin interpretation of his story in plastic for the consumption of the masses and called it by the same name.