Same Difference: Who You Are and Where You Are

Food for Thought

As we were eating at this excellent Chino Latino restaurant, my kid asked if Japanese people ate only Japanese food. I told her they eat a variety. My wife then said, to her, they are all Japanese food because they have been Japanized. To some degree, she is right. The people in China would likely regard Chino Latino food as Latino food, not Chinese food. The key question is whether the chefs making Chino Latino food are concerned about what the people in China think about their food.

When I moved to the states at 17, I was tormented by the same question. Who you are cannot exist in isolation. When you travel abroad, you are judging everything you do in terms of what your friends would think. That is why you share your photos on Instagram as you travel. If something funny happens, you immediately think about who you could share that story with. The knowledge you acquire while traveling is also evaluated in terms of how useful it is in your own culture.

But you must play an entirely different game when you immigrate. In order to establish myself in America, I made a concerted effort to erase the internalized Japanese gaze. I tried my best to disregard my Japanese friends, and worry only about what Americans thought, but it was not easy at first. If you traveled to Tibet, for instance, you would have no idea how the locals evaluate your behavior. Before you can share your photos on Instagram, you would have to start collecting followers in Tibet.

Generally, you feel good about yourself when your internalized culture is evaluating you positively, but if you erase it, you wouldn’t even have a way to feel good about yourself. You simply don’t exist when you are restarting yourself from scratch. Most people move into local immigrant communities to avoid this, but it can lead to a permanent limbo. Many Chinese people, for instance, after living here for decades, can barely speak English. Neither cultures can fully appreciate their existence.

It’s fine to be a Chino Latino food that Latinos love, or an authentic Chinese food that people in China love. I wanted to avoid being that takeout Chinese food.