It’s so fashionable to blame white people now. Blaming white people is no longer “edgy”. It’s gotten to the point where defending them is kind of the new PoC radicalism. But I want to know something: why is it nearly universal that every white person I met or read in the news feel like they need to save something? This is why people of color are hesitant on sharing things; because PoC tend to view cultural exchange as a bento box and white people tend to see it as a melting pot. Confused? Let me elaborate: an Asian person thinks dreadlocks are cool, a LatinX person likes karate, a black person likes Spanish guitar melodies. We each acknowledge the complex cultural backgrounds that they come from and yes, PoC appreciate contributions from white people. Like baseball. Or modern capitalism. But cultural segregation is something PoC often get, embrace and not think that we have to get involved with the other culture’s business and “improve” upon their traditions. This is something I feel white people have a hard time grasping, even with good intentions. Whether they mean to or not, there’s a flavor of colonialism in this thought, something many modern white people don’t seem to intend, but nevertheless have subconsciously embedded within their goals. Sometimes I feel it’s just an aftereffect of white guilt. Other times though, it’s an obvious cognizant arrogance.
Case in point, the latest trend by white entrepreneur’s to “save” Asian cuisine.
We’ve all heard of chef Andrew Zimmern’s famous declaration that he would save the souls of Midwest Americans from the “horseshit” hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants by showing the people there what “higher form” Chinese food looks like. The problem is, most of the so-called “horseshit” hole-in-the-all Chinese restaurants are authentic mom and pop joints owned by immigrant and second-generation Chinese-Americans. I don’t think Zimmern’s a racist. I know exactly what he was trying to say: A lot of dumbass Midwest white Americans don’t know Chinese food on a higher level because all they know are sweet and sour pork and General Tso’s. What he missed as he was trampling around his high horse like some Chinese food Napoleon was that many of these authentic restaurants already exist around Midwest America. All he had to do was Yelp. Asians have been going to “real” Asian restaurants for years, places most white people never knew about. Washington Post’s Ruth Tam said it best: “When Chinese people make Americanized Chinese food for white people, Zimmern calls it ‘horses - - t.’ But when he does it, it’s ‘unique.’ ”
Very, very recently, in the current city I live in, New York, a new restaurant opened in midtown called Lucky Lee’s. Now, white people owning and operating another culture’s restaurant is perfectly okay with me. I’ve known many Asians who own hamburger joints, after all. This is America, people should be able to open whatever they want to open. Everything was fine until the owner, some white lady named Arielle Haspel (who is younger than me, but looks fifty years older, but I digress) said on the restaurant’s Instagram post, “I was just telling my husband last night, I wish there was a place to get healthy Chinese food!” and on their promos, the restaurant boasts about aiming to make Chinese food that actually makes you feel healthy and great.
Naturally, Asian social media lost their collective mind and 99% of the outrage was micro-aggressions. Should we be surprised that some white lady thought all Chinese food was unhealthy and wanted to make “healthier” and “clean” Chinese food? We know better than that. Still, even though keyboard warriors are assholes, they were on point to say so many of New York’s Asian-American restaurateurs have already been mindful of healthy Asian dishes for years. It was pretty clear that Ms. Haspel didn’t bother to do research or did an Asian focus group. Or even have Asian friends to ask “does this sound arrogant?” (I refuse to use the word racist, because I don’t think Ms. Haspel has bad intentions, just arrogant naivety. In a world where many misuse the word racist, there’s a difference.)
So, I visited Lucky Lee’s last week.
The first immediate thing I noticed was that I was apparently the first of a few Asian people who ventured into their establishment since the social media outlash. Every staff member at Lucky Lee’s gave me undivided attention, probably guessing (and guessing right) that I was only there to start some shit. A woman who looked almost exactly like Ms. Haspel immediately came over to me and asked if everything was okay. She kept interrupting my selfie pics and got nervous when I tried to pose with a thumbs down. The interior design was very peculiar. It looks like a tiny French coffee shop, but with a Starbucks-like corporate ordering system fit with modern monitors. I hadn’t expected self-service, so I stood in line deliberating on the flashy graphics on the digital menus above the cashier, ordering things like Veggie Moo Shu Dumplings and other hipster-ish healthy food/Chinese fusion monstrosity.
I chose the Baked General Tso’s Chicken and coconut water. The cashier ran me up for $21-ish dollars. Yes, WTF. Rich white people prices.
They gave me a number stand like I was at Doubledave’s Pizza and the lady who looked exactly like Arielle Haspel once again asked if I was really, really okay. I tried not to make eye-contact and said I was fine. Then, when she squirmed back into the corner, I whipped back out my phone and snapped more selfies. Hey, it’s not every day I’m in a Chinese restaurant owned by a white person wanting to save my culture from our dirty savage food. Someday, I might tell my grandchildren about this (which reminds me, my parents need me to start making babies). When the food finally came in the form of a cheap recycled paper tray, it was covered in a plastic transparent lid like I was eating a microwaved dinner. For $21 total, they could’ve at least served it in those phony paper silverware plates, but I digress x 2.
The food was awful.
Everything tasted like play-doh. I’m really not saying that because I’m trying to be “edgy”, but honest to Korean Jesus it was worse than Panda Express. I finished it like a champ and once again, the very-possibly-Arielle-Haspel lady popped in front of me, almost giving me a heart attack. She asked if everything was okay…for the one-millionth time.
No I wanted to say. No. No. No. Nothing about Lucky Lee’s was okay. From the weird little French coffee shop look and the strange organic “clean” flavor that perverted a classic Chinese dish to the weird recycled paper tray to the chopstick covers even have weird bad pun slogans (mine said “Go Luck Yourself”) and the corporate ordering counter with the huge monitors and every employee looking at me, the Asian customer, wanting to see if I’d give my Asian approval or perhaps starting shit like writing a long article about my experience on some D-list website like Asian Articulations, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Lucky Lee’s is fucked up. It’s a white person’s ego to tame the Asian savage’s cuisine and what am I supposed to do? Thank them for making shit gluten-free and low calorie? Fuck that shit. Fuck you, Arielle Haspel-looking lady.
But I just avoided eye-contact and said “everything’s fine.”
“Well, if you need anything, just let me know!” she smiled.
I looked around and all the employees were looking at me. Smiling. It was a surreal experience. Perhaps they hoped I’d fall in love with Lucky Lee’s and tell all my Asian friends about my positive experiences on Instagram.
White people, stop trying to save our food, stop trying to whiten our food, stop…just stop. Life is not a melting pot. It’s a bento box. Appreciate us, eat with us, even make something new with what you’ve seen. This is normal. But never think Asian food needs saving, never think you being invited to the party means taking over and redecorating everything from our culture. This is what happens – a weird tiny sky-blue French cafe with overpriced Chinese food that tastes like play-doh served in cheap-looking recycled trays with chopstick sleeves with bad dirty puns. It’s just unnatural, like Frankenstein playing God trying to give a zebra a dolphin fin and a baboon’s ass. Asian food doesn’t need saving. If you want to save Asian food, put Panda Express out of business.