My journey of discovering the beauty of my culture

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Alena Zhang ('23)

Alena Zhang ('23), ages 1 and 5, experiencing the different street and restaurant food in China.

Hi, my name is Alena Zhang. I am Chinese. I used to be ashamed of my culture.

Everyday, my mom lovingly packed me different lunches: dumplings, fried rice, onion pancakes, and every Chinese food imaginable. I loved my lunches. During break-time, I would bring my glass container filled with yummy food and tiptoe to reach the microwave. After heating up my food, a familiar fragrance filled the air and I would breathe it in deeply. It smelled like home, and it reminded me of the street vendors in China.

My first recollection of the harsh reality of what my classmates thought of my food was in kindergarten. As I sat down at the lunch table with my classmates, one of them looked at me with disgust and told me my food smelled and looked disgusting. The limp, fried onion in my rice reminded them of spider legs; the fluffy pork bun reminded them of a disfigured instrument.

When I reflect back on this moment, I still wonder how my younger, five-year old self should have reacted. Should I have told them to back off, to leave me and my food alone?

What I remember is not touching my food at all. I left the mounds of fried rice alone and I sat silently while my classmates snacked on their chips and sipped their juice pouches.
When my stomach grumbled in defiance, I carefully propped up the lid of my food container and tried to cover my lunch with the flap of fabric on my lunchbox, so no one could see my food. Every day after school, my mom would look at my untouched lunch and shake her head. I felt guilty for lying and saying I wasn’t hungry.

Looking back, I realize I should have stood up for myself. In a way, food is culture. A recipe can cross oceans and continents, generations of families, time itself.

At school, I kept my Chinese identity and pupil identity separate. When Chinese New Year came around, my mom and grandpa discussed coming to my class to bring dumplings and make paper lanterns. I held my breath and hoped my mom and grandpa would stop bringing up the topic. I begged and I cried for them not to come, but it was to no avail. They were coming and that was that.

When my grandpa and mother arrived at my class, I expected snarky remarks from my classmates, but there were none. Frankly, I was scared that my classmates would make fun of this tradition like they did to my food. Instead, my classmates begged for more dumplings and compared their paper lanterns. I remember my chest feeling warm and me smiling as they chimed in yelling that they wished they could be part of my family, so they could eat delicious food like dumplings all the time.

What caused the change in attitude, I still don’t know. However, I know this much: I should have never let those initial words insulting my food ever affect my relationship with my culture.

Slowly, I stopped caring about what others thought of my food and culture. In the past, I had believed that my classmates’ disgust for my food was a personal attack on my character and my heritage. But it wasn’t. While the remarks were insulting, I should not have let those sentences loom over my head for so many years. I have learned that my culture, even in something as simple as food, isn’t something that I or anyone should hide.

With Covid-19 affecting not just our school lives, everything is different. I do not take my culture for granted; I am glad that the rich history I come from is not forgotten.

I implore you, do not be ashamed of your heritage. Do not forget the beautiful scenery where your home land is. Do not forget the ethnic food that connects you to your culture. Do not forget the sacrifices your family made to get you here. Do not forget your culture which is ingrained in who you are. It courses through your blood, it makes you, you.

My love for my culture is unshakable. I appreciate the thrumming dances, the noisy villages, the delicate brushstrokes of mountains on silk, and the delicious Chinese food that my mom makes, whether I am in China or America.

My few trips to China still dazzle me. They have shaped me and matured me. I see magnificent statues, hear the crash of stormy waves in the Yellow Sea, and feel the rumble of the Shanghai traffic in my bones.

So please, embrace your culture. Let every part of it wash over you and change you for the better. It welcomes you into its dazzling and unimaginable world.