You take your first step into the Pond and, right on time, you hear —
Right on cue as well, Xiaolong comes dashing towards you. You can feel her almost vibrating from excitement. It looks like something fun is going to happen at the Pond today!
“Friend, come quick! We have a friend visiting us today!”
A visitor! You think back to the time when Sprout invited Christina Soontornvat to the Pond and smile a little bit to yourself.
You follow Xiaolong to the heart of the Pond and over by the water is a beautiful kitsune, her nine tails sway gently around her. You can feel something ethereal and powerful about her, and when she turns to look steadily at you, the red markings on her face seem to glow faintly.
“Friend, this is Lauren!” says Xiaolong, her arms wide by way of showing off her visiting friend. “Lauren is visiting to tell me a little bit about her experiences. Do you want to join us?”
Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, ‘visit’ the Pond with their very own unique character and we talk about anything related to books or being a reader.
Friends, I am so honoured and happy to have Lauren at The Quiet Pond today! With the Pondathon taking place in February and the first bit of March, this post has been on hold for awhile — and I’ve been looking forward to sharing this post for a long time.
Something that is very important to me as a book reviewer and reader is diversity in literature. When Lauren pitched this idea to me, I knew instantly that I wanted to hear what she had to say. Looking for representation can be tough sometimes, but seeing parts of yourself in literature can be so incredibly hopeful. Therefore, I hope you all will enjoy Lauren’s piece on her experiences of being a multi-ethnic reader – it’s a wonderful piece, and I am honoured to share it with you all today.
Lauren’s Experiences of a Multi-Ethnic Reader
I often question my ethnic-cultural identity. I am a young woman from Hawaii with a second generation Taiwanese-American mother and a Japanese-Filipino-Scandinavian-Native Hawaiian-Guamanian-Chinese-American father. As one might guess, I am very ethnically mixed and as a result of that my family has traditions from quite a few cultures, but most prominently Taiwanese and Japanese culture mixed with the culture of modern-day Hawaii. Growing up, I would tell people that I was Japanese and that is all because I used to be ashamed of being so mixed and different. I was lonely in my uniqueness and never felt like I belonged since I was never enough of one ethinic group to really be a part of it. It wasn’t until I moved to Portland, Oregon and began college that I realized how remarkable it is to be raised in such a diverse family.
I feel that a large part of my shame came from the lack of representation in media for mixed-ethnic young adults. It can be difficult to find myself in the media I enjoy, nearly impossible even. I can’t really blame the media for that since I have more than the average amount ethnicities. All the same, I think it would be gratifying to find myself in books and movies and in art.
In the past year alone, I have found myself in many of these medias. I found pieces of myself in the Chinese-American dynamic in the film, The Farewell, that made me ache for my ah-ma’s (Grandma) hugs and nod my head at the main character’s confusion of how the family handled the situations; I found pieces of myself in Taiwanese-American artist Kaia Tseng’s story and comfort in her soft pieces that show the world in a kind and whimsical light; and I found more pieces of myself in a book than I have in anything else, that book is Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food & Love.
For me, food plays a huge part in how I enjoy life, how I connect to others, and how I express love. Hungry Hearts, an anthology exploring culture and food through an anthology of 13 stories, spoke to the part of me that so constantly looked for validation and representation. Food is such an important aspect to many cultures and can be a way to communicate when words cannot. To be able to read stories with food as a theme and cultural identity as a focal point, I was brought to tears.
It meant so much to me to find multiple aspects of my background bound together in ink and paper. There were two stories in Hungry Hearts that I felt more connection to than the rest, Sugar and Spite and The Slender One. I won’t go into much detail of the stories themselves so that if you have yet to indulge in this literary treat, it will have the chance to feed your heart the way it did mine.
Sugar and Spite by Rin Chupeco is a story that is based around Filipino food. I do not have a lot of Filipino blood, but I often find myself at big family parties at my Filipino aunt’s house enjoying banana lumpia or pancit, and if I am really lucky, fresh dinuguan! This story was the first time I have heard dinuguan mentioned in Western media without fetishization or disgust and I appreciated that so much. Ami, the star of Sugar and Spite, has a scene where she is being teased for her ethnic foods and I very strongly felt the sadness of having something I whole-heartedly enjoy rejected by my peers. I grew up in a mainly Japanese and Filipino community, but many of the foods I enjoy are Chinese in origin. One of my favorites being chicken feet at dimsum restaurants. I vividly remember in high school, I invited some friends to my favorite dimsum restaurant and I ordered chicken feet since I wanted to share my culture and the foods I loved. The look of disgust and discomfort on their faces still haunts me and makes me hesitant to order the foods I like when I am with friends. I found echoes of my own life in Ami’s experience and it felt so wonderful to be able to relate in that way.
The second story I hold very dearly from Hungry Hearts is The Slender One by Caroline Tung Richmond. In recognizing my newfound pride in identity and the cultural dysphoria I often feel, this story comforted me despite my inability to see ghosts as the main character Charlie does. To start, the food in The Slender One are all things I’ve eaten growing up! Pineapple cakes, shave ice, roasted duck, and my personal favorite, tea eggs!! I can’t state enough how important it can be for Asian-American children to see the foods they enjoy that are often rejected by their non-Asian peers. I made tea eggs for friends once because I like to eat them with my instant ramen (can you tell I’m a college student? haha!) and thought they might enjoy a nice tea egg, too. Long story short, they did not even try them because the thought of an egg boiled in tea was very bizarre to them. More tea eggs for me, I suppose. Some of Charlie’s struggles in the story have to do with feeling like he is unable to do the things his grandmother does and the communicative disconnect due to generational differences. While I don’t think I will ever be able to see ghosts or have a responsibility to help them, I do often compare myself to my ah-ma or my mother. Both of them have faced a lot of adversity; for my ah-ma she had to leave her home country to come to America, learn a new language, deal with racist neighbors, and raise 2 children while her husband worked constantly; my mother had to deal with the expectations of first generation immigrant parents, moving from Chicago to Hawaii, bullying at school, and having to navigate life without help from her parents since they didn’t understand the struggles she faced as an Asian-American in a predominantly white neighborhood. I often wonder if I would be able to survive the trials that they faced or if I will be able to love others the way they have loved me.
Charlie also has a scene where he is embarrassed for his classmates to meet his grandmother. I love my ah-ma more than I could ever express, but I would hesitate to introduce her and my ah-gong (grandfather) to my friends at college because most of the friends I have made here wouldn’t understand their culture or how they act. I would not say I am embarrassed of my grandparents, but I think I used to be when I was younger and much more insecure about my heritage. I feel like this is getting repetitive, but once again, I felt so much relief and validity in being able to relate so closely to a character in a book.
I hope that going forward, there will be more books like Hungry Hearts that include a variety of cultures and hopefully more media with mixed ethnic people who aren’t being exotified or fetishized. Books like Hungry Hearts can provide young POC with a safe space and voice, like what it did for me. I truly cannot thank CW enough for being the reason I found Hungry Hearts which ultimately led to my desire to seek out and appreciate my own heritage this year. This book has given me a chance to grow and to cherish my uniqueness. While I still feel confused about my identity sometimes, I now have much more confidence in my rich cultural background and identity as a Taiwanese-Japanese-Filipino-Hawaiian-Scandinavian-Chinese-Guamanian-American (what a mouthful!) woman living in America.
Lauren grew up reading books on the sunny shores of Oahu, Hawaii. She especially loves reading young adult books written by authors she can relate to culturally, but she has a soft spot for fantasy and mythology retellings. Nowadays, Lauren spends most of the year studying business management at Portland State University. When she isn’t cramming for exams, you can find her with a good book and some tea at one of Portland’s beautiful gardens.