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== Leo Qin ==
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Venba and the Immigrant Food Experience

games culture

If you haven’t played Venba, I highly recommend it. It’s a story-forward mechanically simple game, and you can finish the main story in under two hours. I recently did just that, and boy do I have some feeling about the story that it tells about immigration and assimilation and its intersection with food. There are several scenes in the game that directly mirrored my own experience, and I want to share that.

I want to tell some of my own stories that intersect with the story of Venba, and think about they intersect with immigration and class.

Immigrant Food

Early on in the game, there’s a scene where Venba notices that Kavin, her young son, always brings back his lunch uneaten. She asks him why, and he responds that it’s because he’s embarrassed about how it smells, and that other kids have remarked on it.

Pork-and-Chive Dumplings

This very thing (sensitivity to smell) happened to myself once - I remember that one day I bought for lunch pork-and-chive dumplings. It must have been some time in college, because I remember microwaving it (I don’t remember ever microwaving stuff in high school) and someone remarked that they stank up the microwave. I felt ashamed, but I also remember being able to identify this as a cultural thing - as I might say today, this was a “skill issue” on the part of whoever remarked on the smell. I also remember feeling defiant and eating (and enjoying) my lunch anyway, so I am glad that it didn’t ruin the experience for me. However, to this day I am fairly vigilant about throwing out chinese chives before they go bad - that, I think, was my takeaway from the interaction. I am thankful that I had the maturity and cultural context to largely shrug it off.

Tangyuan

Another anecdote of my own experience with experiencing Immigrant Food Shame in schools - one day in elementary school (I don’t think that this happened in Texas, but rather Maryland so it must have been kindergarten or first grade), my parents came with me to school and brought Tangyuan to celebrate Chinese New Year. I don’t recall if my parents were present, but one of the other kids remarked that they didn’t want to eat them because “it looks like dog poop”. Looking back at it, this just doesn’t really make sense (when have you ever seen dog poop that’s white on the outside with black filling?), so they must have said it to be hurtful. Of course, the comment also evokes the common refrain that Chinese people eat dogs.

Like the dumplings, I don’t really remember this experience being very upsetting to me personally, probably since I was so young. My parents and I do talk about this experience though, so I imagine it must have been quite hurtful to them to either overhear it, or learn about it after the fact.

Chicken Feet

One time when I was in High School, my sister had a friend over for a sleepover. Maybe it was a last minute thing, or maybe my parents thought she could handle it since she was half-Asian, or maybe they just didn’t care, but that night for dinner we had chicken feet. I remember my sister eating them with some trepidation in front of her friend after her friend said that she didn’t want any because it was creepy. Hearing this, after dinner I took a chicken foot, put it in a ziplock bag, and put it in my sister’s friend’s suitcase (I maintain that it was thoughtful to use the ziplock bag!).

I remember hearing a shriek as she found it, and my sister was quite mad at me. I could tell my parents found it funny, but they tried to be stern about it.

Hong Shao Rou

My first semester of college, my parents overnighted me Hong Shao Rou with glass noodles and rice (the way that we make it). I could tell that they used the dry ice from their lab to pack it, and they put it in a glass storage container that I still own today - I keep pens and other writing tools in it in my kitchen island.

Anyway, I think that they could tell I was feeling a little homesick and they wanted to do something special. I don’t think I really appreciated it at the time, but I think about that episode every time I go to a Chinese grocery store. I was so excited to get it that I ate some of it cold, and the dry crumbliness of cold rice was deeply unpleasant. The glass noodles were thick and sweet, having absorbed all of the juice from the pork, but also very unpleasant to eat in a near-frozen state. I quickly found a microwave - nobody commented on the smell, but if they did I have to imagine they would remark that it smells delicious!

One of the dishes that you make in Venba is biryani, in celebration of Kavin going off to college. I get the sense that Hong Shao Rou filled the same niche for my parents that biryani did for Venba and Paavalan.

Green Pea Soup (Croatian)

This is an weird one - in high school, we had to take a language class, and I chose French. Yet, for reasons I’ve now forgotten, we once had an assignment to write about (in French, obviously, and optionally cook) a food from a European country. Inexplicably, I chose Croatia, and decided to make Green Pea Soup. This must have been 10th or 11th grade, because I was extremely interested in learning how to cook. So, I did a ton of research about it and learned that it’s traditional to use a ham bone for flavoring. As it turns out, ham bones have a lot of collagen, and they release a lot of it when you cook it down.

The end result was soupy when hot, but gelatinous at room temperature. It was also DELICIOUS by own standards - but admittedly it looked quite unappetizing. Nobody in my French class wanted to try it - I felt a bit hurt, but that didn’t stop me from having the soup (at room temp) for lunch. Looking back at the experience, I’ve come to learn that Chinese food in particular is very comfortable with gelatinous textures, but it is otherwise very unfamiliar for most Americans. I was also in the midst of my first “food temperature doesn’t matter” phase, so between that and the impracticability of microwaving a large container of soup during French class, I was setting myself up for disaster.

Normal Food

Another dimension of the game is that Kavin asks his parents to cook “normal food” for him - things like french fries and pizza. Here’s some stories about my own experiences with Normal Food.

Hot Pockets and Fruitopia

With the exception of a few weeks in high school where I tried and failed at packing my own lunch, I have always been a school lunch kid. In elementary school, the cafeteria only had a few specific choices every day. However, in middle school, something very exciting developed - the cafeteria had a “snack bar”. While the standard school lunch was still available (and always the same price), the joy of the snack bar was that things were sold a la carte - and you could get a variety of different things instead of the one or two specific things that came with the standard lunch. The downside of course, was price - naturally, buying things a la carte was more expensive.

So - I had to be judicious about how often I got lunch from the snack bar. I don’t remember having much of a strategy for most of my time at that particular middle school (I left due to bullying after 7th grade), but I do remember realizing that I could combine two days of standard lunches with the balance left over from a few weeks of standard lunches to afford a trip to to the snack bar. Perhaps my first experience with creative accounting, which we now refer to as “girl math”? (Admittedly, I was living in Houston when the Enron bankruptcy happened, so I wasn’t the only doing creative accounting in the greater Houston area).

I think that the middle school snack bar might actually have been my first experience with making my own food choices. Of course - the choices that I made were to primarily subsist on Pepperoni Hot Pockets and cans of Fruitopia on snack bar days. The middle school snack bar also facilitated my first encounters with Flaming Hot Cheetos, Doritos, and The Bomb Burrito.

Looking back, these foods were novel to me because my parents were living on a budget, and shopped exclusively at the Chinese grocery store. Later on in high school, we added Kroger and Target to the rotation after my mom discovered the joys of yogurt, but even then they would never think to buy any flavor of Hot Pockets. On balance, I look back at the snack bar fondly, but it was definitely because I didn’t have access to these foods at home.

The Sugar Shack

This isn’t really an Immigrant Food/Normal Food intersection, but it bears mentioning just because of how insane it is. Throughout elementary school and some of middle school, I went to a daycare, and every Friday (or something like that) they would open “The Sugar Shack” - essentially you could go the common area and buy candy and soda directly from the daycare. We must have been such an unruly group on Sugar Shack days, I can’t begin to understand why they would do something like this. Hopefully all the teachers split the take or something…

The Sugar Shack was my first exposure to Warheads, Airheads, Sour Punch Straws, Pibb Xtra, and Dr Pepper. I remember trying to convince my parents to give me an allowance, in part to have money for The Sugar Shack (and also in part for the snack bar).

Actually - there IS a Normal Food intersection here. This same daycare occasionally had turkey sandwiches for snack time (usually it was something like graham crackers or off-grand oreos). I really looked forward to turkey sandwich days, and looking back at it I realize that the snacktime turkey sandwich was actually my first exposure to mayonnaise.

Episcopal School Lunches

In seventh grade, a kid who regularly called me gay decided to try out punching me (nothing happened to him), so in eighth grade I changed schools. The school that I ended up going to in eighth grade was attached to an Episcopal church, we had to go to chapel every day, there was a uniform dress code that included wearing a tie (and a specific store that you had to buy clothes from, what a racket), you had to play an instrument and the only two choices were bagpipe or snare drum, and I also realized that my vision was getting worse because I couldn’t clearly see the little board next to the altar where they put the Psalm we were going to sing that day.

90% of the kids had known each other since Kindergarten, 70% of them went to the church attached to the school, and 100% of them knew that I wasn’t religious. I didn’t get bullied, which is nice, but man, it really seems like I beat the odds, huh?

Unsurprisingly, it was a pretty upper class environment, and so the vast majority of students brought lunch from home. I, and seemingly every other Asian kid, however, had to buy the school lunch, which cost FIVE DOLLARS (I seem to remember middle school lunch being $1.50).

My main memory of the food was that it was always something with either garlic bread or mashed potatoes. I vividly remember dipping chicken nuggets in mashed potatoes, like that was a normal thing to do. I also remember getting spaghetti and meatballs frequently. For the price, it was undeniably disappointing.

Some other good things that happened that year:

  1. I got my first gmail account
  2. I made good-enough friends with the Asian kids enough to add them on AIM
  3. I learned about software piracy
  4. I got As in math, twice!

High School Lunch (and Breakfast!)

The shift from 8th grade to high school was drastic. I went from the Episcopal school to a public magnet high school where a majority of students had free lunch and there was only three or four recognizably white people. No more chapel, the uniform policy was more flexible, and the lunch was far less expensive ($2.25, I think?) - and, starting in 10th grade they expanded the free breakfast to EVERYONE. It might be accurate to say that I peaked socially in high school - I had a large group of friends and was friendly with almost everyone. It was an environment that was unrecognizable compared to the isolation of being the new kid atheist at the Episcopal school.

There were a couple foods from high school that left a memory for me:

  1. Strawberry milk - I had yet to develop lactose intolerance, and this was a new and exciting addition to the normal milk - chocolate milk binary
  2. Cheese Sticks - they often served this with spaghetti and it was great
  3. Fried Chicken - Michelle Obama hadn’t done her thing yet, so I (and all my friends) was always quite excited for fried chicken days
  4. Frito Pie
  5. Waffles, Cinnamon Buns, and Ham-and-Cheddar breakfast sandwiches

Another food-related memory - I had a bit of a frenemy who I think did cross-country running for her zoned school (being a magnet school, we didn’t really have athletics, and if you wanted to do sports you did it with your zoned school) who had a diet consisting of bottled water and cheerios and she had a very complicated explanation for how she measured and balanced her daily calories. Looking back, I wonder if this was an eating disorder - but also she ended up working for an organization that promoted concealed carry on campus so maybe there was something else going on (to be clear, I don’t mean to equate eating disorders with political conservatism, that is very unfair for people with eating disorders).

Finally - I remember vividly that when we were taking our standardized tests (TAKS or STAARS), we were provided with snacks in the form of a bag of cheerios with M&Ms inside it. But then, one year they had a special treat - Sour Skittles. They talked about Sour Skittles as if it was a new thing on the market and we were the first ones to get to experience them… I wonder what kind of lobbying the Skittles Company did to make that happen.

Intersections and Institutions

Venba is a story told from the mother’s point of view as she watches her son move through the world. She sometimes feels as if she’s losing him, as he assimilates to the broader Canadian culture. At the same time, you can see that he has mixed feelings about his own ties to his culture, which is a feeling with which I can’t help but empathize.

Soon after I was born, my parents sent me to China to live with relatives. I don’t have many memories of this time, but I do have stories from my relatives - stories of running around naked in the streets of Dalian, or learning that plums are delicious and eating three in a single meal (a lot for a small child!). But - my mom also tells me that when I came back from China, I didn’t speak any English, which was a problem for the school that I attended. They ended up putting me in a special class to learn English, and I made a friend with a girl who also only spoke Chinese. I wonder how she’s doing now - does she still know how to speak Chinese?

In Venba, when Kavin speaks in English, the game depicts his speech bubble as clouded and smudged - partially unintelligible. Only when speaking Tamil does the message come back clearly. Did my parents ever feel the same way, as I learned English and largely forgot Chinese?

Like Kavin, my reaction to being immersed in the popular culture swung the pendulum in the other direction. I actively chose assimilation - perhaps it was a political response to the tone of the 90s, but also - perhaps it was just easier?

I think that a just society must take steps to ensure that is it is not simply easier to assimilate, but to make a third way of being both. Why could I not be both Chinese and American? You might think - isn’t that what being Chinese-American is all about? Perhaps - but my experience of being Chinese-American has swung so heavily to the side of American, and I think that many other “Dash-Americans” will feel the same way. Of course, I want to avoid romanticizing the Chinese culture; I don’t have much connection to it anymore, but I do think it is fair to mourn that I was simply not given the choice.

The reason is that our institutions favor order over diversity, and the surest way to ensure order is to create conformity, or a common culture. Most visibly, this comes in the form of policy - immigration policies that favor “good” or “educated” countries over “third world shithole” countries - of course, these metrics are measured on the basis of whiteness and conformity.

But - this preference is also enforced through neglect. How would my experience with food have been different if our institutions actually tried to create a space where you could bring your own culture?

Just to pick out some examples from my own history:

  • What if, after overhearing someone refer to the Tangyuan as “dog poop”, my teachers told them that this kind of language was unacceptable and racist?
  • What if the administration of the Episcopal school saw the obvious tension of introducing an outsider into their school and checked in with me and my parents about how I was doing? What if they had some policies about proselytizing within the student body (yes, this happened to me, all the time).
  • What if we educated our children that most foods have a smell when you heat them and sometimes you’re going to smell something unfamiliar, but that doesn’t make it bad? What if instead, you asked what they were heating, because it could help you to find new foods?

This is, of course, a hypothetical exercise for me, a thought experiment. But there are millions of people for whom this is their lived experience.

As an adult, I think I have come back to where Kavin did - assimilation is a thing that happened to me, but not the end of my story. I can, and do, continue to find a way to be myself (and if you know me, especially through food). And like Kavin, some of the best times I have spent with my parents have been in the kitchen.