When my aunt moved to the US in the early 1980s, she needed to find work. Though she’d worked nearly her whole life as a skilled, bi-lingual, executive assistant to higher-ups in large international businesses (think luxury tobacco, and later on high end pens), similar work eluded her in the US.
Her accent was too heavy, her knowledge of US cultural norms and lingo was nonexistent, she had no college degree – a fact that had no hampered her in Hong Kong due to her having come up through the ranks of the business world in the ’50s and ‘60s, when her wits and smarts served her more than a diploma. In Asia, my aunt, I’ll call her Lizzy, was seen less by the color of her skin and more by what she could offer a company.
With a small child depending on her, and a husband also struggling to make it in America, my aunt knew she had to earn money wherever she could.
The only work she could find was in childcare and restaurant work, so she dove in, working long hours every day. For a while she worked in a greasy, Chinese restaurant at the local mall. She hated the backbreaking work, the pungent smells that she could never wash off, the bullish boss who yelled at her in Mandarin, Cantonese, English. She earned almost nothing, but how could she stop?
It wasn’t lost on Lizzy that such abuses were heaped on her in three languages, while the Americans who often looked down their nose at her, spoke only one language. These were the same people who viewed her accented (but proper) English as a sign that she was somehow dim or too simple to work for them. Many could not see beyond her race.
Lizzy saw people who looked and sounded like her, all working the same kinds of jobs: restaurants or food service, tailoring, laundry, some retail, running shops catering to Asian clientele. While she and her family had moved to America for better choices, her choices seemed limited.
Finally, after a snowy winter in which Lizzy and her family could not afford to turn the heat on for several days, she decided that she had to make her own opportunities.
“People saw me as ‘the Chinese lady,’ so why not use that to my advantage? If people couldn’t see beyond my race, then I’d be ‘extra’ Chinese. I had to survive.”
So Lizzy started a catering company. She’d always been praised as an excellent cook, and it was something she could do from home instead of paying a babysitter.
At first, she simply made dozens of egg rolls in her kitchen and gave them out, a few at a time, to her neighbors or the moms at her child’s kindergarten. She played them up as “just like back home”, “authentic”, “my mother’s recipe”. These weren’t entirely lies; it was “dressing up the truth in a cheongsam [Chinese traditional dress]” – people wanted an exotic story to go along with their snacks.
Very often when my aunt would hand people a paper plate with a few golden egg rolls “for you and your family,” the recipient (usually white) would gasp with delight and ask, “Are these AUTHENTIC?”
In the moment, they were – “Yes! Very authentic!” But let’s not forget that crispy fried egg rolls are in fact an American invention. Actually, they would be more aptly called authentic Chinese-American.
Quickly orders for egg rolls and other “authentic” dishes came in. Though my aunt would from time to time make a Hong Kong dish unfamiliar to Americans, she focused on the Chinese dishes that her new community craved: Special Fried Rice, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Beef and Broccoli with Chow Mein. When she delivered the foods, she did so with the biggest smile she could muster, and would even share some “Chinese superstition” about how certain dishes were lucky or meant long life.
Again, not total lies but the truth bathed in the same sticky, sweet sauce as her chicken.
Bit by bit, my aunt’s catering business grew. She had more orders than she could keep up with, so she brought on a partner. She booked a few big events and party orders. She was able to quit working at the Chinese restaurant at the mall.
People not only loved her authentic food, but they loved her. A pretty Chinese mom, who served not only food but folksy wisdom. She was relatable but still a novelty. Her “Chineseness” was highly palatable.
“Oh they loved it! They loved that their real Chinese food was being made by a real Chinese woman. I admit I laid it on THICK. But they were happy, and I was happy, so everyone was happy, right?”
As time went on, Lizzy introduced more dishes that weren’t quite Chinese, but she marketed them as Chinese versions of such. She made “Chinese Lasagna”, “Chinese Spaghetti and Meatballs”, “Chinese Meatloaf”. Though she never explicitly said that “this is how Chinese people make lasagna”, she never stopped people from leaping to the assumption that they were trying something uniquely, “authentically” Chinese.
And again, people loved it.
Eventually my aunt folded her catering businesses when she moved to a different part of the US, but she never stopped using her “Chineseness” to her advantage when times got tough.
For a period of time my aunt ran a jewelry business selling jade pieces to wealthy (mostly white) women. While the pieces were nothing special, my aunt would talk about how the women would sit rapt as she told them about the lore, legend, and Feng Shui properties of jade. It was more of that “cheongsam-dressed truth”.
During this time more than ever, my aunt was aware that those wealthy white women weren’t just buying her jade pieces because they were pretty, but because a genuine Chinese lady was selling them; she was their “mystical Asian”.
Thought my aunt succeeded in making herself financially stable, she was always aware that she was succeeding in large part because white Americans felt comfortable with the role she was filling in their lives. She didn’t challenge them; she “leaned into” the Chinese stereotype.
Some have called my aunt’s actions dishonest, deceitful, giving Asian immigrants a bad name. But when faced with a society that likes their immigrants to be a certain way depending on their color or creed, is it really my aunt who is in the wrong?
If the limitations placed on immigrants cut people off from certain higher paying and/or upwardly mobility, is the choice to exploit a culture’s institutionalized racism such a bad one?
I wonder how common stories like my aunt’s are. So often I’ve heard Americans say, without much thought, something along the lines of how they so much prefer their ethnic foods or businesses to be run by “actual” ethnic people because it means that the product is…wait for it…authentic. There are the comments of preferring Indian or Chinese service professionals in certain lines of work because “they” are more detail oriented (read: good at math).
At what point does a person trying succeed grow weary of battling the stereotype and instead sees how far exploiting it will take them?
And yes, the argument can be made that in the long run, people like my aunt might be perpetuating the racism so ingrained in American culture. But when faced with limited resources and a wall of adversity, exploiting stereotypes might be a uniquely immigrant or minority tool through which to survive in America.
Image by Steamykitchens via Creative Commons