Yunzi (Melody) Li

Helen Ette Park Fellow

The Graduate School: Comparative Literature | PhD


Cohort 2011


Graduated 2018

Partner University:

University of Hong Kong

Scholar Highlights

"In Between" Food and People

My interest in understanding the relationship between foods, countries and their citizens can be traced to my first experience eating Chinese food in America. While there are some wonderful Chinese restaurants in St. Louis, they are not what I would have ever termed “Chinese.” To address this lack of authenticity, I took it upon myself to launch a “small” Chinese restaurant — my home — and then to invite friends to experience what I considered to be the authentic Chinese food experience.

Noticing that I was cooking and eating more Chinese food here than ever back home in China, I began to ask myself: Where does this particular longing for my home country’s food come from? Considering not only myself but the larger Chinese-American community, the natural corollary question was, assuming I was not alone in this experience, how is food experienced and what is its function in the Chinese-American community?

French sociologist Claude Fischler says, “If we do not know what we eat, how can we know what we are?” Put in another way, food can serve as something of a code expressing one’s cultural identity. With this in mind, my ambition has been to see how Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans deal with their cultural identity through eating and cooking, and furthermore how they negotiate things culinary between their motherland and adopted cultures.

When I first came to the United States, I was fairly preoccupied with Chinese restaurants and food. Food is so important to Chinese culture that I consider it a fundamental part of my heritage. My thought was, if I could have fresh Chinese food, sitting with Chinese friends at big tables, it would help bring back those special memories of home. With such a culinary shared reminder of my cultural heritage and cultural experience in America, the Chinese community here could create a sense of home for me. It was for this reason I was excited when a friend offered to take me to a Chinese restaurant soon after I arrived in St. Louis.

Entering the restaurant, I heard an American say, “I love this Chinese restaurant, it’s very Chinese!” Some of his friends enthusiastically agreed. I was, however, less convinced and almost said, “No, a real Chinese restaurant is not like this!” The exaggerated décor of the restaurant, for example, provided a picture only of some sort of fantasized Chinese garden restaurant. Looking at the menu, I was further surprised to see many food items I had never seen before, such as “General Tso’s Chicken,” “Twice-Cooked Pork,” “Sweet & Sour Beef” and “Kung Pao Shrimp.” From an American perspective, the popularity of these dishes was logical: “General Tso’s Chicken,” for example, is a sweet, slightly spicy, deep-fried chicken, elements that all fit well with American dietary preferences. Indeed, to me the big pieces of sweetened chicken just looked like Chinese KFC chicken, re-flavored with a perceived sweet Chineseness that suited American palates. Ultimately, these dishes are not Chinese food or American food — they are new trans-Pacific creations, hybrid Chinese-American food.

Therefore, finding a sense of belonging or community in a Chinese restaurant eluded me. Having been to this restaurant, I realized this was an unrealistic expectation, something dreamt of rather than realizable. However, the experience went still further for me, not only preventing a new space for belonging but also upsetting my memory and my appreciation for how China is understood by the rest of the world. This romanticized Chinese restaurant was formed from a disturbing blend of China and what Westerners imagine China to be. Instead of curing my homesickness, I actually found myself confused and out of place, a stranger in a space that was supposed to give me a taste of home.

Chinese-American literature often addresses this issue of “betweenness” in both food and culture, and it can bring a deeper, fuller understanding of this phenomenon. For instance, Mei Ng’s Eating Chinese Food Naked tells a story of an Americanized Chinese girl named Ruby who goes through a journey of finding her cultural identity through food. Ruby’s mother is the quintessential traditional Chinese woman. In the beginning they both resist the food that is alien to them, Chinese food for Ruby and American food for Ruby’s mother. However, by the end of the story the mother and daughter find a
harmonic meeting point, a place culturally and culinarily in between. While Ruby learns to appreciate and enjoy Chinese food, her mother also learns to integrate American food into her daily life. The generation gap is bridged through the shift of “Chineseness” and “Americanness” in their diets. In short, they establish a culinary combination of Chinese food and American food, or what I would term “in-between” food. Similarly, my longing for authentic Chinese food has been gradually replaced by my adaptation to Americanized
Chinese food after having lived in America for these last three years. Ultimately, I have come to realize and even appreciate that the romanticized Chinese image we see is a product of an evolved idea of “Chineseness” developed for years in Chinese immigrant communities, and I no longer find fault with that. So, these days, when I hear Chinese-American friends refer to “Chop Suey” or “General Tso’s Chicken” as Chinese food, I no longer feel an urge to “correct” them as I once did. Instead, I understand that this is simply an acceptable, hybrid understanding of Chinese food. Broadly speaking, this all shows that food serves as an important means for us to understand and appreciate different cultures. Given that we all live in such a global world, I invite you to enjoy American food, to enjoy Chinese food but perhaps most particularly to enjoy — and celebrate — “in-between” food.

Yunzi “Melody” Li is in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her Master of Philosophy in Translation in 2011 from the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong. She is currently pursuing her PhD in comparative literature in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

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