Why I Started Woks for Washington
by Grace Shi | 09.08.2020
If you told me I was going to start a nonprofit in the middle of a pandemic last year, I probably would have asked “what pandemic” and laughed you out of the room. I know there are some extraordinary people out there with the vision and determination to pull off this sort of thing, but I definitely didn’t envision myself as one of them. Especially one year out of college.
Needless to say, I’m sure this isn’t how any of us imagined 2020 to be at all.
My name is Grace Shi, and I’m a Chinese American from Maryland, recently graduated from Cornell (shoutout to Class of 2019!). Although I was born in Rockville, MD, I grew up in China under my grandmother’s wing, so I’ve always had a deep connection with my Asian roots and pride for being not only American, but also Asian.
Following the COVID-19 outbreak, I moved back home from NYC (where I was working full-time) to be closer to family. During my time working from home, I started Woks for Washington, this grassroots nonprofit initiative based in the Washington, DC metro area, focused on preserving Asian American culture, primarily through sharing Asian cuisine, with my sister and some college friends.
One of the main drivers of my decision to start this project and to be more vocal about diversity and inclusion from an Asian American perspective was the pronounced racism BIPOC have faced in the past few months. I would say I’m relatively new at activism and philanthropy, and definitely have a lot to learn, but I hope that through this project, I’m able to help share this mission of preserving and appreciating diversity with others, and do what I can for my community.
Racism against Asian Americans has been brought to the forefront of life in the US by the amalgam of issues we’re facing today.
As we battle a global pandemic, many underlying issues in our society here in the US have been brought to the forefront of our lives—namely racial and diversity issues, especially following George Floyd and the growth of Black Lives Matter. I think the racial lines that divide America have never been as pronounced in our lifetimes (granted, we’ve only been alive for the past ~20 years). As young adults, this is definitely one of the first crises we’ve seen, and a real time for revolution and change.
Through a lot of news articles and stories across the US, you can see that hostility and even violence towards Asians has increased after COVID-19 started spreading. We’ve been framed as uncivilized outsiders who have brought a dangerous, contagious disease to the US. Much of the rumors and gossip surrounding the start of COVID-19 puts the blame on the eating habits of Asians. This is rooted in the prejudiced lens through which our cultures and traditions are perceived.
What’s important to note is that Asian Americans are generally grouped together. We are perceived as one people here in the US. So, the racism and violence that one part of our cohort experience affect us all. As a NYT article mentions: “Other Asian-Americans — with families from Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar and other places — are facing threats, too, lumped together with Chinese-Americans by a bigotry that does not know the difference.”
These happenings have shined a harsh light on the underlying prejudices that the Western world has against Asians—rooted in history, but brought to the forefront by COVID-19—painting us as the unwelcome “other.” If these were “normal” times, maybe we as the “model minorities” wouldn’t be as affected, or may collectively just “let it pass.” However, we think the severity and magnitude of the xenophobia we have faced in the past few months is cause for the Asian American community to come together and do whatever we can to take care of each other, while at the same time, raising our voices in support of Asian American solidarity.
From my perspective, it seems like we as a racial community have two issues to overcome:
1. Taking & Making Our Own Voice
2. Pinpointing, Examining, and Fixing Our Own Racism Against Each Other and Other Racial Groups
I definitely have been more focused on #1 than #2, because, admittedly, #1 is easier to achieve and work towards than #2. I get it though. It’s very hard to grapple with an identity that is both privileged and oppressed at the same time. And that’s just looking at the race aspect, without considering decades of socioeconomic inequalities that are intertwined with race.
I think at a time like this, we need to take this opportunity to truly figure out how to come together as an Asian American community, while still appreciating the differences and diversity embodied in “Asian American” as a whole. We need to be more “together” than we’ve ever been, because I don’t think we ever really were very organized or cohesive.
I’m hoping that giving ourselves a voice, and breaking that cycle of submission and passiveness surrounding racial issues, starting with our own, will help us re-envision the Asian American identity as one that can be loud and courageous.
All of this is definitely easier said than done. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of Asian American presence in philanthropy and activism. However, now, more than ever, it’s important to break the silent model minority stereotype. This is a time when increased racism and violence towards Asians, stemming from systemic and institutional places of power (like our country’s capital and its politicians) has grown to a magnitude beyond what many of us have ever imagined or experienced.
As a community, Asian Americans should do our part in preserving and appreciating diversity, and show that every voice, project, and initiative counts.
One of the ways Woks for Washington hopes to share the diversity embodied within Asian culture (not only with non-Asians, but also with all the different Asian groups) is to shine a light on our cultural cuisines and how they play a pivotal role in our daily lives and our cultural milestones. Preserving Asian cuisine serves as a major way for the Asian community to continue to share what makes us so diverse with the rest of the world, since it’s often one of the easiest and most palatable ways in which people can experience our culture.
I think it’s important to appreciate pan-Asian cuisines: not just the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese food many people know and love, but also cuisines from India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Tibet, Mongolia etc. There is SO MUCH diversity within “Asian American,” and a deeper dive into our food helps to tell those stories.
Asian food deserves to be seen for the diversity it actually embodies.
It’s very refreshing for someone from a marginalized cohort of “Asian American” to see themselves being represented. For example, Woks for Washington has been doing a series of food facts posts that strive to represent pan-Asia as a whole and introduce dished people may have never heard of. Reading the positive reactions from folks who haven’t seen their cuisine commonly represented in the media really resonated with me. We were helping to share the daily experiences and stories that have largely remained behind the scenes and under-appreciated. This focus on Asian food is a small window into an aspect of someone’s daily life that we hadn’t paid much attention to before. It’s also amazing to see folks say they want to try all the different dishes they never knew about before.
Asian food isn’t just for consumption. It represents tradition, history, and heritage.
Moving forward, I think it would be meaningful for us to examine the history behind how Asian food came to the US and the evolution of Asian American food (and how it’s been perceived) over time. What did the average American know of our food before, and what do they know now? How did their understanding (or lack thereof) of our food culture influence their perception of Asian people? What about the ubiquitous “lunch box moment” that many Asian children faced when bringing their Asian lunches to school, and being ostracized because what they ate wasn’t the stereotypical American school lunch? Why is it important for us to still be able to enjoy our ethnic foods while living in America? What does this mean from an Asian American immigrant perspective, and what does this mean from a heritage perspective?
This also involves the idea that people have been increasingly willing to present Asian food through media and explore our cuisine through not only eating, but also making. For example, Tasty videos featuring Asian food, and non-Asian chefs like Binging With Babish’s Andrew Rea making and sharing our food on their channels.
On the flip side, there has still been racism and inequality surrounding our representation in food media. For example, Bon Appetit had increasingly featured Asian food (and other ethnic foods) in their videos, while still having a pervasive culture of racism.
While our ethnic food has piqued more interest from the masses, we still have a long way to go in terms of how Asian culture, through our cuisines, can be tokenized as a display of diversity—while really being a tool for exoticism—instead of being appreciated as a valuable culture on its own.
While our food can be shared with the world in a positive light, it can also be misrepresented and appropriated. The food media community is still largely white- and Euro-centric, and there’s pressure to simplify, sanitize, and whitewash ethnic cuisines to be more “user-friendly.” A classic example is the recent viral controversy surrounding a video on cooking fried rice. As a community, I think we should reach a balance so that we’re not “gatekeeping” (preventing non-ethnic people from credibly making ethnic food), and so we’re not being subject to cultural appropriation either.
These are just some of the topics we hope to bring to light and explore through the Woks for Washington Food for Thought blog. We’re here to tell real stories from real people.
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