Chef, Author Eddie Huang Tackles Cultural Appropriation of Food at Athenaeum

Eddie Huang, author of “Fresh Off the Boat," addresses the crowd at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on Monday, Sept. 12 (Alicia Tsai • The Student Life)

“When I was five, I remember eating these soup dumplings, and was like ‘How the f*** did they get soup in this dumpling?’ I was enthralled, and every step of the way soup dumplings have been there,” Eddie Huang said to the audience at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. “Soup dumplings were in the first chapter of ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ the first episode I did with Vice ... they changed my life.”

Huang spoke with students at the Athenaeum on Monday, Sept. 12 in a talk titled, “Race, Food, and Who We Are.”

Author of memoir Fresh Off the Boat, which has been made into an ABC sitcom, Huang shared his experiences growing up in Orlando, Fla. as a child of Taiwanese immigrants. He also talked about overcoming hardships, financially, mentally, and culturally, at various stages in his life such as when opening a restaurant, scriptwriting, and earning his law degree. Huang also designed and sold “the first Obama T-shirts in December ‘06” in the streets of New York City, the city he calls home.

Currently the owner of BauHaus, a Taiwanese steamed bun eatery in East Village, Manhattan, Huang said that food has always been an essential part of his life. Huang discussed the ethnic and cultural appropriation of food, a controversial topic today, emphasizing the importance of understanding the narrative and history behind ethnic dishes in order to enjoy them.

“I think fusion food is a beautiful thing, when it comes from relationships,” he said. “Chinese-Jamaican, Japanese-Peruvian, even Tex-Mex— some people don't think Tex-Mex is Mexican food, but it was food created by Mexicans to survive in America— it becomes part of one’s identity, one’s history, even if it comes from a response to oppression, discrimination, and has the power to teach us about humanity.”

Huang believes that everything revolves around culture. When studying law, he realized that “culture dictates the law”; it influences our moral conceptions of various issues. Similarly, he thinks the culture of food challenges our perception of ourselves, our communities, and the human race as a whole.  

Even as a cultural critic, Huang often faces criticism for cultural appropriation himself-- particularly for appropriating black culture. Presenting on stage in a Kanye West T-shirt, Timberland boots, and several gold chains, he recalled fond moments growing up playing and watching basketball, listening to hip-hop, and buying his first mixtape in the 90s.

Huang’s experience living in a racially-segregated Orlando brought turmoil: trouble assimilating into American culture, violence, and difficulty coming to terms with his identity as a first-generation Taiwanese American.

“I really feel like I connect with Eddie’s story,” David Huang CM ’18 said. “I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was one of [10] Asian Americans at my entire high school. The only Asian people I would see on TV were Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, and like Eddie, I grew up watching basketball and listening to hip hop. Somehow, even today, I still struggle to find my identity.”

“No one will take your cultural or ethnic identity away from you, but you need to figure out what that means to you,” Eddie Huang said. “You need to harvest that spirit in a way that is satisfactory to you.”