Columbia University: Teaching Asian American History Through the Lens of Chinese Food

From the demonization of the food additive MSG to the shuttering of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. during the pandemic, attitudes about Chinese food have reflected broader trends and sentiments toward the Chinese and Asian American population. Likewise, shifts in the Chinese restaurant industry—the prevalence of certain regional cuisines and the boom of trendy, upscale Chinese restaurants in urban areas—reflect changes within the Chinese American population itself.

In a virtual event hosted by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute on May 3, a panel of historians discussed the intersection of Asian American history and Chinese food. Introducing the discussion, Francesca Bray, professor emerita of social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, explained the value of studying the production and consumption of Chinese food in order to “appreciate the unlikely interplay of food and racial politics.”

Racist Misconceptions About the Origin of COVID
Particularly now, as immigrant-operated Chinese restaurants across the country are struggling, partially as a result of racist misconceptions about the origin of COVID, we can “help solve problems by incorporating cooking and eating as a critical teaching component in Asian and Asian American history classes,” Bray said.

Picking up spring rolls off a plate with chopsticks.
Another participant was Michelle King, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she teaches a course on Chinese food history, with a focus on Chinese food in North Carolina. While King noted that the class has been “a great entry point for students who don’t know anything else about China,” it has also been an opportunity for students who are immigrants themselves to connect with their own roots.

A requirement of the course is visiting restaurants around North Carolina and conducting oral history interviews “to learn about the people that put the food on the plate, not just the food itself,” King said. To collect these testimonies from restaurant owners and workers from the Chinese diaspora, some students called up family members in the industry, and others cold-called local businesses.

“I think by and large, the theme that came across to the students is hard work, and how much these immigrant restaurateurs worked,” King said of the project. For an immigrant restaurant owner putting in 12-hour shifts almost every day of the year, cultural authenticity often takes a back seat to practical business concerns, she explained. On the production and consumption side, what resources are available and what local customers will eat become far more important to sustaining a business than preserving cultural heritage, she added. King maintains her students’ findings on her website.

U.S.-China Exchanges of Food and Art
Also speaking on the panel was Yuan Yi, a Weatherhead postdoctoral research scholar in modern Chinese history and a 2021-22 D. Kim Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. She discussed her experiences teaching food history in her Columbia class on 19th-century U.S.-China relations. The course covers interactions between the two countries in the private sector beyond state-to-state diplomacy by focusing on encounters between businesspeople, missionaries, laborers, and academics, and also includes the exchange of food and art. Influenced by a 2021 conference, Modern Chinese Foodways, and in light of increasing anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. and its visible impact on the Chinese food industry, Yi revised the course to include a weeklong dialogue on the history of Chinese food in this country.

Noodles on a plate and noodles on chopsticks.
“Students love to read, talk, and write about food,” Yi said. “We had great conversations about the relationship between food and labor, gender, and racial politics.” She also noted the interdisciplinarity of the study, and the diversity of primary and secondary sources to draw from. Yi assigned a cooking project, and asked students to pay attention to every stage of the process—from recipe searches, grocery shopping, and eating, to considering their findings about U.S.-Chinese relations, the ownership of food and culture, authenticity, gender, and labor.

The panelists said that the success of their courses and the high student interest posed an opportunity for the expansion of teaching about food history. Yi mentioned the emerging field of plant humanities, and the ways in which Chinese food crops and grains can be explored along with questions about ecology, environment, and agriculture.

King said that incorporating a lecture on Chinese culinary regionalism into a more general course on China could help students understand that China is not monolithic “in a way that is both material and very immediate.” She also emphasized the success of the oral history component of her course, which resulted in expansive ethnographic research, and equipped students with both research skills and a memorable experience that “some described as the highlight of their student careers,” she said.