I just spent a weekend with my niece, Paulina, a freshman at Yale University. You may recall seeing her in a post last summer about Little Saigon in Orange County. Paulina has always been interested in writing, and over Christmas vacation we discussed doing something for Asian American history month, which annually falls in May.
When young people are teenagers, adults are like space aliens to them and vice versa. I always saw Paulina around her family, not her friends. She’s very bright but shy. Little did I know what a dynamic young woman she truly is. I had to go to Yale to see her in her element.
Over the past 4 weeks, Paulina and her friend Eunju organized a special event with their cohorts of the Asian American Students Alliance. They wanted to bring together three Asian food writers to discuss their career paths, work, and personal histories. The arranged for travel and accommodations, made and posted fliers, and used Facebook to get the word out.
The discussion, apply titled “Savory Heritage” was part of the Master’s Tea program held at the home of Professor Marvin Chun. Professor Chun is the first Asian American faculty member to be serve as a master at Yale. The University’s 80-plus-year old program appoints distinguished faculty to live in residence at each of the colleges. I got a kick from hearing the Asian students address him as “Master Chun.” It had a certain Kung Fu movie quality and Professor Chun says that he doesn’t know kung fu, though his young son is learning akido. “No one messes with me when they hear ‘Master Chun,” he comically said.
Paulina and Eunju invited me, food editor and novelist Kim Sunee, and cookbook author and writing teacher Monica Bhide for a raucous afternoon of frank conversation. Professor Chun moderated and Paulina organized a group of the students and her friends to prepare sweets from our recipes. We convened at Master for tea and snacks. The room filled up with about 50 students seated in chairs and on the floor, standing and spilling out into the entry way.
What did three uppity Asian female authors have to say? Here’s a synopsis – my recollection of the major points that we made:
Monica Bhide: There are many stereotypes about being a food writer but one thing is for sure, you are always well-fed. I wanted to write from an early age but followed my father’s wishes and became an engineer. I have two master’s degrees, one is an MBA. For years I worked working in corporate America, traveling the world doing IT work. One day, when I was home, I mistakenly dialed “9” for an outside line. That was when I realized that I had spent too much time in hotels and not enough time at home. Then, I quit my job and changed my career.The students had lots of questions including: How do you develop a serious (paying) career in food writing when there are so many voices out there online and in the blog world? Monica’s response was, “Write what you know and love. Don’t be fake.”
Kim Sunee: I was adopted from Korea and grew up in the South on gumbo and jambalaya. I lived in France for 10 years and was a magazine food editor at Cottage Living. From an early age, I wanted to write so while I worked as an editor, I wrote my memoir. My knowledge of Korean food is recent because I did not grow up immersed in it. I write about many things that have been part of and impacted my life.
Andrea Nguyen (that's me!): People often assume that just because you have straight black hair and small eyes that you must write about something Asian. But identities are no longer fixed. You can be born in a particular place and time but that is just one part of who you are. We physically and virtually travel to so many places. Writers nowadays have greater freedom to write about their topic of choice. They don’t have to be afraid of being pigeon holed.
Kim added, “What is important is writing about something that you are passionate about.”
Right on, sistas! I wholehearted concur.
Related links: My review of Monica's latest book, Modern Spice