We don’t discuss relatability enough when it comes to the Asian-American experience in the United States.
Everybody loves a good comeback story — we have the underdogs, the rags-to-riches, the failures-to-successes, you name it. Each and every one of them armed with a unique narrative that kept their protagonists (or anti-heroes) grinding even when the going got tough and pushed them to their breaking point.
And then you have David Chang, celebrated alumnus of my alma mater, the author of “Eat a Peach”, founder of the decorated Momofuku restaurant chain and creator of his very own Sputnik, Majordomo Media. I’d been buying Cereal Milk from one of his previous employee’s spinoffs, Milk Bar (then known as Momofuku Milk Bar), in NYC for years throughout college, yet I never knew that he was the brain behind the Momofuku brand until after I graduated.
To sum his entrepreneurial journey up in a nutshell, Chang struggled with assimilating in his Southern city growing up, the inability to live up to his family’s expectations of success, and later on, his fluctuating depressive episodes as his business began to take its roots in the industry.
Yet, he’s still thriving today, with inspiring anecdotes to share, and a global influence that spans continents, cultural barriers, and demographics which many restauranteurs can only hope to skim on a superficial level.
As Kim Kardashian has quipped smugly, “Not bad for a girl with no talent”, to Dave Chang, I say, “Not bad for a guy who graduated near the bottom of his class at Trinity College.”
Historically, it’s been rare to identify Asians in popular media or literature who performed poorly in academia, or admitted that they may not have had a pristine ride all the way.
Run a Google search on the “model minority” myth and you’ll have your answer to the elephant in the room. We’re known as the perfectionists, the exemplary students, the icons of modesty who follow tradition and enter careers that define stability and prestige — law, medicine, banking; you get the picture.
Your heritage is tied to your profession, whether you like it or not. It’s your brand, your badge of honor that sets you apart from the people around you. To depart from this and enter a field typically populated by non-Asians such as media or the culinary scene elicits the very response, “Why are you doing this?”, or in translation, “Why are you wasting your talent when you could be in a more lucrative field?”
Again, we forget that this “model” stereotype does not encompass every single person who identifies ethnically as an Asian or Asian-American.
‘Eat a Peach’ sticks out as an anomaly amongst shelves of published memoirs by a number of such authors, who, more often than not, craft their narratives to focus on the immigrant experiences that were formed over generations, or a specific type of cultural upbringing that dictates the dynamics between the characters and their settings both within and outside of their Asian communities.
Unlike the works above, there’s a slim chance that Chang’s book will fall into the category of reading material for an Asian history or literature class (at least, not anytime soon), given its larger emphasis on how he climbed the ladder of the restaurant industry while dealing with a mental illness, as opposed to the foundations of his Korean-American heritage.
He peppers his chapters with relatable stories about the latter, such as his embarrassment about exposing his non-Asian friends to Korean food, but it’s not your traditional “immigrant story”, so to speak. There’s no exoticizing of a culture to ease how someone’s literary presence is digested — he’s brash, upfront, and takes pride in the message of, “Look, I failed! But I turned out okay.”
Regardless of the stereotypes that this drums up, it is a truth widely acknowledged that to declare your failure publicly is almost unheard of within many Asian communities.
Should you stumble and fall, especially in environments where you truly are, physically, the minority amongst one or a few, you become highly visible to everyone around you, if you weren’t already. You don’t “get” to stumble, let alone fall, in a lot of situations, no matter the circumstances.
Ironically enough, failure is a universal experience that we can all relate to, and this is a story of a real person admitting that they failed hard. It’s the essense of the hustle behind the American Dream that we’ve grown to believe in, and we’re rooting for the dark horse who scrambled towards success within his passion after hitting rock bottom.
This is not to disparage or retire the Jhumpa Lahiri’s or Amy Tan’s who have woven literary themes into their stories to enrich them for generations of readers both in and outside of the classroom. Without their talents, there would be no platform for development without the foundations that they have laid for us readers and creators alike.
“Because Asian American identity is multidimensional, it is important to consider individual subgroups and their unique histories.” — Viraj Patel, The Vermont Collection, pg. 73
It would be far from accurate to assume that every ethnicity and generation can be defined by a single narrative. In fact, the modern stories that are being published are only the tip of the iceberg, as content development becomes an increasingly attractive outlet for Asian creatives to explore and reinvent their personal brands to connect with a wider base.
An outstanding question to highlight might include: Are creators prepared to be as unfiltered as Dave Chang has been? Or perhaps, a better one might be: Will mainstream audiences be prepared to consume and redefine their ideas based on these stories alone?
I’m still doing the math on this one.