Every year, in the month of May, the Multicultural Student Affairs’ office at Northwestern puts on an event for the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month. It was my great honour to be invited as the faculty speaker for this year, and I was so moved by how my brilliant student Ying Dai, who is on the committee, introduced me with her close knowledge of exactly what I’m up to in my scholarship and teaching.
The organizing committee requested that I talk about home, community, and bridge-building in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern, and to work the crowd with some informality. Here, then, is what I said:
Today, I want to talk about food. When I first thought about what to say here about a sense of home in Asian American studies at Northwestern, I kept drawing blanks. So I took a cue from my white colleagues in Asian studies: I asked my Asian wife what to do. She said that I should talk about food. We’ve been long-distance while I was here, and what keeps us together is food; we eat together on camera. So I began thinking about food, and it made me hungry, which is how I started thinking about what I’d say here.
I am, of course, not in Asian studies; I am in Asian American studies, and one of the first distinctives that was sold to me on the website as I researched the program was that faculty invite their students to their houses to eat. Now that I work here, I am not sure which ones actually do, but I can tell you that it took me two years to work up the courage to do that. Homes are intimate spaces, and so is my cooking, which is why I often told people I couldn’t cook and instead ordered Harold’s Chicken Shack for my student dinners.
The trouble is that I was fooling no one about how much food drives my life. Students and colleagues who figured me out in time came to drop by my office with the one question I could never resist: ‘Wanna get food?’ – which is the more conventional way to word this request, unless one is from Asian American InterVarsity, in which case you say, ‘Wanna grab a meal?’ By this, we learn that intellectual communities are also homes. The work that we do with our intellects – reading, collecting, analyzing, critiquing, taking action – the source for such acts comes from a place of intimacy. The mind is not split from the body, and bodies must be fed, and feeding it with other persons makes a program into a home. I realized, as this insight dawned on me, that this is why conversations with my peer mentor here, Professor Ji-Yeon Yuh, always began with food, with how we cook, with people we eat with, with how a house becomes a home. Last Thanksgiving, she formally expanded this Cantonese boy’s culinary horizons by teaching me how to make Korean soups and stews from scratch, from the anchovy broths up to the sundubu and kimchi jjigae. When I posted photos of my efforts, I was richly rewarded: Maangchi retweeted me.
What does it mean to have found a home in Asian American Studies here? It means that these are the people with whom I eat, and that is not metaphorical, with the corny move that somehow intellectual production – which is work – is a kind of brain food (it’s more like going to the toilet). I will miss this place immensely, then, because we are moving to Singapore soon for me to join another intellectual community at Singapore Management University. But that city, as you all well know, is delicious. You should therefore know that if you ever visit, the claims I’ve made in this speech about being family will still hold, because we will eat.