My knowledge of most places in Houston — the city in which I grew up for eighteen years — is surprisingly sparse. The only exception is Chinatown. It’s where I know the best place to get $3.50 banh mi that fills you up, where a supermarket named Welcome reminds me of grocery shopping with my mom as a kid, where a dance school that most of my Asian friends attended at one point or another evokes the picture of parental gossip.
Over the years, however, Chinatown has changed. The small bakeries where we’d get a box of perfectly flaky, not-too-sweet Taiwanese egg tarts have closed. The restaurants my family once sought for extra-spicy dishes have turned down the fire to appeal to the white Americans who increasingly dine there. Sleek branding draws crowds of college students to ramen and milk tea shops that have replaced traditional restaurants.
These changes didn’t completely register with me until a few weeks ago, when my mother and I drove to Chinatown in search of doufunao, a comfort food featuring tofu so soft it tastes creamy, immersed in a thick, savory broth and topped with cilantro. Variations are found in breakfast food carts throughout China, although the recipe is a multi-step, laborious process. As a kid, when I woke up late on lazy Sundays, we’d often drive to a small diner in Chinatown that specialized in breakfast foods like doufunao, dough sticks fried to a golden crisp and fresh soy milk — foods so Chinese that the people eating around us were always grandparents and families chatting loudly in Mandarin. The owner, a matronly middle-aged woman, often recognized the people who walked in.
However, as Chinatown grew up, competition increased. The restaurant was sold and transformed, like many other hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop diners that were just a little too authentic for the era of Yelp reviews and Instagrammable foods. Though my mom and I circulated through Chinatown’s plazas, going door-to-door amongst recently established businesses, there was no doufunao to be found. I wondered about the next time I’d get to taste doufunao with a resigned sense of sadness.
Then I felt a tinge of irony. I’ve read pieces on food politics, about dishes only allowed to be as authentic as white America deems acceptable, about Western chefs suddenly “discovering” exotic techniques or spices by ethnic groups they once shunned. I’d often read these essays and dismissed them — don’t we have many bigger problems to tackle? Even as I sat thinking about doufunao and Chinatown, I reprimanded myself: Who am I to regret the lack of a childhood favorite when so many children — especially in China — lack the access to sufficient food in the first place? The former seems to be a first-world inconvenience; the latter, a human rights issue.
That’s not entirely true, though. Food isn’t just about survival. Part of being human means our food is about taste, variety and connections to family and culture. Food is an avenue for expressing love, rooted in generations of ethnic history, tied to memory. Think of Marcel Proust’s famous description from “In Search of Lost Time” of “the little crumb of madeleine” that floods his senses with memories of his aunt, her home and the bustling town where she lived. In Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” the narrator recalls her mother “the week before she died … full of life,” boasting about her red bean soup. Food connects us and elicits feelings, which speaks to why food politics strikes so many emotional notes and demands recognition.
So how should I weigh seemingly trivial questions of food politics and more weighty problems of food insecurity? This question is one facet of a larger issue: How do we weigh problems in the small yet meaningful parts of the human experience with urgent human rights issues? It’s a question often touched upon when people criticize those speaking about microaggressions or bad sexual experiences: Sensitive snowflakes should stop complaining when other people are facing real problems!
As someone passionate about human rights, my attention is usually captured by these real problems: conflict, extreme poverty, famine. Yet prioritizing those issues in a utilitarian number-of-lives calculus forgets about the dynamic infinity captured within each life. After all, what does achieving human rights even mean if we dismiss or fail to value what makes us happy and human in the first place? I’d like to think that we have enough agency to care about the food insecurity faced by children in rural China and the gradual loss of the Chinatown that composed my childhood. I’d like to think we have enough heart to want positive change across all parts of the spectrum of human experiences, to be empathetic toward the multitude of joys and sadnesses that compose every life.
Liana Wang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .