Finding Home in Food

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

Illustrative picture from the West End Magazine

Walk down High Street on any given night and you may find yourself drawn to the delicious smell wafting from the Asian American Cultural Center. If you’re a fan of Asian food, you’ve come to the right place — home-cooked dinners are some of the most popular events held at the AACC. The recent Chinese American Student Association (CASA) Hot Pot night attracted 73 students to sign up. “Tastes Like Home,” hosted by the Alliance for Southeast Asian Students at Yale (Alseas), ran out of food midway through. Riding on this wave of success, the Vietnamese Student Association (ViSA) plans to hold Pho Night on Nov. 9, and Korean American Students at Yale (KASY) will organize an upperclassmen Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 15. Both events are expected to be as popular as Hot Pot night and “Tastes Like Home,” with Pho Night having 64 people officially signed up so far and KASY’s guest list having completely filled up only in a few short days. Asian cultural clubs help bring their cuisine and culture to Yale to enrich it — and, thankfully, students seem to be embracing this effort with all their might.

These events really flourish because of the diversity within the “Asian food” umbrella — no evening is too similar to another. The inaugural KASY First-Year Dinner in September, for example, had a massive variety of traditional Korean food from 제육볶음 (spicy pork belly) to 파전/김치부침개 (scallion and kimchi pancakes). On the other hand, CASA and ViSA’s events distinguish themselves by focusing on specific, iconic dishes of Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine. Hot pot and pho are both comfort foods, and their familiar appeal is almost surely a major contributor to their popularity. “Pho just makes me feel good inside,” comments Anna Tran, TD ’22, who is planning to attend Pho Night. “I had it a lot when I was at home.”

Home is a recurring concept these events explore, with Alseas’ “Tastes Like Home” addressing this topic explicitly. “The title reflects a longing to re-create the gustatory experiences of ‘home,’ that we do not often find at Yale,” a representative of Alseas reported in a text exchange. Yale Dining’s representation of Asian cuisine is indeed an oft-criticized topic, and their efforts definitely aren’t comprehensive enough to replicate a feeling of “home” for most Asian students. Tran says she keeps an eye out for events at the AACC because of “the lack of general authentic Asian food options in [Yale’s] surrounding area.” Although several restaurants like Mecha Ramen and Bonchon are popular for their Asian food variety, New Haven lacks a Chinatown area that would promote the growth of such local restaurants. Within Yale itself, the presence of Asian food is similarly noticeable but mostly “inauthentic,” as first-year Philena Sun, MY ’22, comments. Although Sun appreciates the efforts of Yale Dining, “it’s definitely not [her] mom’s cooking”.

These events also help connect similar cultural clubs and their members. “Tastes Like Home” in particular had a specific goal as a multicultural partnership between Alseas and ViSA, Malaysian and Singaporean Student Association (MASA), Student Association of Thais at Yale (SATAY), and the Indonesia Yale Association (IYA). According to the board of Alseas, “Tastes Like Home” was intended to be “an opportunity for the Southeast Asian student groups to come together and expose each other and the wider Yale community to the culinary cultures of their respective countries.” They also commented that these groups and cultures had a distinct “cultural, economic, and political interconnectedness” that was rarely explored or embraced.

As well as facilitating connections across cultures, these events serve as social spaces for the creation of friendships within single cultures. Some events, like the KASY First-Year Dinner, aim to help attendees meet new people associated with the club. KASY Social Chair Jiyoung Kang, BF ’21, remarks, “at least for these first-years, we wanted to create a larger community in KASY.” CASA’s Hot Pot night, on the other hand, marketed itself towards forming closer bonds in small groups called “families” that received a discount over individual sign-ups. These “families” have nothing to do with blood relations — they are groups of upperclassmen and underclassmen paired together by CASA with the intent of forming a close relationship over the course of the school year. Through a shared love of food and Asian culture, both Hot Pot night and KASY First-Year Dinner were created to bring people together.

Although Yale Dining’s Asian food may not be truly “authentic,” cultural club events on campus bring a little hope by reminding students of their own home. Their popularity never fails to show, and many events like JASU’s Takoyaki night and TAS’s Mid-Autumn Mooncake Festival boasted attendance in the hundreds. Students understandably want new social spaces and fresh ways of making intercultural connections. These events promote acceptance of niche cultures and a space for Asian students to be comfortable many miles from their own homes. As Kang exclaims, “Warmth! Home! Family! Community!”

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