This time last year, I found myself in the epitome of unlikely places: Birmingham, Alabama. Specifically, at the thrifted rattan kitchen table with my Southern roommate, decked in matching Minions kitchen aprons, surrounded by piles of dumpling wrappers and five pounds of filling. Prior to this evening, I hadn’t folded a dumpling in about five years. But I felt, having transplanted to Alabama from San Francisco for a magazine job, that I had something to prove. With every potsticker I placed on the baking sheet, it was at once an act of defiance—and one of resignation.
For as long as I can remember, I have never known quite what I am or where I belonged. I dutifully check “Asian or Pacific Islander” on every survey, test and job application. My grandparents immigrated from China and Taiwan in the ‘50s. But far from the large immigrant populations in major cities, my parents spent most of their adolescences in the Deep South, before moving, post-university, to California where I grew up surrounded by a panoply of cultures that painted a much different picture of what “America” meant. Yet, I have not escaped my grandmother’s observation that I am a banana (my peers might rather say Twinkie).
A banana is exactly what one might imagine: Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. It’s a designation I have embraced somewhat facetiously, never failing to make a joke or laugh of my own when it comes up. There’s not much to defend. Unlike my friends with immigrant parents, I’m a third-generation Asian-American. I don’t speak or write any dialect, and I wouldn’t say I’m particularly attached to the culture, either. I don’t cook much of the cuisine, and the most Asian media I consume is my once-a-month Korean drama episode. But the barb, no matter how lightly it’s made in jest, stings.
And that’s how I found myself on a dumpling-folding frenzy.