An Open Letter to the Non-Asian Owners of Asian Restaurants,

There are two things that this world can agree on: People deserve credit for what they’ve rightfully accomplished and created. If you have achieved something that is life-changing or moving, your name deserves to be tied to it.

The second: We hate false advertisements.

It’s no secret that there have been some stirring articles swimming around the Asian community over cultural appropriation. In fact, that seems to be one of the most used terms within the past five years: cultural appropriation or the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. If you ask someone older, they might say that the outspoken are overreacting, but, by definition, cultural appropriation is nothing to stay calm about. While not all of these actions of appropriation are racist, we can all agree that they were in bad taste, and they could have easily been avoided via one simple method: think before you act.

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Yes, it is true that you cannot lay claims to a culture, but as members of a historically “lesser” community (whichever you may come from – Asian, African-American, Latino, etc.), we do have a very legitimate connection to the practices and symbols that are being appropriated. Some of the people who are accused of appropriation do so without the intention of malice, but it is difficult to ignore especially when the only people being put on blast for appropriation seem to be social media influencers.

A situation to consider: every Thanksgiving holiday, your grandmother has a special mashed potatoes recipe. This is the item that everyone at the dinner table wants, and it is the only dish that can only be had once a year. This is your grandmother’s personal recipe, and she spent your parents’ childhood perfecting it so that you may enjoy it as well. Fast-forward, you are now an adult. You’ve decided to use Grandma’s recipe for an office party, and it’s a huge hit. Your coworkers ask you for the recipe, and, out of the spirit of the holidays, you share it, so that their families might enjoy it as well. When the holidays are over, you login on Facebook, and you see that one of your coworkers is talking about her “special mashed potatoes recipe,” a recipe she created on her own by her own hard work. Feel that tingle of anger?

This is what it’s like to have your culture be appropriated. There was nothing wrong with our culture. It is our culture because it has been around for generations with small changes coming and going. These cultural aspects, of course, will differ among ethnicities, but we all feel the same emotion when someone takes claim to what we have always done and misinterprets it.

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The latest news of cultural appropriation in the Asian community is of a new restaurant in New York City called Lucky Lee’s. Lucky Lee’s is owned by a health blogger on Instagram Arielle Haspel (@bewellwitharielle), and within the past couple of days, the new restaurant is already walking on eggshells.

Lucky Lee’s is advertised as “Feel-Great food inspired by American-Chinese Cuisine.” Haspel goes on to describe the restaurant’s food as “clean Chinese-American recipes” supposedly for those who want the health benefits that go along with it. Her food is for those with health restrictions such as gluten-intolerance or wheat allergies as well as being non-GMO and without refined sugar.

Hearing about a “healthy” alternative to Chinese food is not the problem. In fact, there is a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, that advertises organic ingredients used in traditional recipes. Having tried it myself, I can attest to the claim that there is a less-oily version of some Asian foods. So, again, the concept of healthy Asian food is not the problem.

But using the term “clean?” As opposed to… dirty?

As dictated by a now-deleted Instagram post: “We heard you’re obsessed with lo mein but rarely eat it. You said it makes you feel bloated and icky the next day? Well, wait until you slurp up our HIGH lo mein. Not too oily. Or salty.”

To speak plain English, this would imply that traditional lo mein is too oily and salty.

Now, just from hearing about Lucky Lee’s concept, I would assume that this simply meant dishes like lo mein (obviously), orange chicken, moo goo gai pan, etc. except with organic ingredients. Inherently, Chinese-American dishes do not typically look for organic ingredients as this food is more than likely going to be from a take-out restaurant where the aim is easy-to-go Chinese food. However, as Lucky Lee’s Instagram posts indicate, there are dishes like Baked Orange Cauliflower and Honey Glazed Spareribs which are typically not on a Chinese-American menu.

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After skimming the comments, I came across one in particular (which I unfortunately forgot to save) stating that people always praise the concept of fusion food yet here we are being offended.

So let’s just lay this out cleanly: It’s not about the food.

It’s about how you think that “correcting” us on an aspect of the culture we’re born into is okay.

It’s about the false advertising because this isn’t Chinese food.

No one cares that you’re making stir-fry cauliflower. In fact, I’m sure it’s delicious. And perhaps, yes, some people cannot tolerate some of the ingredients in Chinese food, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to create something out of thin air and dismiss it as a dish that is “of our culture” because it’s not. My culture uses ingredients that you might not have even heard before, and, as an explorer into a culture that is not your own, I hope you learn to respect it.

The Asian community is not bothered that a white woman is opening a Chinese restaurant. We’re bothered by the fact that her work insinuates there’s something wrong with the food we grew up with as children. There are such things as Asian-inspired dishes, and these are in fact called fusion dishes.

Do what you want, chase your dreams, and open a restaurant.

But label it correctly.

This is a fusion Chinese-American restaurant. And honestly, in my opinion, “feel-good” food is comfort food. It’s the food my mom cooks whenever I’m sick, and it’s the dish that makes me think of my late grandfather.

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This was obviously the fault of whoever marketed Lucky Lee’s, but let’s just put this to bed.

For those calling the offended “social justice warriors,” I am not a social justice warrior because not everything offends me. This does not offend me, but it does bother me just as a lot of things might bother anyone else. I am not overly-sensitive, and I gave this some thought before writing it out because if you think that we’re all speaking up simply because everything offends us, then you’re wrong. You are not the one who feels insulted here. Honestly, I’m just tired of this happening over and over again because you’d think that one viral mistake would not merit a second one.

Haspel is not racist. Honestly, really she’s not. Just like the white chef who made the video showing us how to eat pho “properly” or the white couple who opened up an “authentic” Vietnamese restaurant except everything was vegan and then proceeded to attempt to copyright the word “pho,” by definition, this is not racism. This is misplaced appreciation.

Growing up as an Asian American, I would’ve wanted nothing more than people to appreciate my background. I would have loved for people to be open to some of the dishes I ate at home but was too embarrassed to bring to school. I would have loved taking my friends home and letting them try a bit of what I called my comfort food.

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We can see you appreciate the Asian culture and are trying to show your appreciation, but all you’re doing is mistakenly telling us that there’s something about our culture that needs to be fixed when there isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with what our families have always made, and we aren’t looking for any improvement because the only people who can say that something needs to be changed are the people who created it. You did not invent pho, and you did not invent any of the things that inspired you.

An inspiration is not a mockup of your invention. Our culture should inspire you to learn not strive to find a way to fix.

If you want to celebrate our culture, please celebrate it with us – not for us.

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