Category Archives: Interviews

Ital376W Interview of a Chinese Person (Noodle Narratives)

Interview Project: An Interview with Hongmei (Video)

Noodle Narrative: Bree Iskandar


Tradition & What it Means to be Chinese American

Bree Iskandar, a Lab Technician at Emory University, truly embodies what it means to be Chinese American. She is 100% genetically Chinese, as all of her grandparents were born in China. However, both of her parents were born in Indonesia, and she and her brother were born in the United States. She and her family have been influenced by every country they lived in, yet strongly maintain the traditions of their homeland. Being Chinese American is just that: primarily Chinese, yet embracing the blend of cultures and familial flexibility of American culture. Bree reflects this on a number of levels.

Because her parents divorced when she was very young, she grew up in two households, with two separate sets of culinary traditions. Although both households were 100% genetically Chinese, each side maintained and upheld certain Chinese traditions while also fostering their own personal traditions. Bree was conscious of and participated in most national culinary practices, such as dumplings and long life noodles. However, this interview proved to be the first time she thought critically about dishes so fundamental to her life, though it was easy for an outside perspective to identify culinary customs unique to Bree and her family. Therefore, one can claim Bree Iskandar’s relationship with food and tradition reflects the Chinese principle of harmony: harmony between different family units, between traditional and nontraditional foods, between conscious and unconscious meanings, between conventional and personal traditions, and between two cultures coordinating to become one: Chinese American.

When I first approached Bree about this interview, she was hesitant, believing her noodle traditions to be unexceptional, if present at all. However, upon further describing the assignment and my assurances that even what she may consider to be the most unexceptional understanding of noodles may even be the most significant, she agreed. Throughout the interview, I was struck by how casually she discussed traditions she had been practicing her entire life. Although they seemed so unremarkable as to warrant an interview, Bree also commented that if she were to have kids, she would carry on these traditions. This statement was particularly noteworthy, because although she was still debating about having children, she didn’t need a moment to consider carrying on the traditions she grew up with. They were already fully embraced and culturally ingrained.

Bree’s maternal side reflects the celebration of traditional dumplings as well as numerous societal conventions. The three generations would gather at least every other week for the day, either eating out at a traditional Chinese restaurant or cooking their own meals. The act of coming together, dining together, and thus bringing the family closer together, is characteristic of traditional Chinese values. Sharing a meal allows individuals to communicate better and facilitates better understandings of each other.

When discussing these meals, Bree spoke fondly, continuing the conversation about her beloved grandmother off camera and after the interview had ended. This not only reflects the Chinese custom of meals bringing people together, but also of the respect for one’s elders. Bree provided one particular example that highlights all of these features: crispy seafood noodles. The dish is ordered when the three generations come together and go out for a family meal. It is a favorite among her family and is shared “family style.” While they reflect this customary Chinese culinary tradition, they have also adopted their own personal one. Bree’s grandmother sits at the head of the table and does the honors of breaking up the noodles and serving the dish. Although it was easy for me to see which aspects of Chinese culture Bree and her family embody, even just through this one meal, Bree explicitly mentioned that she hadn’t before questioned this tradition. To me, however, the supposed banality Bree approached this historically rich and culturally connotative practice simply demonstrates how ingrained it has become in her life. This mentality further demonstrates the blending of two cultures theoretically at odds: the solemn ceremony of Chinese tradition and the informal flexibility of American habit.

Another aspect found in American culture is the unconventional family unit. For Bree, this means two households with two unique traditions. While her maternal side embraces dumplings, her paternal side embraces the tradition of the long life noodles. Although she does know the symbolic meanings of each ingredient and understands the values depicted, Bree explained, “I know it’s a good luck tradition, but I think that is the extent for me.” The tradition, though, has taken on more than the customary significance. While it is celebrated in the serious manner the noodles call for, the tradition has become more about celebrating and upholding the nuclear family. Not once has Bree and her family missed celebrating a birthday with long life noodles; it is time together that they look forward to every year. Even though coming to college has made some customs more difficult to uphold, she has never been away from family on her birthday. It is also a tradition she hopes to continue if she does choose to have children. Although it may not hold the same significance as it might have for her grandparents, or as we have seen historically throughout this course, it does take on a new connotation, albeit not the one originally intended. It would be interesting to further study whether this is unique to Bree, or if perhaps her brother understands the tradition differently. The notion of meaning making, as sociology elucidates, is both personal and communal. Émile Durkheim is one such sociologist and explains the process of meaning making, explaining that there is a collective conscious through which communities decide meanings. While individuals do participate in this collective, there are also aspects that are uniquely personal, as each individual understands an object or action through their own pair of rose-colored glasses.

For example, when Bree came across the country to attend college, there were few people who understood the cultural connotations that she grew up with. It was challenging for her to maintain traditions, particularly food oriented traditions, without a collective community there for support. However, she did eventually have a Chinese roommate with whom she could share some traditional foods, such as moon cake. Even with this community of two, though, the meaning was not the same as it was with her family. Seeing as Chinese cuisine is dependent upon notions of community, or at the very least celebrates the power food can have on bringing people together, it begs the question as to whether meanings of foods are static or are temporally and contextually conditional. Bree’s story acts as one possible manifestation of what it means to be Chinese American, and her understandings of foods is unique to her, but further studies could elucidate how meanings may change throughout generations, immigrations, and time.

Chinese food: Xiao Long Bao

I have really taken a liking to Chinese food in the last couple years. I’ve tried doing some dishes, but the one that I’ve always wanted to perfect is the soup dumpling. I have to admit I went to my first dim sum place in Seattle unfortunately pretty late in my life, where I’m from, and where the Asian fusion cuisine runs through the streets. I absolutely fell in love. The restaurant that is most famous in Seattle is called Din Tai Fung, its famous throughout Hong Kong and has several installments in the United States. I remember going in for the first time with my friends my sophomore year of high school. Chinese cuisine was always a treat for me as most of my family has always been extremely picky about food. Consequently it was more of a rare treat for me, or something that I used to go out with my friends to eat. I love the style of ordering and how the cuisine is actually run. Its different from an American or typical Italian layout of a meal. There is no structure like Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, and Dolce; or starters; you order what you want how you want it, in batches of however much you think you may need. I’m sure there is more of a custom in China with the cuisine, but I’ve only been able to experience the Chinese American restaurants. The cuisine is full of strong rich and innovative flavors with technique like no other. I definitely felt more connected to Italian cuisine over my life, but I would definitely choose Chinese cuisine to dive further into and explore more for myself. Dough is always so tricky to deal with, but the soup dumpling needs to be perfectly crafted; the dough must be light and thin, but not too thin for the gelatin to escape before biting into it. The gelatin is also tricky, as adding too much may result in a thick, sticky, and obviously too gelatinous soup dumpling. One of my favorite type is the Xiao Long Bao or pork soup dumpling and i think the sauce is perfectly rich for a soup dumpling but nothing too much like a heavier cut of beef or gamey like lamb. Past the dough recipe and the technique behind the Xiao Long Bao, the real flavor behind the soup dumpling comes from a good pork and chicken stock. Use Chinese aromatics like green garlic, ginger, five spice powder and thrown in a couple of your own twists if you want. But really a good stock must be made from home, its cheaper, tastes better, and you end up with a better product when its homemade. I’ve supplied one of my favorite websites, called lucky peach, which gives a thorough and detailed recipe. Lucky peach has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and I think this recipes should go great… soup dumplings are tricky and time consuming though, so definitely be weary and leave time to make these delicious snacks.

Noodle Narrative

Interview Project

Ital 376W Noodle Narrative Video

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For my noodle narrative project, I interviewed my brother, Thomas. Thomas Kervin (full name Thomas Jose Medina-Morel Kervin) was born in Honduras and spent his early childhood in the city of San Pedro Sula. He was 9 years old when he immigrated to the United States (Tampa, Florida), and previously had little exposure to noodles. Thomas discussed how his cultured lacked a significant connection to noodles, and how his experiences in the United States have affected his perspectives towards noodles. His observations are from the viewpoint of an outsider, thus allowing for an interesting analysis of how American culture influences individuals’ attitudes towards Chinese and Italian noodles.

Watch the full interview here.


Interview Project

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Noodle Narrative

1) What is your name and age? Where do you live?

My name is Grace Seongmee Kweon and I am 51 years old. I am currently living in Connecticut.

2) When did you come to the United States?

I came to the United States in 1991, about 25 years ago and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana.

3) What was your first American cuisine experience like?

My first American cuisine experience was eating a whopper at Burger King. There weren’t such things as hamburgers in Korea, so it was a very different experience, but it was really delicious. But, I was really shocked by the size of it and how many calories there were. Everything in America was so much bigger in terms of size. The same small size in Korea is a lot smaller. I remember ordering a small coke, but I couldn’t finish it in one meal because there was too much.

The most memorable food was clam chowder. We came to America through San Francisco and it was a really interesting taste. To this day, I still love clam chowder and have it every now and then.

4) Did the culture change affect your diet?

When I lived in Korea, I ate rice for three meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a main meal, I would eat small side dishes with it. In Korea, meat is very expensive and wasn’t affordable so my family and I ate a lot of fish and vegetables. It was a very healthy diet.

Having lived in America for a while now, I find myself eating a lot more carbs, like bread, anything made with flour. Everything is cheaper and in bigger portions; my diet has become very unhealthy and am pre-diabetic right now. I am working to eating healthier and exercising more.

5) What difficulties do you come across in making Korean dishes?

In the beginning, it was hard to get ingredients, difficult to find Korean or Asian markets. However the Asian community has been expanding these days, and now you can find Asian markets almost anywhere, making it a lot more convenient to go grocery shopping.

6) What role does the noodle play in your cooking?

In Korean cuisine, we eat noodles as main dishes, side dishes, and appetizers. Similar to pasta dishes as main dishes, there are many main noodle dishes that I make for my family. There are cold noodles and hot noodles as well. There are also noodle dishes that I make as side dishes that are eaten with rice. On some occasions, noodles can also be eaten as appetizers, kind of like noodle salads. I don’t just prepare the same noodles in the same manner; sometimes it’s the main dish and other days it might be a minor dish.

a) Can Korean cuisine “exist” without noodles?

Yes, because for us, rice is the main meal and many other side dishes that aren’t noodles can be paired with it.

b) Are there any noodles made specifically for holidays? Any traditions?

During weddings, noodles are typically eaten to celebrate one’s marriage. There’s a saying, translated, “When will you eat noodles?” which means “When will you get married?” Because noodles are long, they symbolize a long life and happy marriage.

Also, when a baby turns a year old, families and friends are invited to a big celebration. The first birthday is the most important celebrated special day. During the celebration, the baby is placed in front of different items: microphone, soccer ball, noodle, money, etc. Each item symbolizes their future; if a baby grabs the noodle, it means he or she will live a long life.

7) What is your favorite noodle dish? How do you make it?Japchae_4271

My favorite noodle dish is japchae. You first boil the noodle and wash it with cold water. Then you dice up vegetables such as carrots, onions, mushrooms, beef, eggs, and spinach. The sauce is made with soy sauce, pepper, salt, and sesame oil. You mix it all together and sprinkle some sesame seeds on top.

a) What is your favorite noodle dish to make?

REW17_13605My favorite dish that I like to make is called bibingmyeon. It’s like the noodle version of bibimbap where instead of mixing rice with stir-fried vegetables, you mix cold noodles with “raw vegetables. It’s a spicy dish mixed with hot pepper paste that Koreans really like. And I love making it because it is my husband’s favorite dish and whenever we have family/friend gatherings, it’s always a crowd pleaser. The dish gives you kicks of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and spiciness all in one bite.

I also love making a dish called kongguksu, which is named for the bean that is used to make the soup base. It is a hard process where I have to grind the bean콩국수s together with sesame seeds and then strain all of the excess paste to get the soup base as smooth and clear as possible. Even though it’s a hard process, I put all of my muscle and love into it and just enjoy my husband and daughters smiling and eating the noodles so deliciously.

8) In your opinion, where did noodles originate from?

From history, I learned it as the Chinese first cultivating wheat and following the Silk Road, distributing and buying goods, spreading out to Europe and other parts of Asia. On the west of China, flour was used more for making bread, while on the east side, flour was used to make noodles.

9) Do you think Korean restaurants in America are pretty authentic or more Americanized?

Many restaurants are managed by Korean owners, so I feel that they are pretty authentic. There are however, a lot of Americanized fusion Korean restaurants that have been rising in communities. The most popular fusion cuisine is Korean/Mexican where you get tacos and burritos stuffed with Korean-style meat and stuffing.

a)What do you think of these fusion cuisines?

I think it’s great that they’re changing it up to match the tastes for American people. It may not be authentic Korean food, but it helps get Korean cuisine known better little by little.

10) Has Korean food had any foreign influences affecting the cuisine?

Japanese cuisine has had some influence on Korean foods that are popular today. During the war days, rice was pretty scarce and all people could afford were Japanese ramen. Today there are so many flavors of ramen and once in a while, it’s delicious to eat. A really well-known noodle dish in Korea is called maxresdefaultjjajangmyun. The original black bean paste originated from China and the Koreans adopted a similar bean paste and mixed it with noodles.

11) Have you ever wanted to open a restaurant?

No, the business aspect of managing a restaurant seemed difficult for me and I really just enjoy cooking for my family and making them happy and that’s all that matters.






I interviewed Nini Wu, a Taiwanese-born physician who immigrated to Canada and later the United States, about her personal history with noodles and experience with food culture growing up. She talks about what her food experience was like growing up in a Taiwanese household, how that changed as time has gone on, and one of her favorite dishes, Niu Rou Mian, or beef noodle soup.

Watch the full interview here: