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My Discomfort With Comfort Food

Chinese food always connected me to my cultural identity. It also continually reminded me of all the ways I didn’t measure up.

“长胖了!” my uncle proclaims when he sees me. You got chubbier! We’re at another extended family reunion in my parents’ hometown in China, about to be seated at a large table for a multicourse banquet dinner that is going to last no less than three hours. I’m 12 or 13, old enough to wince at the word “胖” (fat, chubby). I’m old enough to know what’s being said underneath — and for it to hurt. My mom nudges me to smile, and later whispers in my ear, “Don’t be so sensitive. It’s a term of endearment. That’s just how they greet you when they haven’t seen you in a long time.”

But she’s not the one who gets “fat” hurled at her by middle school mean girls every single day. I was born in America, but at my international school in Beijing, where I’d mostly grow up, expat bullies prove unoriginal in their torture: The prevailing notion is that there’s no such thing as a fat Asian, so being one is an anomaly that leads to taunts and insults. My mom doesn’t know that I avoid shopping because everyone in China seems to be a size 00 and here, unlike in the States, nothing seems to fit. She doesn’t realize how much it hurts every time she tsks at me when I inevitably have to try on clothes, shaking her head as though my body is a disappointment.

“吃吧,” my grandma says. Eat up. My family’s love language is to make sure everyone stays well-fed, so my aunt places some jellyfish soaked in rice vinegar on my plate; banquet plates are intentionally small so you can never estimate portions. I tentatively sip sea cucumber soup under my relatives’ watchful gaze because it’s rude not to sample every dish, and the broth settles my stomach. I push my plate away, declaring that I’m full.

“再吃一点!再吃一点!” my uncle gestures, turning the lazy susan back in my direction. Just have a little more! Just have a little more! Everyone is staring at me, the conversation paused until I help myself to some more rice. I don’t want to be rude, so I keep eating the continuous helpings. Later that night, I prod my stomach while washing up for bed and I hate myself. I hate this double bind — eat the food, but don’t look like someone who eats.

I’ve always felt a tug of war between the Chinese and American sides of myself, grappling with never being “Asian” enough in my language and mannerisms.

But with Chinese food, I don’t have to struggle through reading books and news articles with Google Translate for the characters I don’t recognize. I don’t have to stumble over my words and grammar because my Chinese has gotten rusty from lack of use, or parse through Chinese memes on WeChat because I don’t understand China’s politics and pop culture. I just need to scramble eggs and tomatoes or scour a food court in Flushing to feel at home. Cooking — not just eating — dishes like mapo tofu, sauteed garlic scapes with pork, and vegetable porridge carved out a niche for me to engage with my Asian identity on a regular basis; it only requires my willingness to learn and practice (and suffer lots of soy sauce spatters). It’s helped me invite my boyfriend into my culture. It’s helped me relate to my mom in ways I never have before.

But food has also been my enemy. Since I was a teenager, I’ve struggled with my eating disorder, my weight, and my identity as a Chinese American. When I returned to the States for college, I started to eat in secret; I ate mechanically, to the point that I didn’t really taste anything or even know if I was hungry. I always felt disgusted with myself after the binges, convinced it was a problem with my own willpower. Sometimes I contemplated shoving my head in a toilet to purge; on the few occasions I followed through with it, I was never successful, which in turn only made me feel more useless. I’d resolve to do better, perhaps try another diet or another way to induce vomiting if I slipped again, but it would never last, and the terrible cycle repeated itself. My definition of “better” only meant thinner.

And until I was “better,” I restricted the way I lived day to day. I untagged myself from Facebook pictures because I hated seeing my too-wide face and my too-broad shoulders. I never went shopping because I didn’t think I deserved to feel good about how I looked. I refused to date because I thought my body was repulsive. Normal body-image standards were restricting enough, but when it came to Asian beauty standards, women were expected to be demure, thin, and petite at baseline. Thinness is the gold standard of beauty in many cultures, but the modern stigma around weight in East Asian cultures feels much more explicit. In China specifically, media representation stresses thinness, and job discrimination against overweight people is the norm (with a higher penalty for overweight women). The prevailing notion suggests desirability is contingent upon slimness. The requirement to be thin and petite was reinforced not only in media and pop culture, but also by people I interacted with on a daily basis. I was neither of those things, and that always made me feel less feminine, like a bad Asian.

Mental health struggles carry a strong stigma in Chinese culture: My own family still harbors the belief that strangers shouldn’t know about your problems; that you should be able to cope with them on your own. There remains a general lack of awareness about mental health struggles related to body image — let alone an understanding of “body positivity” — because eating disorders are viewed as a personal weakness, not a medical issue. I bought into these ideas for so long that I didn’t realize I could seek help. But when I did find treatment for my eating disorder, in early 2015, doing so forced me to unpack how I felt about not just eating, but Chinese food specifically. What was Chinese food, a symbol of a culture that continually reminded me of the ways in which I didn’t measure up? How could I repair my relationship with the dishes that both exacerbate my eating disorder and connect me to my sense of identity?

After a year of struggling with escalating disordered eating behaviors, not to mention worsening feelings of shame and guilt, I was referred to an eating disorder treatment center by my college’s counseling service.

I attended group therapy sessions twice a week, each one lasting three hours. The first 35 minutes were dedicated to eating a meal as a group. The requirements were: Arrive on time, eat everything on your plate in the time allotted (though the speed/method/number and size of bites was up to you), and do not go to the bathroom for 30 to 45 minutes following the meal. We spent the remaining time discussing how the meal went and practicing dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skills.

Each week, the process continued. My eating disorder had taken away my ability to treat food, first and foremost, as nourishment. Eating these meals was about going back to the basics: pacing, tasting, listening to hunger and fullness cues. It meant acknowledging there was no wrong way to eat, that if I ate my meal quicker on some days or took smaller bites on others, that was okay. Each bite helped me focus on textures and flavors, reconnecting to the experience of eating through my physical senses rather than being driven by my emotions. I’d expected meals to be Lean Cuisine-like, but though we ate plenty of baked fish, roasted chicken, and mixed vegetables, we also had tacos, spaghetti, and grilled cheese. The variety in the menu was designed to help us unlearn the idea of “good” and “bad” foods, to realize that the “harmless” bargaining tactics around food — “I had a salad for lunch so this burrito is okay,” “I’ll go to the gym tonight and run myself into the ground for this burger,” “Today is my cheat day” — can fuel disordered eating.

I remember one meal, a few weeks in, comprising one hefty chunk of Chicago deep-dish pizza, a small salad, and a slice of chocolate cake. Eating the pizza, while difficult, felt manageable; it was a fixed size. I cut the pizza into pieces slowly with a fork and knife and chewed each cheesy bite thoroughly. The salad provided a palate cleanser. I actually enjoyed the cake.

But as that deep-dish made me realize, every comfort (and trigger) food on the program’s menu was not my own. We ate mac and cheese and burgers, not 卤肉饭 (Taiwanese braised pork over rice) and 干炒牛河 (beef chow fun). Every meal was meticulously pre-portioned and packaged for every individual. We never ate family-style, which was how I grew up eating, and how I learned that portion control is often not within your control: You are not just eating for yourself, and the choice to eat (and how much) often symbolizes love and affection more than physical nourishment. What is considered a “serving” when your chopsticks keep dipping back into shared plates and the diet app you use doesn’t even know what 鱼香茄子 (Chinese eggplant with garlic sauce) is? How can you not overeat when people were heaping dishes onto your plate without you asking? Is it rude to not finish that tofu someone offered you? What is fullness?

This wasn’t the only deficiency of my time in therapy, which had an exclusively Western lens, from the cuisine to the portions to the utensils to the structure of the meal itself. The only Asian influence in the menu was the occasional miso-glazed salmon. Therapy was immensely helpful, but it lacked cultural nuance. We never discussed eating disorders’ cultural dimensions, like how our culture shaped our eating habits, our body image, our ability to seek treatment, or our sense of self in relation to our family. The group leaders, who are all white women, never asked questions around the topic, and no one in the group brought it up. Because of my newness to therapy overall, I stayed quiet and surrendered myself to the experts, believing that since the program worked for others, I should just fall in line. So I made the choice to stick to the program’s recommendations, and because these cultural differences weren’t addressed — or even acknowledged — Chinese food felt out of bounds.

It’s only in retrospect that I see this line I drew for myself, and now, I feel the frustration and loneliness of this decision. In some ways, I’m most frustrated with myself for accepting things as they were laid out for me, for not having had this realization sooner, for missing the opportunities to ask questions of my therapists when I still could. On the other hand, I’m also angry that the program had such a limiting view of an “average” meal in the first place, preventing me from getting the treatment I needed. I’m frustrated at my therapist for not considering the role culture played in my disorder, and how it might have affected my recovery. I wonder if the program, should it have advocated for me better, would have taught me more relevant long-term maintenance tactics and eased the transition from crisis management to self-sufficiency. Instead, the road of recovery will include uncharted territory that I have to navigate on my own.

I completed my outpatient program two years ago, but I’m still not completely comfortable around Chinese food. The program and the principles of dialectical behavioral therapy got me used to habits, fixed portions, and regulation, but still, I consider Western food the standard against which I measure “normal meals.” Chinese food — synonymous in my mind with generous amounts of oil, fatty cuts of meat, and carbs in every possible form, the cuisine that I crave the most when I’m sick or lonely — seems to go against all of those things.

With so many social activities planned around food, I find myself opting out of dinners and spending less time with friends. The social anxiety of eating in public, especially in a family-style setting and especially with Asian-American friends, builds to the point that it’s easier to simply adapt to life without Chinese food than deal with all the throughlines I’ve drawn from it to my eating disorder. Food, which once felt like such an easy connection to my Chinese heritage, now feels emotionally demanding. I’m ashamed to say I don’t substitute this with anything more than the occasional absentminded Mandarin Duolingo lesson, that so many aspects of connecting with my culture feel like such active work that I don’t feel motivated to do them. I can’t help but feel that distancing myself from the food of my culture is equivalent to distancing myself from my culture.

Finding my way back to my Chinese-American identity, and the food that’s a foundational element of that identity, ultimately meant finding my way around the kitchen. But I didn’t start out cooking Chinese food. In fact, I began by baking blueberry scones one weekend after watching a whole season of The Great British Bake Off. Sweets were never my trigger foods, so baking felt like a safe sandbox for experimentation. Baking taught me to slow down and pay full attention to what I’m making, lest I accidentally zest my own finger. It awakened my sense of taste and smell, but not necessarily for the act of eating.

Cooking, I would discover, lessens my anxiety by demystifying the power food has over me. I can practice skills, learn the science behind recipes, and understand the histories of different cuisines. Rather than seeing a pot of spaghetti as a potentially triggering meal, I can read about Marcella Hazan; place canned tomatoes, butter, and an onion in a pot; and witness the result of simmering it all together for 45 minutes. I can even start posting some pictures of the food I make to Instagram to mark my progress as a cook. Though it isn’t what I intended, it becomes a way of engaging socially over food on my own terms.

Cooking Chinese food doesn’t enter my mind until I go home for the holidays, where I’m surrounded by dumplings that my parents have perfected over their 20 years of marriage, steamed buns that my mom shapes into rabbits, and other dishes from my childhood. Rather than scurrying off to scroll through social media like I did when I was a teenager, I linger in the kitchen, watching my mom cook. “That’s good. If you cook things yourself, you can control how much oil and salt to use,” she says, excited that I’ve developed more of an interest in cooking. She offers up some healthier Chinese recipes for me to make, like tofu and seaweed soup or stir-fried broccoli with garlic. When I return to New York, my mom’s words stick with me. If I cook things myself, then I can be more in control. And finding a way to regain control over food after so many years of feeling beholden to it cracks my world open in the best possible way.

Since then, I’ve started to make the recipes from my childhood that I most associate with home, and my mother has played a huge role in my culinary education. While other moms mail their kids baked goods, mine mails me Chinese spices to make 红烧肉 (red-braised pork), a dish that I finally decide to cook one Chinese New Year when I’m feeling particularly homesick. For fried rice, my mom suggested adding 榨菜 (pickled mustard root) for a nice crunchy texture. For 茄子打卤面 (eggplant and tomato noodles), she FaceTimed me to walk me through her cooking process. For 杏鲍菇炒鸡柳 (stir-fried king oyster mushroom with chicken), she texted me three different YouTube links to CCTV cooking segments. The Chinese cooking shows she sends me remind me of growing up in Beijing, how my grandma always kept the station on in the background when she lived with us for monthlong stretches. I smile while reading my mom’s half-English, half-Chinese texts, not just because I find I can understand more than I realize or because they’re always interspersed with an excellent array of emojis, but because I’ve realized that my mom and I have now found a way to talk about food without it being about my weight.

My recovery is still an ongoing and complicated process. It has taught my family — one that traditionally thought of psychology as either irrelevant or something to avoid discussing entirely — to address mental health more openly and honestly, even if our discussions are often more limited than I would like. On our weekly FaceTime calls, they’re curious to learn about therapy and how it’s helpful. They’ve asked me about the language and terminology I use to describe my eating disorder and recovery, but admitted their own struggles with understanding all of this, that they might never get the words just right. When I told my parents that I started going to therapy again last year, they only wanted to know that I’d found a good therapist and whether I needed financial support.

While dialectical behavior therapy made sense for where I was at the time, its deficiencies meant that I was left to reconcile my physical reasons for eating with emotional, social, and cultural ones. Cooking became my way to explore food as a form of care and connection, one that mirrored the love language of my family, but that was also a form of acceptance that I could extend to myself. If loving the food of one’s heritage also means loving yourself, then I could not be wholly proud of myself as a Chinese American without also finding a way back to Chinese food.

Because 红烧肉 is not just 红烧肉.

Because when I text my mom that I’m attempting to make 红烧肉, her reply makes my eyes well up with tears: “女儿学会做了这道又传统又经典的中国菜,自己过中国年啦,妈妈尤为高兴和骄傲!” My daughter has learned how to make a traditional and classic Chinese dish to celebrate Chinese New Year on her own! Mom is so happy and proud.

When I take the lid off the wok to bring the heat up and thicken the sauce, the pork belly looks like what I remember from my childhood. The aroma reminds me of my mom. And the taste — the taste is just like home.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Slant’d.
Nicole Zhu is a writer and developer based in New York. She co-hosts Sweet and Sour, a podcast about the intersections of Asian-American identity with culture, work, and lifestyle.
Nhung Lê is a Vietnamese freelance illustrator based in Brooklyn.

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