Soft Power: Chinese-American Culture is Alive and Thriving in Los Angeles
“So what are we dragging / so what are we drinking tea,” sings YouTuber duo Fung Brothers in their iconic music video “The 626”. “We eat just well / In the SGV. “
When I applied to USC as a transfer student, I watched YouTube videos of Los Angeles and surrounding areas, mostly the fun music videos from the Fung Brothers. Many of these included videos about the San Gabriel Valley (also known as SGV), such as “The 626” or “Inside the Chinese Food Mecca of Los Angeles” by Al Jazeera.
I have visited SGV many times throughout my life as I have family members living there. Yet these videos that pay homage to the Sino-American culinary culture that defines it visually expressed a community that I had unconsciously wanted in my university experience: a true “home away from home.”
As a Chinese American who grew up in the Bay Area, it’s safe to say that Asian cuisine and culture is more than familiar to me – as many Asian Americans say, c is a fundamental element of the house. During my freshman year of college, I discovered that Asian food was scarce in the predominantly white college town where I lived.
I ended up visiting the same Korean restaurant so many times that I didn’t even have to say my order – the staff knew this by heart. For a sad and lonely college soul, this food consumption reaffirmed my connection to others.
At USC, I imagined immersing myself in the Chinese-American culture of neighboring LA. I imagined taking a weekend stroll through Arcadia’s 99 Ranch Market or visiting Factory Tea Bar, that boba place in San Gabriel that the Fung Brothers visited on “The 626.” I wanted to watch singers and rappers. Asians such as Jason Chen and MC Jin perform at 626 Night Market and eat my favorite Chongqing noodles at famous Chinese restaurant Mian, all within SGV.
“You can’t do all of this on your own,” my mother told me.
It sounds silly now. At that time, I think I might have underestimated the time it would take to get to most parts of the SGV from the USC campus. I had also read how hard it was to make friends as a transfer student, and predicted that I would probably say hello to Ubers in the afternoon at SGV alone (which, now that I’m there think, always seems a little sad to me).
Yet, I also knew that I needed to experience the Chinese cuisine and culture that I had grown up with, not only to avoid feeling lonely, but to truly feel at home.
This idea of home is the reason why the SGV has such a personal and symbolic meaning. Videos like “The 626” or “Bobalife” demonstrate the vitality of the Chinese communities that have made SGV their home. Perhaps this is a testament to the importance of YouTubers and Asian storytellers who create their own platforms. Maybe it’s just the power that comes with seeing the culture that shaped you in your own distinct cultural community.
Guess I’m thinking of SGV as an Elle Woods kind of “Legally Blonde”, that food makes connections and connections are what make people happy. This is something that I said essential to understand myself in the USC app, that I love to share meals with others because it means sharing happiness.
Of course, now that I’ve taken classes in the politics of Asian American history and identity, I admit I’m a little more skeptical of seeing SGV culture as just noodles and bubble tea. I also believe that there is a widespread tendency to value the food and cultural products of immigrants more than the immigrants themselves. So, I want to think about the Sino-American diaspora more critically and beyond its so important elements in popular culture.
At the same time, food and its familiarity is why a term like “comfort food” exists. There’s a reason Asian Americans who write about Asian American identity so often turn to food. There’s a reason fun SGV food culture videos can resonate with so many on a deeper, more serious level, and why even visual cues like dim sum carts and B-roll footage from block upon block of Chinese language places and Chinese restaurants make so much sense.
As the online semester begins to wind down this week, I realize that I only have two years left as an undergraduate. I started to think more about what I want from college and LA as a whole, but it’s hard to articulate what academic or social goals I have, if any. Maybe I’ll spend a lot of time in SGV. Maybe I won’t.
Either way, I know I want to spend the rest of my time at USC feeling right at home. It comes above all from “eating well”. Still, maybe it’s not about the food at all, but the connections it represents, which to me, are really just to be happy.
Valerie Wu is a second year student who writes about arts and pop culture in relation to her Chinese-American identity. His column, “Soft Power”, is broadcast every other Monday.