Arts, Culture, and Entertainment

便當 (bian dang)

A zine, created by a team with two USC alumni, explores what it means to be Taiwanese-American.

As much as I disliked visiting my grandparents in Taiwan — sitting through long dinners while horribly jetlagged, constantly losing the battle against the heat and humidity, the appalling lack of air conditioning — there was always one thing I looked forward to: breakfast.

Despite the differences between the two sides of my family, the routine of breakfast operated more or less the same. I always awoke to a mystical assortment of breakfast foods — 饅頭 (man tou, steamed buns in my favorite flavor taro) and 豆漿 (dou jiang, soy milk) were morning staples, but if I asked nicely the night before I would be presented with 燒餅 (shao bing, sesame flatbread) and 油條 (you tiao, fried dough strips), or what I crave the most now, 蛋餅 (dan bing, egg crepe).

Similar to the anecdotes told to me by friends from different Asian backgrounds, food is very much a love language in my family. My grandparents and I never talked much; while they were the most comfortable speaking Taiwanese, I could only converse fluently in Mandarin. So, instead of telling them about my best friend at school or hearing about how my ancestors arrived in Taiwan ages ago, they served me the best food Taiwan had to offer and I ate.

I stopped visiting Taiwan as I got older, opting instead for summer camp. While I was relieved to have escaped those month-long trips, the taste of the food never quite escaped my tongue. My parents, both of whom immigrated to the United States in their twenties, tried to fill the void in my stomach with the best Taiwanese food they could find in California. However, slowly over time, bakeries and restaurants around us started closing. I could once get 飯糰 (fan tuan, stuffed rice rolls) minutes away from my house. Now, only the memory of biting into the warm rice and feeling the crunch of the 肉鬆 (rou song, meat floss) remains. In many ways, the loss of the ability to eat my favorite foods in the Bay Area feels like a loss of part of myself.

Bian Dang, an online magazine created by a team featuring two USC alumni Jane Li, Carolyn Huang, Jason Hu, and Jessica Lin, is an exploration of the many relationships that I — along with many other Taiwanese-Americans — have with food. However, do not mistake their zine for an innocent celebration of food. The initial rise in anti-Asian American hate crimes at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way the topic has taken over the mainstream news cycle as incidents have risen is a sign that anything that celebrates Asian culture is political as well.

The team, who all happen to be Taiwanese-American, originally came together during the early days of the pandemic to create a project to enter into a design competition. However, as they brainstormed ideas, the project slowly evolved beyond the requirements of the competition, and the team decided to create something that they truly wanted to make: Bian Dang, musings on what it means to be Taiwanese-American.

Although their initial intentions were to address anti-Asian-American sentiment, the team wanted to use Bian Dang to approach these issues from another perspective. “We just wanted to talk about identity and thought that if you’re doing an honest and open reflection of who are and the memories that you have, insisting on your humanity or the complexity of your experiences addresses that discrimination without being so heavy-handed,” Hu said.

For each member of the Bian Dang team, food was a natural way to start talking about their relationship with Taiwan. “It is one way that we’ve been able to connect with our culture,” Huang said. “Food has been something that I’ve always felt like was very easy for me to feel proud about with Taiwanese culture.” She added that although she only visited every four years growing up, she felt connected to Taiwan through eating 豆漿油條 (dou jiang you tiao, soy milk and fried dough strips) on Saturday mornings. Although the other three team members experienced different relationships with the physical place, all of them feel wholly connected to Taiwan through food.

Bian Dang, which refers to a lunch box similar to a Japanese bento where different types of foods are arranged in neat little boxes, turned out to be an appropriate metaphor for how the group felt towards their own hyphenated identities. Lin identifies as Taiwanese-American, but spent part of her life in Singapore. “Even though we share this overall identity of Taiwanese-American, we all have our own unique experiences,” Lin said. “That’s why it feels like the Bian Dang branding was very appropriate, because it’s all little compartments with different experiences and different tastes and different thoughts.”

The online magazine features four pieces of work arranged in a lunch box on the home page, showcasing each person’s talents along with an expression of their identity. Li, an illustrator and self-identified amateur ceramicist, created an illustration featuring her favorite Taiwanese foods as intricate ceramic pieces. Lin staged a series of boba-themed photographs representing the different stages of her life. Hu, realizing that online searches of his beloved childhood 胡椒餅 (hu jiao bing, pepper bun) turned up recipes of buns that were different from his memories of layers of green onion and black pepper, took on the task of developing his own. Huang, who claims she doesn’t write poetry, wrote a poetic tribute in “Chinglish” to her mother’s 生煎包 (shen jian bao, pan fried buns) cravings, only to realize later on that she had gotten them mixed up with 菜肉包 (cai rou bao, steamed buns).

Early in the creation process, the team agreed on the deadline of Lunar New Year, which this year fell on Feb. 12. Although the dialogue about racism against Asian Americans had started at the beginning of the pandemic, the conversation was still happening on the fringes of society, amongst Asian Americans. However, by the time Lunar New Year rolled around, anti-Asian American hate crimes were on the rise and discussions were happening everywhere from Instagram to the White House.

As their planned publication date got closer, the team grew concerned that Bian Dang might take away from more pressing conversations, and wondered if they needed to do more to address the rising hate crimes. “I think it’s important to showcase Asian culture, or whatever matters to you, in a positive light,” Li said, explaining why the team decided to publish Bian Dang despite these concerns. “I think that it really sets the foundation of people caring about it, even if it’s not personally related to them.” Additionally, given that Lunar New Year is usually a joyous occasion, the team hoped that their project would instill some pride into other Asian readers.

Although Bian Dang is mostly a celebratory piece, Huang spoke candidly about how sharing the pride she has for her Taiwanese-American roots was also difficult. “Hearing about what’s happening right now makes me want to speak up more, but I’m also scared,” she said. “I feel like I’m very trapped between still wanting to assimilate and still wanting to fly under the radar versus speaking about things that are challenging and divisive and can make you feel very vulnerable.”

Hu, however, is looking forward to more progress in addressing anti-Asian discrimination. “I would love to see the nuanced takes on what’s the best type of bubble tea and people who are not Asian having this conversation,” Hu said. “But, I do think that there’s also an overconfidence that once we’re accepting these ways, then we’ll have economic or social or civil justice.” Hu wants a conversation about Asian culture to be just a starting point.

Since its publication, it seems like Bian Dang has taken on a life of its own. The team seemed surprised to learn that I had stumbled upon it when a friend put it on their Instagram story, and Li shared that she has gotten many positive reactions to their project. I — along with many other Asian-Americans — anxiously await the next issue of Bian Dang, if there ever is one. In the meantime, I plan to cure my homesickness by trying the recipe Hu included in his piece.

開飯了(kai fan le, which literally means “It’s time to eat,” but includes the character “開” which means “open”).