Eating Chinese/American: Michelle Liang Explores the Racialization of Food

Headshot of Michelle Liang
Michelle Liang, Class of 2023

Michelle Liang’s senior distinction project might have turned out very differently if it hadn’t been for COVID-19.

The Cultural Anthropology and Biology major was taking a class about food cultures during the spring that the pandemic began. “The class piqued my interest in the politics around food and eating practices, and food and different cultures. This was fueled by what was happening at that time with COVID. I wrote a paper that centered around how COVID reignited this fear of eating Chinese food that was present in U.S. history, but also often very much forgotten because Chinese food has been so popularized.”

Liang revisited this paper, expanding on her ideas with additional fieldwork, to create her distinction project, “Eating Chinese/American and the Racialization of Food.” The goal of the project was to explore foodways — how food is produced, sold, prepared and consumed —  within the Chinese community in Durham, N.C. By examining these practices, Liang was able to explore the deep significance food can hold for a diasporic community.

Liang chose Li Ming’s Global Mart, one of the largest Asian supermarkets in Durham, as the primary site to conduct her field work. “A lot of it was done through talking to the people who shop there, eat there or work there. It didn't feel like the right setting to have formal interviews,” she said.

The store front for Li Ming's Global Mart
Li Ming's Global Mart in Durham, NC

“I was primarily interested in how Chinese immigrants navigate their way in the US, particularly in the context of COVID.” Liang recounts a history of how Chinese food was introduced to and reinvented in the U.S. during times when not only were Chinese immigrants considered inassimilable foreigners, but also exploitative bodies for labor. She draws from her fieldwork to highlight how current members of the Chinese diasporic community live with a history of racial violence that has resurfaced since COVID. “Many of the people I talked to didn’t really feel a need or desire to return to China, even though their identifications were still tied to their homeland. In my project, I talk about that very blurred in-between identity.”

In her thesis, Liang writes, “Being Chinese in the US is facing a history that feared Chinese immigrants yet exploited their labor. It is facing the reality that Chinese foods are popular, but only if they can be accepted by the American stomach. It is facing the dichotomy that Chinese people are both yellow perils and model minorities. It is facing the dissonance that food can evoke feelings of fear and comfort. […] It perhaps means being okay with a “neither-nor” identity and being comfortable with liminality. And perhaps being suspended in this space will provide new possibilities for thinking and being otherwise.”

For Liang, the most rewarding part of her distinction project came when she presented her work to the Cultural Anthropology department. “We had an engaging conversation afterwards, and it was really nice to see how my thesis made people think about food in a very different way, and how food is so deeply embedded in their everyday lives that make food studies extremely valuable.”