I was a high school junior who was going to our rival school’s prom. I guess rival school wasn’t the best term; it was my close family friend’s private school’s junior/senior prom. My date was one of her good friends who we had hung out with, along with my friend’s boyfriend. My family friend’s name was Bianca, her boyfriend was a first generation Korean senior named Jason, and my date was an international Chinese-Canadian student named James. The four of us went with another couple who were both international students from South Korea: Kira and Nick.
The six of us of ready at Bianca’s house and then went to a Korean owned sushi restaurant for our “prom dinner.” Of course, they served us small bowls of rice as appetizers. I will never forget the five sets of eyes that stared me down as I asked for the soy sauce. I was adopted from China when I was 8 months old and grew up in the Midwest with a wonderful, white family who puts soy sauce on their white rice. However, soy sauce was not made for dumping on rice
Bianca, who was also adopted, looked mortified that I was asking; Kira and Nick just looked genuinely confused, and asked why I wanted soy sauce. Jason and James both thought it was amusing, but definitely strange. Jason eventually handed me the soy sauce and I poured it on my rice. Kira and Nick looked scandalized.
I remember wanting to melt into my seat and disappear as I was eating my (delicious) rice. How was I supposed to know that soy sauce on rice was a “white person thing” (as Bianca so elegantly put it)? The rest of the night went on without a hitch. The private school had good food, and the prom was outside in an extremely aesthetically pleasing courtyard. We went back to Bianca’s house after and watched movies until we all fell asleep on her basement floor.
For the next couple of months, I was self-conscious whenever I ate rice. Even if it was leftover rice that I was microwaving to eat for lunch the next day. I would sometimes stop with the soy sauce bottle in my hand and have a mild identity crisis. In the middle of my recently-painted-teal kitchen in a suburbia neighborhood, I would put my soy sauce bottle down and tell myself to be “more Asian” and act how I “was supposed to.” Looking back, I don’t even know why I thought I needed to prove to myself in my 1950s-esque kitchen that I was “really Asian,” but it was a big deal to me.
Now, four years later, I pour soy sauce all over my rice. It’s delicious. I was back in China this past summer for a study abroad trip to finish up my Chinese major. I never put soy sauce on the rice there because of cultural understanding. However, now that I’m back at Michigan State University, and finally living in my own apartment, I use my Kikkoman Soy Sauce all the time. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be “white,” after all, that’s how I grew up. I did not grow up in China on a rice farm, where soy sauce was used to cook with and not as a condiment. I grew up in Michigan where Chinese takeout gives soy sauce packages with all meals.
I’m still coping with what it means to “be white” but “look (and kind of sort of be) Asian,” but at least I’m confident with my white rice and soy sauce.
**All names have been changed