on shame and possibilities

I just ate a bowl of rice topped with slices of cheese and Spam. Raw, unsullied Spam. Admitting that I enjoy eating the canned pink meat has been a thing of my late twenties. Really — what’s wrong with the occasional Spam?

I understand that its nutritional value is nonexistent. I don’t think my sheepishness comes from that, though.  I think my Spam shame goes way back, deep into my roots. Canned meat brings out my introspective nature. So does this chilly weather.

Generally, White people find it disgusting, but Asians live off the stuff. Spam kimbap, fried rice, garlic rice and pan-fried Spam, jjigae à la kimchi and diced Spam. I find myself getting anxious if I don’t have at least 2 cans in my pantry on reserve. In Robert Ji-Song Ku’s Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA, Ku mentions that Spam was part of the US Army’s C-Rations and was scorned by the military. Impoverished Asian and Pacific Islanders, however, found it a luxury item and welcomed gifts of chocolate, cigarettes, and Spam by American GIs. Asians have history with Spam.

As you might surmise, it’s associated with low-class and foreign customs (even though Hormel is an American-based company).  I think immigrant parents found comfort in peeling back the dangerously sharp, stiff metal lid and sliding out a pink block of meat because it was familiar (there was a strong presence of Spam abroad, especially amongst the Allies during WWII). It was American. And it was cheap. Not only did I find out that eating Spam didn’t make me American, but I also developed some kind of lowbrow sensibility for liking it. All this resulted in tossed out sandwiches, secretly eating in the library, feigning disgust, and pretending to be someone I wasn’t.

Okay, okay. Spam melodrama aside, Asian American culture is a relatively new thing. Well, it’s a thing that is coming out on its own after some time in the incubator. Asians in America have been around for a while, but the culture has either been seen as an outsider’s thing — foreign, exotic, weird, dangerous (think “Yellow Peril”) — or it hasn’t been seen at all. We are/were the model minority. As well as the forgotten minority. Guys, the assimilation worked too well. Our parents came fresh off the, uh, airplane, and ducked their heads, doing whatever they could to get by. Most of my generation, we were born Asian, lived in a house with our very Asian grandmother who spoke gibberish and grew suspect plants and vegetables in the garden, and went to schools and lived in areas where there were a lot of non-Asians. We became well aware of our jet black hair, slanted eyes, monolids, and flat nose bridge. We gave it our best to fit in and asked our grandmothers to keep the arm-swinging-jogging-in-place-on-the-corner-sidewalk to a minimum.

And then for many of us, the pendulum swung the other way at some point, for whatever reason. Call it bullying, loneliness, fear, or having nothing better to do. Asian pride, excuse me, AP set in. We colored our hair with annoying streaks of blond and only hung out with other Asians. Maybe the pendulum kept swinging at different life stages, or maybe it got stuck somewhere, but it was always one or the other. Asian or American.

Truth is, though, we are very much of both and want to embrace both. We want to find out what being both means, looks like, and sounds like. It’s super hard to do, though, when Asians and Asian culture are still seen as a character pun. I still wonder why Psy’s “Gangnam Style” made it so big in America. And I still despise when people see me and break out into the “Gangnam Style” dance. Yeah, that has happened. I’m not even Korean. But there is a hopeful, excited part of me that catches conversations about prominent Asian Americans in the media. I’ve witnessed second-gens making big moves and digging inconceivable roots into new communities, paving the way for a new, reconciled future. And I’ve found promising stuff like this letter getting press on NPR’s Code Switch.

So, all that to say — Asian American culture may be a new thing, but oh, the possibilities. And the Spam. The Spam-sibilities. Definitely the Spam-sibilities.

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