How To Be A Bad Asian: I Don’t Know the Names of Dim Sum Dishes

Life is hard enough as an Asian. Not all of us can get perfect SAT scores, graduate from medical school or trick out a Honda Civic. The pressure to embrace our culture remains but sometimes, we just don’t want to. How To Be A Bad Asian is an ongoing series of personal essays by the 8Asians writers about what sets us apart from the API community, how we deal with the stereotypes that we put upon ourselves and why we all can’t be that perfect Asian. It’s time to be bad.

For the past year, I’ve been in a long distance relationship, traveling between San Francisco and Miami where my boyfriend lives. So when my boyfriend brought up the idea of going to dim sum at Tropical Chinese, a restaurant in Southeast Miami, I jumped at it.

I mean, seriously: dim sum, in Miami? Served by actual Chinese people speaking Chinese? After going with my Cuban boyfriend to eat at hole-in-the-wall restaurants while everyone around me is ordering food and speaking Spanish a million times faster than the two years of “Lupita es alta” Spanish I learned in High School, I was looking forward to turning the tables: “That’s right, asshole! You’re in MY part of town now,” I would exclaim to him. I imagined myself standing on one of the dim sum carts as I exclaimed this to him, my arms raised in victory, flanked by the eleven to fifteen old lady dim sum attendants in fighting stances. (Let’s just casually ignore the fact that “my part of town” isn’t really China, but in San Francisco, three thousand miles away from Miami. Whatever.)

It should be said that I didn’t eat proper Hong Kong style dim sum until college. My parents aren’t from Hong Kong; they’re from China, via Taiwan. Sunday mornings weren’t spent eating small plates of fried pork, shrimp and taro products, they were spent in a Chinese Baptist Church — and any small plates at a restaurant we’d would order would consist of cold, pickled dishes to go with a bowl of porridge rice: comfort food one and the same, but definitely not the fried pork goodness that people love for the same reason they like going to the deep-fried-everything booths they see at the State Fair. Rest assured that in college I went to enough dim sums to make up for all the jellied, pickled, cold stuff I ate growing up.

And while my boyfriend has had his share of dim sum before, he’s never had it proper in Miami, where old ladies push their carts around hawking their food to the people seated. To be honest, eating at Tropical Chinese in Miami is just like eating dim sum in SoCal or Daly City or New York, except for two major differences: no one comes in for dim sum until after noon (the excuse: “Latinos eat late. They’ll all show up at 2, just watch.”) And everyone speaks passable English, because seriously, not a lot of Asians in Miami compared to California or New York. (On one of the walls at Tropical Chinese: a signed head shot of some telenovela star unknown to me, salutations written in Spanish. I secretly hoped she addressed the photos to Los Chinos, but alas, no.) But even though everyone in the restaurant speaks workable English, it doesn’t stop me from talking in Mandarin: partly to show respect, partly to show my boyfriend how linguistically gangsta I am.

And thus, my downfall. (Mandarin is in italics.)

Me: I’ll have a zongzi.
Old Cart Lady: What?
Me: You know. That. *points to rice wrapped in leaves*
Old Cart Lady: That’s nuo mi ji. Zhong zi is only eaten during holidays. YOU ORDER WRONG THING!
BF: Nice.
Me: Thanks.

Old Cart Lady: (comes back later) You enjoying your “zongzi?” Ha ha ha!
BF: If you’d like, I can talk to her in Spanish.
Me: No.

And thus, this is why I am a bad Asian: if I go to dim sum with a bunch of my friends — and god help me if I’m the only Asian guy at the table — I’m the caller, I’m the one pointing to dishes and barking to Mandarin, never mind that 90 percent of the dim sum places out in the Bay Area actually speak Cantonese, that I’d be better of asking them in English if there’s pork or chicken inside those dumplings. But I nod and smile and recommend dishes and basically just fake that shit, because really, as the Lone Asian at the Table(tm), this is my duty.

But that’s me. How about you?

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(Flickr photo credit: Robert Banh)

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About Ernie

I'm the creator of 8 Asians and one of the editors. While I'm a regular blogger to the site as well, think of my role as Barbara Walters on "The View," except without the weird white hair. During the day, I'm a Developer for a major Internet company and live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've also been writing in my blog,, for seven years.
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