“Dealing with someone else’s culture, someone else’s media, and trying to Americanize it is something I can’t understand.”
San Francisco Chronicle
This could be me
ChronicleThe New York Times
The more I think about this, the more it makes sense to me. Ho’s point about assimilation food is that immigrants had to translate their food for a local audience, and even when they did it was confusing for Westerners—just as when a Japanese gaming company relied on a white, Western translator and wound up losing the meaning of the original story and dialogue. When Square started bringing their famed Final Fantasy games to the US in the ’80s and ’90s, they too relied on stateside translators to make the games make sense for Western audiences. But depending on who was handling the localization, it could go horrifically awry, such as one game proclaiming, “A Winner is You!” or butchering the names and genders of original characters.
“Dealing with someone else’s culture, someone else’s media, and trying to Americanize it is something that I can’t understand,” Ho says with a sigh. “The impulse to Americanize media from abroad is something I don’t quite understand.”
I ask her to talk more about assimilation food, and how it differs from “fusion” food. Do these terms lose some meaning—much like the word “authentic” has—the more we learn about the foods of other cultures?
“A lot of fusion—we can talk about bad fusion—is using Eurocentric techniques to ‘elevate’ food from outside of Europe and the US. We use that word, and it’s less of a fusion of equals, like in Dragon Ball Z, and more of a blob. The blob doesn’t respect who you are; it just consumes. Maybe you see your face in the blob, but it’s not really you.”
“A lot of [bad] fusion . . . is using Eurocentric techniques to ‘elevate’ food from outside of Europe and the US.” —Soleil Ho
I wonder about the “blob” a lot; about Lucky Cricket, Gordon Ramsay’s Lucky Cat, and that “clean” Chinese restaurant run by white people in New York called Lucky Lee’s (which Ho’s friend texted her about, incredibly, just as the two of us were discussing it). But I can see why Ho is weary of having the same damn conversation over and over again—sometimes it seems like only those of us who know the translation is off truly care, and those consuming the translated products either don’t know or don’t care to.
I ask Ho to think about herself a bit. Given our conversation about how things translate, I’m wondering how she sees her own identity these days. “The basic answer is that I’m the child of Vietnamese refugees,” she says. “Even though I identify as a New Yorker, I’m not. I wasn’t born there. I lived there for ten years as a child, and it was very formative. But, you know, I moved around so much I don’t have a real affinity or sense of home anywhere.”
As she says this, I notice there’s little emotion attached to it; it’s just a fact. For her, to live means to always move: “By the time I went to college, I’d moved with my family twenty-something times. So the lack of an anchor is my identity. The ability to land on my feet and take quick stock of a space and know where the exits are, know where my enemies are—that’s a product of the way I was brought up: an eye to the door, just in case. So much of my life as an adult has been precarious. Moving around so much, you don’t get attached.”
Part of me really wants Soleil Ho to get attached to the Bay Area, to the things she’s found here that she likes: the mom-and-pop places in less-visited cities like San Leandro or Hayward; the robot that makes burgers on Market Street; the maddening pleasures of waiting in line for fresh seafood at Swan’s Oyster Depot.
But I also know the subtler frustrations of San Francisco’s dining scene, and Ho and I share one specific complaint: the lack of really, truly good Korean and Vietnamese food, at least with the depth and breadth we long for. One of the reasons I live in Oakland is that it’s the only place north of Santa Clara that has good Korean food in the Bay Area. San Jose has excellent Vietnamese food, but it’s far away. This is not a knock on the local families that sell their wares here, but the audience for the good stuff maybe isn’t here, the localization too fine-tuned for a Western audience.
Sometimes it seems like only those of us who know the translation is off truly care.
Just as Ho tells me she hasn’t found good Vietnamese food here yet, our waiter, who looks like a fully white version of John Wick Keanu Reeves, butts into our conversation, regaling us with a tale of what he thinks is the best banh mi in San Francisco. It’s sold, he tells us, at a little mom-and-pop shop in the Richmond District. His go-to is? The falafel and avocado banh mi. Localization.
Ho doesn't flinch—on the contrary, she is, I think, genuinely interested. She takes down the name of the place. John Wick Keanu Reeves is pleased.
Noah Cho teaches middle-school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared on NPR's CodeSwitch, Shondaland, The Atlantic, and The Toast. He spends most of his free time going on hikes with and taking photos of his doggo, Porkchop.