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An Asian in Durham: on celebrating togetherness

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With the surge of Asian hate crimes this spring, my parents were particularly distressed about their daughter being all alone in another continent. While I am thankful that my college community has been nothing but inclusive and welcoming to me, I began to develop a newfound sense of caution whenever I walked the cobbled streets of Durham.

It’s a tough time to be of Asian descent, but it also constitutes the perfect opportunity to celebrate and remember what it means to be so. In particular, as Durham is a predominantly Caucasian community, I found that my heritage lacked sufficient representation. I was grateful that my college made an effort to celebrate the Lunar New Year, and the flamboyant decorations solaced my slightly homesick self.

Being Asian is something I am incredibly proud of and I channel that in every word I write

Red packets are traditionally given to unmarried individuals by their elders, and my Lunar New Years have always been a routine of reciting a series of customary greetings and receiving these monetary joys left and right. This year in college, everyone was free to take a red packet from the reception, evading the original purpose of the activity. The essence of togetherness and vivacity had been filtered out, leaving only the shell of the festival (my dissatisfaction was definitely not due to the fact that they ran out of red packets before I got one).

To compensate, I scoured for ingredients and made a sticky rice cake and a turnip cake with my partner- two of the many staple dishes of the festival. These were blissfully devoured at our reunion dinner (團年飯) as a flat on Lunar New Year’s Eve. The dinner was modest, but our kinship encapsulated the spirit of the festival to greater depths than a mere lantern display.

Speaking of food, this has been my main means of connecting with my Asian roots during my time in Durham. Coming from Hong Kong, I have developed an adventurous palate, delving into all sorts of flavours and cuisines. As a city known for its diverse range of quality food options, Hong Kong gave me an opportunity to experience the world’s delicacies at my fingertips.

Durham has great cafes, but there is so much left to be desired. Over the months, I have made lots of Asian food with my partner: char siu (叉燒), a Hong Kong-style roasted pork dish that goes perfect with rice and a sunny-side-up; Korean fried chicken glazed with homemade sweet and spicy sauce; chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し), a Japanese steamed egg dish fused with dashi which makes it incredibly mouth-watering and gỏi cuốn, Vietnamese spring rolls with a refreshing tinge of mint and coriander, just to name a few.

As Durham is a predominantly Caucasian community, I found that my heritage lacked sufficient representation

While there are a couple of Asian restaurants in the area, most of them oscillate between two extremes of revolting blandness and an intense concoction of chilli oil, soy sauce, and other condiments. It is safe to say that as lockdown ends, I’ll revert to self-catering whenever I get bored of burgers or pizzas.

Though, whenever I was lazy, I always had hotpots with other Hongkongers in Durham. The Asian hotpot is when everyone gathers around a heated pot with a boiling soup base and cooks ingredients as they eat, sort of like a “pay-as-you-go” but with food. The joy of it lies in its convenience, and perhaps occasionally the unearned triumph of scooping up someone else’s fishball before they noticed. The notion of everyone huddled around the warmth of the stove, chattering away as their food dances in the effervescence of the same boiling soup provided me a feeling of home, comfort, and safety.

After these meals, we would sometimes play mahjong, a classic tile-based game that originated from China. It is, of course, prime entertainment, though a huge part of why the cacophonous sound of the ivory tiles clashing against each other is music to our ears is the nostalgia, the collective memories of seeing relatives play at family gatherings or even from classic scenes on the big screen.

I could go on about my silly Asian habits; like how I have a separate pair of slippers for my room and the communal kitchen, or how I use chopsticks to eat pizza. For now, I feel comfortable in my skin, and I hope this goes out to everyone else regardless of race. Being Asian is something I am incredibly proud of and I channel that in every word I write. If you are an Asian in Durham, celebrate your culture and honour your heritage – shape Durham into the home you want it to be.

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