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Stinky Tofu

By Shannon Lin

And now in our commentary series. Shannon Lin tells us how growing up she juggled two different worlds: one in America and one in Taiwan.

LIN: If you’ve seen the movie Ratatouille, there’s a scene when the food critic takes a bite of the titular dish and it’s so good that he is transported back to his childhood.

For me, that dish is stinky tofu.

And it’s exactly what it sounds like.

Tofu is bean curd. It’s fermented until it’s basically rotten.

Then it’s either served cold – steamed – stewed,

or my personal favorite: dropped into piping hot vats of golden brown oil until it’s deep fried to crispy perfection.

It smells like gym socks –  but I promise you – it’s delicious.

((Sound: Street Market Ambi))

I remember as a kid nearly every vacation going to Taiwan. I loved the night markets –  packed full of food vendors.

My sweaty legs sticking to the plastic red chair that stood outside every cart.

Every exposed part of my body covered in pink welts thanks to mosquitos, the spawn of Satan himself.

I would wait in anticipation as the old man running the stall plunged his bare hands into the orange buckets filled with brine and pull out the prized white blocks.

He’d chop them in half, then quarters. ((Sound: Chopping))

Then, it was into the oil for 5 minutes before it was fished out and served with soy sauce, chili, and pickled cabbage. ((Sound: Frying))

“Wow,” the vendor would say, “An American kid eating stinky tofu like that…you’re very Taiwanese.”

I hated hearing that.

Growing up in America to Taiwanese parents, I split my cultural identity into two.

At home I was Asian. I spoke Mandarin.  I used chopsticks. I took off my shoes before entering the house.

Everywhere else, I was All American.

I loved hamburgers. The Star Spangled Banner was my favorite song. I cried when we visited Paul Revere’s grave in Boston.

As I got older, I started feeling embarrassed about being Asian. That was my parent’s culture. And they were old and kind of fuddy-duddy. I wanted to be cool.  

So I skipped Friday-night Chinese School for dances. I talked back to my parents in English. I started packing my own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of taking smelly leftover Chinese food.

And I started skipping vacations to Taiwan and the night markets.

I stopped visiting the old man and his tofu.

When I graduated from high school, my parents sent me back to Taiwan for the summer.

“Visit family and reconnect with your roots,” they told me. I had never traveled alone before. This was 14 hour flight.

When I got off the plane, I had to figure out how to buy a train ticket.

All the signs were in Chinese characters. And I realized, I knew what they meant.

Later that night, I went to the night market alone. I walked past the familiar metal carts. For the first time, I was seeing Taiwan with my own eyes. Not through the eyes of my parents.

I always felt that my Taiwanese heritage was forced on me by my parents. So I forced myself to embrace America instead.

I ended up feeling  like a foreigner pretending to be a native everywhere I went. A Taiwanese in America. An American in Taiwan.

I’m not sure why I thought I had choose between the two.

I’m my own mixed bag. I use forks now over chopsticks. And I eat pasta instead of rice. But instead of tomato sauce, I reach for my mom’s homemade chili paste.   

That first evening alone in Taiwan’s night market, I walked straight past stands selling steamed pork buns, fried chicken cutlets, and mango shaved ice.

I knew what I was looking for.

The old man was gone but at least the tofu was as stinky as I remember.

Outro: Shannon Lin is going to be moving to DC where she’s on a mission to find the best stinky tofu in the city.

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