Bangladesh food

Exploring the heritage of the AAPI community through food

“Tell me a story I don’t know/Tell me about those hometown tastes,” isn’t just a lyric from the theme song punk rock girl band The Linda Lindas wrote for Exit, a new HBO Max docuseries hosted by journalist Lisa Ling that examines the diverse cuisine of the Asian-American diaspora – it’s both a pressing request and a call to action for storytelling that will satisfy palates not only Asian Americans, but anyone struggling with questions of identity.

Ling, the daughter of Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants, knows a thing or two about such stories. Not only did she tell them the lion’s share of her career, from hosting concerts on National Geographic and CNN to stints on View and The Oprah Winfrey Show, they are also his lived experience. In Exit, By far one of his most intimate reporting projects, Ling travels across the United States, learning stories about previously unknown Asian Americans, many with food as his fulcrum.

His insatiable quest for knowledge takes him from New Orleans, where the men of Manila, as they were once known, established a bustling colony on the waters of what centuries later would become Louisiana; to the town of Locke, California, an enclave built entirely by and for Chinese immigrants; in Sacramento, where she tells her own family’s personal story of financial struggle and seeking security by owning and operating a restaurant as a last resort.

By telephone, talks with Ling about her favorite dishes from the shoot, coming to terms with the shame she felt around her identity growing up and the unifying power of food.

Exit is an exploration not only of food, but also of how the Asian-American diaspora comes together and creates community despite difficult and often unfair circumstances. Tell me more about the design of the show. How did it happen?

It definitely changed from inception to execution. When the pandemic started, I was actually supposed to do another show for HBO Max called Birth, marriage, funeral, which was going to be this kind of global look at these rituals around the world, but then COVID-19 hit and I couldn’t travel anymore. HBO Max then asked us to submit a number of other ideas, and my team and I probably submitted about eight ideas, Exit being one of them. But quite honestly, it was one that I didn’t think they were going to greenlight, because I’ve pitched shows and projects about Asian America before and no one has. I’ve been with this company for over 30 years and have reported virtually no stories involving Asians or Asian Americans.

While I thought that was a cute idea, because Chinese restaurants have become so ubiquitous, I just didn’t think a mainstream outlet would accept it, and to my shock and surprise, they did lit green at the start of the pandemic before so much Asian hatred escalated. Initially, this was just an overview of Chinese restaurants. But we wanted to expand it to different Asian restaurants and Asian-American stories that have been buried, or just unknown.

We hired this amazing showrunner who came from the Anthony Bourdain show named Helen Cho who is Korean American, and she brought in an almost all-Asian American crew. Frankly, it was the most number of Asian Americans we’ve ever worked with, and I think the reason the show feels very authentic and it’s not corny is because that it is actually told by Asian Americans who had a vision for how they wanted to tell the stories of their communities.

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A recurring theme in Exit, and in some of your other work, it’s shame that can surround certain aspects of identity. You talk about feeling embarrassed by the smell of your house and hyperaware of smelling “Chinese food”. What did unlearning this shame look like to you?

I think because Asian-American history isn’t taught at all in American schools, and Asians have never played prominent roles in the media, we – and they – have always been characters peripheral devices. We haven’t had too much of a role in politics, although that is changing. For me, learning about these aspects of Asian-American history and really learning about my own Chinese-American roots – even in my hometown – made me feel a kind of pride that I had never felt before. And the shame of being ashamed.

Food is this incredible tool for learning the varied stories of people whose stories have been buried for so much of this country’s existence.

This series is deeply personal, perhaps more so than many of your works in the past. Was it a conscious decision to include so much of your family history on the show? Did you have any reservations about this?

I felt like this needed to be included because my family history parallels the story of so many Asian immigrants who came to this country with skills but couldn’t find work in the professional world. . I mean, my grandfather had an MBA from an American university, but couldn’t get hired in finance because he was Chinese.

Despite the discrimination and scapegoating that so many in the Asian-American community have faced over generations, food has managed to transcend those hardships and struggles. I find it amazing that Chinese food is as ubiquitous if not more ubiquitous than McDonald’s. These days, you can find any kind of Asian food you like, and it can even be delivered to your doorstep. Very often it is these origin stories in these restaurants that reflect resilience, struggle and sacrifice. In many ways, food is this incredible tool for learning the varied stories of people whose stories have been buried for so much of this country’s existence.

table full of chinese dishes

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Unlearning generational ideas and figuring out what remains of the family legacy is also a major theme of the series. You were candid about your grandmother’s insistence that you don’t cook, because for her, an educated woman, who came to this country with so many skills, to cook and run a restaurant is not was not so much a choice as a last resort. As a mother now, was there anything that you consciously or unconsciously didn’t want to pass on to your children? Or, in turn, really does?

Well, because I grew up in an undiverse community, I always told myself that if I ever had kids, I want them to be exposed to diversity and other Asian Americans. They are so proud of their ethnic background and they love Asian food. In fact, my kids had noodles with a fried egg in their lunch box today, and believe me, they’d have kimchi if I let it – it would stink their whole class. It’s really come full circle because I wouldn’t have been caught dead delivering Chinese food to school. That would have been all the more reason for the children to tease me.

In Exit, we meet so many interesting characters across the country, from a burlesque dancer in New Orleans to musician and author Michelle Zauner, who performs as Japanese Breakfast. Tell me about the research process for this show. What goes into the decision of who to present and how much?

It was really a collaborative effort, and I think one of the reasons it was so important to have Asian American directors for all the episodes is that they had their own unique take on how they wanted tell the story of their community. I think that’s one of the reasons the show feels authentic is because we’re telling our own stories, and in some ways that experience was a wake-up call for a lot of us that the Asian-American community is its own kind of distinctive community.

So many of us have felt so many conflicts about identity growing up. I never felt totally American because I didn’t look like the stereotypical image of what an American was supposed to look like. But I also didn’t know anything about what it was like to be from China. In many ways, we had more in common with each other than with the Chinese, the Philippines or Cambodia, didn’t we? Because this Asian-American experience is a unique experience in itself.

lisa ling sitting at filipino kamayan dinner

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It might be difficult, but did you have a favorite dish while filming the show?

One of my favorite dishes I had last week was the caramelized pork from BéÙ, Silver Lake’s Vietnamese cafe. Because I’m in California, I had easy access to it, but I also fantasized about the fish I had at Korai Kitchen, the Jersey City Bangladeshi restaurant in Journal Square.

Without giving too much away, in the last episode you spend some time in a karaoke bar. What’s your favorite karaoke song?

Of course, I love “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I’m kind of a duo, and this one is my favorite. One day, if ever we are in the same place, my husband and I do a very good interpretation.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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