Do you drink a Guinness on St. Patrick's Day, even though you're not Irish? Do you eat chips and salsa on Cinco de Mayo, even though you're not Mexican? Here at Sporkful HQ, we sure do. When one culture's holiday becomes everyone's excuse to party, what's gained and what's lost? And how does it feel when it's your holiday? A few years back Dan found out, when he went to a Chinese New Year party with no Chinese people, then attended a “Gentile Passover” seder, where he was the only Jewish person. Plus he talked with comedian Jenny Yang, who went to a Lunar New Year celebration at Disneyland. We replay those conversations, then check back in with the hosts of “Gentile Passover” for a surprising update.
Interstitial music in this episode from Black Label Music:
- "Hang Tight" by Hayley Briasco
- "Mouse Song" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Dreamin'" by Erick Anderson
- "When You're Away" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
Photo via FlickrCC/HarshLight
Dan Pashman: A few years back I went with my family to a party at our neighbors, Sara and Ron. The get together was inspired by their son, Henry.
Dan Pashman: All right, Henry? Henry, tell me what kind of party we're having, right now.
Henry: We're having a Chinese party. And I went to Shen Yen and it's Lincoln center.
Dan Pashman: You went Shen Yen at Lincoln Center?
Dan Pashman: What did you think of it?
Henry: It was awesome. I can't believe it. I love the sound of the Chinese instruments.
Ron: He's been particularly fascinated the past couple of years with Chinese culture. And he wanted to see the show Shen Yun, which is Chinese cultural dance and traditional dance. So we actually went to see it.
Dan Pashman: This is Henry’s dad, Ron.
Ron: That has inspired us to continue what is now the second annual celebration of Chinese New Year. And it's a learning process for us. You know, we're enjoying learning about Chinese culture, as well, as we're having fun.
Dan Pashman: Quick bit of terminology, the overall holiday is called Lunar New Year. That's celebrated across much of east Asia. Chinese New Year is the Chinese celebration of Lunar New Year.
Dan Pashman: This was a Chinese New Year party, so on the table they had all the American Chinese take out classics; dumplings, fried rice, egg rolls. And some additional choices that are not at all Chinese; chips and guac, sushi. I went to Chinatown to get little red envelopes to give money to the kids. That’s one of the Chinese New Year tradition that I knew about. But there’s one component this party didn’t have–Chinese people. Here’s my friend and neighbor Katherine.
Katherine: I am half Puerto Rican and half German.
Dan Pashman: And is this your first Chinese New Year Party?
Dan Pashman: What other Chinese New Year's parties have you been to?
Katherine: My Dad studied at Queen's College and one of his professors was somebody who write Chinese cookbooks. So he learned how to cook Chinese food and every year we had a Chinese New Year party in my house.
Dan Pashman: Really?
Dan Pashman: So you grew up doing this?
Dan Pashman: So at these Chinese New Year parties that you had growing up, were there other Chinese people there?
Katherine: No. Just us, non-Chinese people.
Dan Pashman: So your dad cooked some Chinese food that he learned from his colleague, who was Chinese and a chef.
Katherine: Yes. Yes.
Dan Pashman: What were the other parts of the festivities?
Katherine: We had the red envelopes but other than that, nothing really.
Dan Pashman: I was at this party with my family, so I had to check in with my daughter Becky.
Becky Pashman: Becky Pashman, I'm five-years-old.
Dan Pashman: Very good. And do you know what we're here celebrating today at this party?
Becky Pashman: Chinese New Year.
Dan Pashman: What do you know about Chinese New Year?
Becky Pashman: I don't know anything about Chinese New Year.
Dan Pashman: Well, what kinds of foods do you think you eat at Chinese New Year?
Becky Pashman: Chinese food?
Dan Pashman: That—you're exactly right.
Becky Pashman: Aren't we eating Chinese food here?
Dan Pashman: We are. There's some fried rice. There's some dumplings. But there's also other kinds of food. There's also sushi.
Becky Pashman: I have some sushi on my plate.
Dan Pashman: Sushi is Japanese.
Becky Pashman: Right. I'm gonna try the dumplings when I'm done cause I never had them before but they seem familiar to me.
Dan Pashman: OK. Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Becky Pashman: It's fun...
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Becky Pashman: Including, doing this! [blows a raspberry]
Dan Pashman: Oh, boy. OK....
Vinnie: My name is Vinnie. I grew up in Rockville Center here in Long Island. And I am of Italian descent.
Dan Pashman: Is this your first Chinese New Year Party?
Vinnie: Well, no. This is my second Chinese New Year because I came to this house last year.
Dan Pashman: OK. OK.
Vinnie: So it's the same Chinese New Year party, with the same delicious dumplings.
Person: Every Chinese person that I've met, they're always like, "Yeah, this is American Chinese. This is not real....
Vinnie: Well, it's like Italian. It's like, you know, the Olive Garden is not Italian food. [LAUGHS] Sorry.
Dan Pashman: Right. But so the fact that the Olive Garden exists in America, for you, as an Italian American...
Vinnie: Makes me nauseous. And my wife likes to eat there, which makes me more nauseous but she's from Tennessee, so I give her the, you know, whatever.
Dan Pashman: I guess, sort of, where I'm getting at that like as any food assimilates, it ends up typically getting sort of watered down.
Dan Pashman: Like, I'm Jewish. Like, I look at bagels. Like most bagels in America, even in New York, are pretty crappy. Part of me is bummed out by that, but part of me also feels like, well, that's assimilation.
Dan Pashman: And I'm still sort of proud that like my ancestors came here and brought a food that crossed over to the mainstream and became accepted. Is the fact that we are a bunch of white and Latino people celebrating Chinese New Year, here today, are we paying homage to a culture that we have respect for? Or are we kind of like bastardizing a culture that we don't totally understand?
Vinnie: Oh, it's totally just an excuse to get together and hang out and have a few drinks and have fun with out kids. Come on? I wouldn't say it's bastardizing the holiday but I...you know, if we're honest there, if Sarah didn't say, "Hey, we're doing we're doing dumplings." I wouldn't even know it's Chinese New Year, to be honest. Like I wouldn't think about it.
Dan Pashman: Long after that party ended, it stayed on my mind. I mean, in America, a lot of us celebrate other people’s holidays, right? I mean, do you drink a Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day, even though you’re not Irish? Eat some chips and salsa on Cinco de Mayo, even though you’re not Mexican? I do. And it looks like Lunar New Year is on the same track. And I don’t just say that because my neighbors are throwing a party. In recent years, I’ve seen Lunar New Year messages on Disney Channel, signs in the mall, and yes, since that taping you heard, my daughter Becky had a lesson about it in school. We didn’t have any of that when I was growing up in the mostly white suburbs.
Dan Pashman: So today on The Sporkful, we’re asking: when one culture’s holiday becomes everyone’s holiday, what’s gained and what’s lost? And how does it feel when it’s your holiday? I’ll find out, when I attend a Passover seder where I’m the only Jewish person.
Dan Pashman: And you're gonna read from Exodus, tonight?
Tiffany Wang: Well, we don't have a Haggadah? But we know the Passover story, because we grew up in a Christian household. Yeah, so we're gonna read from Exodus tonight.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Lunar New Year is next week, and St. Patrick’s Day, Passover, and Cinco de Mayo will follow in the months after. So this week, we have an episode that touches on all these holidays. It first ran three years ago. We’re sharing it again now with a surprising new update. That’s at the end. But first...
Dan Pashman: St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco De Mayo have a lot in common. Both are minor holidays in their home countries. By the way, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican independence day, it commemorates the Battle of Puebla. Both Cinco and St. Patrick’s Day became big in the U.S. when they were embraced by activists here, as a way to celebrate immigrant cultures that were being targeted by prejudice. And both have gotten marketing help from big beer companies, who saw the potential for profit.
Dan Pashman: Last year before St. Patrick’s Day we did a show where I went out to lunch with Maeve Higgins, she’s an Irish comedian who moved to the U.S. and became a citizen a few years ago. And she told me something about New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade that really stuck with me.
CLIP (MAEVE HIGGINS): The ancient art of Hibernians, who are like the old men who run the parades? I was reading about how they started. And they started because Catholic churches would be burnt down by nativists in like the 1830s.
Dan Pashman: To be clear, those Irish Catholic churches were being burned in America. Back the, there was a belief that the Irish were dirty, diseased, that they were criminals. And, of course, that they were drunks.
CLIP (MAEVE: HIGGINS): The biggest Irish American event that happens is St. Patrick’s Day. And that's just so associated with, you know, drunkenness and like, white people falling over on the street and stuff. And that's not what I think Ireland is, at all.
Dan Pashman: So on St. Patrick’s Day, while a lot of us are out drinking, Maeve goes to subway stops and gives out books by Irish authors. I wondered what it feels like to see your culture celebrated by people who don’t know much about it.
Dan Pashman: I love that podium. What's this podium for?
Tiffany Wang: We're just gonna read from Exodus tonight.
Dan Pashman: What, you just own a podium?
Tiffany Wang: She just owns a podium, my sister. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And you're gonna read from Exodus tonight?
Tiffany Wang: Well, we don't have a Haggadah? So...but we know the Passover story, cause we grew up in a Christian household.
Dan Pashman: OK.
Tiffany Wang: So we're gonna read from Exodus, which has a crossover to the Talmud.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, big time.
Tiffany Wang: Right?
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Tiffany Wang: So, yeah. We're gonna read from Exodus tonight.
Dan Pashman: This is Tiffany Wang, she’s a Sporkful listener, and a year ago she invited me to this annual event that she and her sister, Charlene Wang de Chen, throw. It’s called Gentile Passover and I was the only Jewish person there.
Dan Pashman: Tiffany and Charlene are Chinese-American. They were raised southern Baptist. So they know the Passover story of Moses freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt. But they know it from the Bible. I know it from the Haggadah, which is the book Jewish people use to tell that story and to walk us through the rituals of a Passover seder.
Dan Pashman: Charlene got the idea for hosting her own seder almost a decade ago, when she was living in Beijing.
Charlene Wang De Chen: That morning, I woke I up. I read the news in The New York Times, that President Obama was hosting a Passover at the White House. And somehow that opened a space in my mind, where I think, hmm, I guess, anyone can celebrate Passover. Why don't we celebrate Passover, today?
Dan Pashman: Charlene started doing research online. Then she texted a bunch of friends, who also weren’t Jewish, and said, "Passover seder at my house tonight!", which, if you know the way she and Tiffany were raised, isn’t surprising. Growing up, their mom mostly cooked Chinese food.
Charlene Wang De Chen: I would say, it's like 80% Chinese. But every St. Patrick's Day, she made corned beef, potato, and cabbage. So we just assumed it was because she used to teach in Boston Public Schools. But then last night, I called her to just be like, so, you know, where did you get this idea to do this? Like, why do you think? And she's like, "It's cause your grandfather, he worked as a cook in the Somerset Hotel in Boston," which has a western restaurant. So we learned to cook all these western dishes. She's like, "Yeah, he was a really good cook. He was really good at Chinese food and western food. And he would make corned beef at home and I really liked it. She's like, "That's why I made it." I was like, "What?!", cause we just—I just never knew that until last night.
Charlene Wang De Chen: And then, I was like, "So then why did you do it for St. Patrick's Day?". She's like, "Oh, I thought it's good for you to learn about other cultures." I would say the funnest thing about being an adult is that you get to create your own high holidays. You get to decide which holidays are important to you and your family. And I would say in our own family, we decided our high holidays are Chinese New Year, Pi Day, Gentile Passover—Mardi Gras, we started, Mardi Gras. We love eating, duh. And then we just love learning more about cultures through their food traditions, cause that's, obviously, the funnest way to learn about it.
Dan Pashman: It is fun, but it can also be challenging. I mean, a seder includes a lot of symbolic foods; salt water for tears, bitter herbs for the bitterness of slavery. It’s really the feel good holiday of the year, as you can tell. And of course matzoh, which is basically a cracker, unleavened bread, because we were fleeing the Egyptians and didn’t have time for our bread to rise. Charlene had to track all that stuff down in Beijing. Fortunately, there are a lot of bitter vegetables in Chinese cooking. So that part was easy. She used a chicken bone instead of the lamb bone, meant to symbolize the paschal lamb. She made some calls and got a hold of a box of matzoh. Charlene made macaroons from scratch, matzoh ball soup and more. The first Gentile Passover was a huge success.
Charlene Wang De Chen: I mean, it was just the fact that everyone was so down for it, on an occasion none of them traditionally celebrate, which I thought was awesome. So everyone's was kind of bringing this openness.
Dan Pashman: Now, it’s become an annual tradition. Coming up, I take part in my first Gentile Passover, and I’ll talk about how it feels to see other people celebrating my holiday. Then later in the show, comedian Jenny Yang talks about celebrating Lunar New Year at Disneyland.
CLIP (JENNY YANG): I looked around and there was like no other Asians and I'm like, "The moment we walk through these gates, we're about to make this authentic." OK, so let's do this.
Dan Pashman: Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Public discussions of eating disorders tend to focus on women. But in last week’s show we hear from three men, all at different points in their lives, all struggling in some way with disordered eating.
CLIP (ARNOLD ATIENZA): Mashed potatoes and gravy and turkey and three kinds of pie and—man, I just, you know, I went to town. And knowing that I could, you know, throw it all back up later...
CLIP (GALEN MUSKAT): People had told me, my parents, oh, you're doing damage to your body. And I didn't—never believed them.
CLIP (JACK GILLIES): It was really an obsession. It was looking at the scale and it was a little bit down and I was like—I was like giddy. It was almost addictive.
Dan Pashman: We’ve already heard from so many of you who said you were really affected by this show, if you haven’t listened yet I hope you’ll check it out, it’s up now. Now, back to Gentile Passover.
Dan Pashman: As I said, my main hosts for the evening were Charlene and Tiffany. We were also joined by Charlene’s husband Tony and Tiffany’s fiance, Tushan. (They’re married now. Congrats guys!) Also there, were their friends Tim and Anne. We began with some drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the kitchen. Tushan told me they had a special drink prepared…
Tuschan: Dan, can I please offer you a Manischewitz cocktail?
Dan Pashman: Manischewitz is a the traditional Jewish wine that is the best wine, because it is loaded with sugar.
Dan Pashman: A Manischewitz cocktail?
Dan Pashman: What's in it?
Tuschan: So we got Campari...
Dan Pashman: I mean, yes. Look...
Tuschan: The first answer is, yes.
Dan Pashman: Yes, but go on and tell me what's in it.
Tuschan: So it's Campari, Manischewitz wine, and some sparkling—was it just white wine or...
Tiffany Wang: Sparkling wine.
Tuschan: Yeah. And...
Tiffany Wang: And an orange.
Tuschan: An accent of of orange, an orange peel, and good balance there.
Dan Pashman: The cocktail was very nicely balanced, the bitterness of the Campari went very well with the Manischewitz. While we chatted, I tried to politely inquire about the menu.
Dan Pashman: I mean, to me, like the one food that I associate with entree-wise for Passover is brisket. But I'm not like the biggest brisket fan, in general.
Charlene Wang De Chen: So that's the same with us. We had a whole brisket, no brisket. We went out to eat to discuss our meal.
Dan Pashman: Nice. Nice, I impress that. Good. I'm impressed. Yes, good.
Tiffany Wang: Yeah.
Charlene Wang De Chen: And we were like, brisket, no brisket. We talked about it a lot because it feels like everyone on the internet thinks, like, briskets' essential but we don't really like brisket that much. So we did a compromise, where we did a Charoset marinaded short rib.
Dan Pashman: Oh, yes.
Tiffany Wang: A Charoset braised short rib.
Charlene Wang De Chen: Sorry, sorry, sorry. Braised.
Dan Pashman: Charoset, being the sort of the chopped apples, etc., dish that goes in the seder plate.
Charlene Wang De Chen: Yes.
Dan Pashman: That symbolizes...
Charlene Wang De Chen: The Mordor...
Dan Pashman: Mordor, thank you.
Charlene Wang De Chen: Oh, my God, Dan!
Dan Pashman: I've very excited to hear that you guys went short rib over brisket, because I've been trying to start a movement...
Charlene Wang De Chen: Oh, really?
Dan Pashman: To replace Passover brisket with Passover short ribs.
Charlene Wang De Chen and Tiffany Wang: Oh, my God! Dan!
Tiffany Wang: We're a part of this. All that to say, this is the perfect meal then to start the movement.
Dan Pashman: That's right. That's right.
Dan Pashman: Tiffany walked me through the rest of the menu.
Tiffany Wang: A salad of bitter greens; endive, radicchio, and arugula. We have asparagus. We have spinach and matzoh lasagna. Horse radish potato gratin.
Dan Pashman: Oh, interesting.
Tiffany Wang: And…
Dan Pashman: There was also rugelach, a traditional jewish pastry, and cannolis. Those last two did make me cringe just a little bit. I mean, most Jewish people would not serve those on Passover because they qualify as leavened bread products, according to the rabbis. Tiffany and Charlene did know that but they said, "Hey, rugelach and cannolis are delicious." And I can’t argue with that.
Dan Pashman: The light is on.
Charlene Wang De Chen: I just dramatically turned the light to our lectern.
Dan Pashman: And I just want to explain, that we have beautiful table set here with seven seats. And then off to the corner is an actual podium, a beautiful wood carved podium.
Charlene Wang De Chen: I will say that usual purpose is a standing desk.
Dan Pashman: OK.
Charlene Wang De Chen: I guess, since I'm standing here, I'm gonna go first....Now, the lord has to said to Moses, "I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and Egypt...."
Dan Pashman: All the food in the kitchen looked amazing, but a Passover seder doesn’t begin with the meal. First, you go through the rituals, which includes recounting the story of the Jews in Egypt.
Charlene Wang De Chen: So Moses said, "This is what the lord says, 'About midnight, I will go throughout Egypt...'"
Dan Pashman: Charlene began reading from the Bible, Exodus, of course. And Gentile Passover was underway. As is the custom in a seder, we took turns reading parts of the story.
Tuschan: "...The day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery..."
Person 2: "...For God said, 'If they face war, they might change their minds, and return...'"
Person 3 "...Eat nothing containing yeast.."
Tony: "...And oh, that night, the lord drove the sea back with strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The water was divided..."
Tiffany Wang: "...And they camped there near the water." The end.
Dan Pashman: At that point, it was time to eat. Charlene and Tiffany decided not to do any of the other Passover rituals, things like dipping parsley in salt water or putting bitter herbs on matzoh.
Charlene Wang De Chen: So do you want to go first, Dan?
Dan Pashman: No, you guys start. You guys start...
Dan Pashman: The matzoh ball soup was very impressive. I loved that they used schmaltz in it. Schmaltz is rendered chicken fat, it’s super old school. The short ribs were excellent, sweet and tender. And I, hereby, renew my call for short ribs over brisket at Passover. Look online, there's a million recipes. Pick one.
Tuschan: So Tiffany and Charlene, thank you very much for...
Charlene Wang De Chen: And Moses...
Tuschan: And Dan, welcome to joining this with us.
Dan Pashman: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
[DINING BACKGROUND SOUNDS]
Dan Pashman: I'm sitting at this table, a Gentile Passover, and a lot of thoughts going through my head. First of all, the haggadah we use in my family was written by my wife, Janie, and it's fantastic. But the part of it that I know best, is page 21, because page 21 is where it says, "Dinner is served." So From the moment we open that book, I'm just like, please, God, get me to page 21. Right? But at Gentile Passover, I found myself feeling disappointed that we skipped so many of the rituals. And so, I guess, I realized that those rituals have more meaning for me than I thought.
Dan Pashman: Beyond that, I have to say, that there was just part of it that made me feel a little uncomfortable and I think it's cause like, you know, when you watch the Super Bowl, you know that just about everyone else is doing the same thing you’re doing it at the exact same time. When you grow up celebrating Passover in America, you know that you're one of the only people doing this at that exact time. So you know it's something that makes you different and that becomes part of your identity. So when other people just start, out of the blue, doing it? It's a little unsettling. And I guess, that realization made me think a little bit more about how it maybe comes across when I am especially forward and embracing someone else's culture. All that being said, I don't think there's anything Tiffany or Charlene could have done to alleviate my discomfort. I think they did everything right, and I felt like it was really on me to push through that discomfort because sitting at this table with these people from such different background, Chinese American, a Muslim guy, Sri Lanken, European—I'm the only Jewish guy at the table and we're having a lovely Passover seder. I mean, there's something incredibly beautiful about it.
[DINING BACKGROUND SOUNDS]
Dan Pashman: We finished eating, and one of the customs on Passover is that you’re supposed to ask questions. Big questions like, why do we do this, what’s the point of it all. So instead of just talking about how and why we celebrate passover, in particular, I wanted to talk with the group more about holidays, in general. Charlene’s husband Tony grew up in China. I was curious to get his thoughts on the prospect of Lunar New Year becoming a big Americanized holiday.
Dan Pashman: So Tony, tell me a couple of the traditions you associate with celebrating Chinese New Year.
Tony: So, for example, the fireworks. Like every Chinese person growing up in China will never forget about the sound and the smell of Chinese New year Eve fireworks. The other thing is the family meals during the first couple of weeks of the Chinese New Year.
Dan Pashman: But so if a bunch of white Americans were celebrating Chines New Year and not having fireworks and just ordering Chinese food from like, whatever the local take-out place is, and they were saying, "Happy Chinese New Year! Woohoo!", like we're doing it. We're celebrating. This is Chinese culture.
Tony: I mean, to be frank, I thought a lot of the Chinese food in America cooked not for Chinese people. You would never get that anywhere else. So to some extent, which you described is already...
Dan Pashman: It already happened.
Tony: Yeah, it's already happened.
Dan Pashman: And how do you feel about that?
Tony: I felt—I'm quite curious, actually, because it's kind of—it's another genre. So...
Dan Pashman: You're being very diplomatic here, Tony.
Tony: Yeah, yeah. It's another genre.
Dan Pashman: Right, right. Yeah.
Tuschan: I think part of the question, like what you were saying though, like, also, like how big the culture was to begin with. Like, Chinese culture is really big. Like, I'm Sri Lankan and most people don't even know that is. They don't even know where that is, what it is. So like if...if...like, Sri Lankan New Year's next week and if it became like a big celebration, I think, I'd be like—have such mixed feelings—in some way—oh, people know what that is, is great. But if it got bastardized and not became what it was about, than I'd be like, well, we already had it like just 18 of us in the world celebrating it. You know? Like...you know, anyway, a small popular are celebrating it, now. It kind of gets out of your control a little bit. I don't even know the origin of St. Patty's Day, to be honest. And I was one of the people, who used to go out and like hang out with people.
Dan Pashman: I can tell you that it's a much bigger deal in the U.S. than in Ireland.
Dan Pashman: Like a lot of these holidays.
Tuschan: Like Cinco?
Dan Pashman: Right, right.
Tuschan: Like, Cinco's the same way. And that’s like something we made—and I've also been guilty of going out and having a great time on Cinco. So....
Dan Pashman: But I think it's interesting to me that holidays have to be made more palatable in the same way that foods have to made more palatable. So, like, I don't think it's an accident that the ethic or cultural holidays seem to take off the fastest are the ones that are sold as like, everyone party.
Dan Pashman: I've just been thinking about when holidays go mainstream, and people who don't have the background start celebrating them, what is gained and what is lost?
Person 4: On the one hand, we're trying to, through these exploratory meals, try to understand other cultures and participate in their history. But in doing that and changing it, to make them more accessible, you dilute them. So, you know, a more pure and authentic seder meal would be less accessible to me, who's not Jewish. So this is more accessible to me, but it also does change it. So there's a tension there. And, you know, while it's very positive that we learn all these things and we explore them and I'm very much in favor of that, I can see where some people get worried about this impact that, well, you're...if you do that to the logical extent, you know, the final degree? It ceases to exist as its own tradition. And it becomes a sort of amorphous, globalized thing, that doesn't really mean anything.
Tiffany Wang: Something I've thought about for a long time is, how Chinese are my kids going to be? And the answer is less than me and I'm less than my parents. And I going to be marrying a Sri Lankan man. My children are going to be Chinese and Sri Lankan and very American at the same time. So there will be a dilution of our culture that, I think, inevitably, and that can feel like something you can mourn. But then whatever we create from that may also be something new and exciting.
Dan Pashman: So that was Gentile Passover. My thanks to Charlene and Tiffany for a great meal and a really special experience.
Dan Pashman: I left the dinner with all these thoughts in my head about immigration and assimilation and I found myself thinking again about St. Patrick’s Day. In one sense, it’s a giant failure. I mean, all these people go drinking and act out the very stereotypes the holiday was created to combat. On the other hand, 150 years ago Irish churches in the U.S. were getting burnt to the ground. Today, Americans from all different backgrounds eat corned beef and wear green and put on pins that say, "Kiss Me, I’m Irish." And that’s kinda beautiful.
Dan Pashman: So a lot of good can come from celebrating other people’s holidays. And assimilation is always involve a compromise. But I kept thinking, as more Americans observe holidays like Lunar New Year and Dia De Los Muertos, how can we do better than St. Patrick’s Day? I reached out to Jenny Yang. She’s an L.A.-based comedian and writer, and a founder of Disoriented, a mostly female Asian American comedy tour. When Jenny celebrates Chinese New Year in California with her family, they pray to an ancestral altar and light incense. They open the doors so their ancestors can come and go. When the meal is ready, they leave the food on the table to get cold so the spirits of their ancestors can eat and drink first. It’s a sign of respect. As a kid, Jenny compared her rituals to the ones other Americans practice.
Jenny Yang: The tooth fairy or like, Santa Claus. You know, like, I always wondered like, what the origins were because even as a kid, I was suspicious. I'm like, that's too simple. You know? Chinese myths and rituals are really dark. What do you mean, you get money for your tooth?
Dan Pashman: Right. There's darkness in just about all the Jewish holidays, because...which, you know, other people have summarized. All the Jewish holidays, as they try to kill us, we survive. Let's eat.
Jenny Yang: Yes.
Dan Pashman: And that's sort of how they all go. And I don't know how marketable that message is.
Jenny Yang: Yes. You know, it's hard to market suffering. To sell struggle forces people to feel guilty. And Americans? We don't want that.
Dan Pashman: Right. Do you perceive that Chinese New Year and Lunar New Year more broadly is gaining more mainstream acceptance in America?
Jenny Yang: Oh, for sure.
Dan Pashman: Are there specific examples you've seen in the last year or two that have tipped you off to that?
Jenny Yang: California Adventure, actually, was celebrating Lunar New Year, recently, down here in southern California.
Dan Pashman: That's like one of the smaller Disney parks in the L.A. area?
Jenny Yang: Exactly. It's like right across from Disneyland and the moment you show up on this main thorough fair, you look, and you see, "Oh, this must be it," because there's this larger than life, sort of Chinatown gate. The kind of gate you would see in any sort of big to small city that has like Chinatown, where it's really ornate and red and it's sort of—looks like a, you know, three-sided rectangle, right? And then, I looked around and there's like no other Asians. And I'm like, "The moment we walk through these gates, we're about to make this authentic." OK, so let's do this. Let's walk through. And then the moment you walk closer to this gate, you look at it, and it says, "Year of the dog." and then underneath is like, Pluto, wearing some kind of Chinese hat, and I'm like, [gasp]. Yeah, that's exactly how you do it Disneyland. Cross promote! Cross branding. How are you gonna bring all the Disney properties, OK, to tie in to any aspect of Lunar New Year?
Dan Pashman: And how did you feel about the experience of Lunar New Year at Disney's California Adventure, in general?
Jenny Yang: I'm not quite sure how much they really transmitted the real meaning of it. You know, the thing that was the most story convened was they had, what California Adventure is known for, which is their evening water show. It's like a water and light show. But for Lunar New Year, in particular, they actually added a few more minutes before the regular light show that was specifically telling the story of Little Lantern. And so we watched it and it was like this little animated lantern that was like floating around. And the whole point of the story is, little lantern, hurry home because it's Lunar New Year and you need to be with your family. I like the idea that it is a really huge thing for Lunar New Year for Chinese people to go home. The idea is to be as close to your ancestors, as possible. And so hopefully, your home-home is your home village, I guess. And I think that's captures the spirit of Lunar New Year, needing to be with your family. But then, you know, there's also so many deeper things.
Dan Pashman: So you see the holiday assimilating and then you see corporations trying to capitalize and like you said, for any holiday really to cross over, it needs a certain level of marketability and that's going to require things to be changed about it.
Jenny Yang: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: When you see those changes, when you see that happening, what's gained and what's lost in your mind?
Jenny Yang: I think for me, living in America, knowing that people will have at least minimal exposure to my culture is great. I think just because someone is exposed to Chinese culture doesn't guarantee that they'll treat you with respect or dignity. And I think for me, that's really what it boils down to, that being exposed to my culture either in the form of food or in the form of the stories and myths behind our rituals and holidays, it's a start. But I would never say that that is the only way that I would want people to know me.
Dan Pashman: Right. It's interesting for me. One of—you know, I've been reflecting on my experience being the only Jewish person at that Gentile Passover.
Jenny Yang: [LAUGHS] How did it make you feel, Dan?
Dan Pashman: Well, I mean, overall, I thought they were all lovely people. And it was clear to me that they were being thoughtful and had put real effort into getting a basic understanding of the customs. There were a couple of things that I learned from it. One was it's—it always feels different when it's your own culture.
Jenny Yang: Yeah. Always.
Dan Pashman: It's easy to to say to someone else when it's their culture, "Oh, come on, don't be so sensitive." But when it's your own culture, you get sensitive. When we do a Passover seder—I'm not super religious and I don't get caught up in the details of how we're doing it. The word seder means order. So there is a specific order that it is supposed to be done. But I—I couldn't tell you exactly what it is, off the top of my head.
Jenny Yang: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And if we did it wrong at my house, I might not even notice.
Jenny Yang: Right.
Dan Pashman: And yet, when I was the only Jewish person in the room, I felt myself being like, no, wait, we need to dip the parsley in the salt water first and then the egg or whatever. You know, like, all of a sudden things that I wouldn't care about in my own home, you know, made me cringe a little bit if they weren't done correctly. And I felt like that was kind of—yeah, I wasn't quite sure what to do with that.
Jenny Yang: Yeah, and I think that's a perfect anecdote to represent the feeling of when other people are attempting to take control of your culture. You know? Like, it's ...it's delicate because if you come from a culture or a group where probably most people don't truly understand you? Then you're going to be way more protective of any representation of your group.
Dan Pashman: I asked Jenny whether she views St. Patrick's Day as a model for a Lunar New Year or a cautionary tale. She said, more a cautionary tale. So I asked her, how can we do better?
Jenny Yang: I think one of the first things I would love to see non-Chinese people do, if they're celebrating Lunar New Year is if they explained some of the simple reasons why you do what you do on Lunar New Year. So why do you eat certain foods? What are the foods represent? What's so awesome now is that you can Google anything. And so there's really no excuse, you know, to, you know, to...to not, at least, explain. Right? This is why we have noodles. The longer the better. You never break the noodles because you want to symbolize long life. This is why you have fish. It's because you want good fortune and there's so many homonyms in Chinese language that represent the word fish, but also something else that's, you know, that's a blessing.
Jenny Yang: You know, that's a part of the Chinese culture is this sort of the language, the wordplay, the reasons behind the food? You know? The second thing I would say is, you know, I think so much of respecting your ancestors, I used to think as a kid that it could be potentially really oppressive, like, "Ugh, why must we be like bogged down by, like, our history? Because we're here. We're making our lives as Americans." And I think once I grew older, what I realized about the beauty of all of these rituals is that I remember that I am a part of a community and a tradition and a heritage. And I would love if non-Chinese folks would also share about where they come from, who their people are. And I think I would love to to see that as like the sort of Americanized version of Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year.
Dan Pashman: Those are two really good ones. Now, what's number three? Then you get really wasted? When do we get really wasted?
Jenny Yang: When is the fun part, Jenny? God, why is everything so serious?
Dan Pashman: Oh, the noodles sound pretty fun. And I think, those are actually really, really good tips. And those are the kinds of things that you could do in a few minutes with our kids and be respectful of the tradition and then still have a good time. I think, I got to say, I think if we're going to try to make Passover mainstream, we got a tough sell. I mean, not only are we a much smaller group, but matzoh? We can't compete with long noodles. You know? That's really a tough sell, the matzoh. There are four glasses of wine, so I guess we got that going. If we could rebrand Passover, as like the Jewish St. Patrick's Day.
Jenny Yang: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: it's like forget all the suffering. Just drink four glasses of wine and then you won't know how the matzoh tastes. Maybe we could get some traction with that. What do you think? Would you buy into that?
Jenny Yang: Um, no?
Dan Pashman: That's comedian Jenny Yang. During the pandemic. She's been hosting a regular online comedy show called Comedy Crossing. For info, follow Jenny on Twitter, Instagram @JennyYangTV or go to her website, JennyYangTV.com.
Dan Pashman: Now it's time for our update on this episode. A few weeks ago, I reached out to Charlene and Tiffany, my hosts a Gentile Passover. I wanted to see what they had planned for the holiday this year and I was surprised by their response.
Charlene Wang de Chen: Well, I mean, the update is we've stopped celebrating Gentile Passover after the episode initially aired. It sort of changed our relationship to the mini-tradition. It didn't really feel the same anymore and it didn't feel neutral anymore.
Dan Pashman: Charlene says the way I talked about my feelings, after attending Gentile Passover, was part of what led them to think about it differently. But other parts of the episode also had an impact.
Charlene Wang de Chen: Like, the same way that we felt kind of like, ugh, we heard about the other Chinese New Year party serving sushi. We were like, if we make someone else feel that same "ugh", then we don't need to do this.
Dan Pashman: I mean, I'll be honest, I feel bad hearing that this was the outcome because it wasn't my intention to shame you into not doing it or to make you feel bad. I was just trying to sort of be honest about my own mixed feelings. But then, you know, like in thinking about it more, I have been to Passover seders where it was all Jews there, but just really non-observant Jews. And so it's like two quick blessings and let's eat. And in the case of that seder also, that was all Jews, I was also like, "Oh, we're not going to dip the parsley in the salt water? We're not going to, like, sing that song?" And your Seder was like more involved, more elaborate, had more of the customs, more effort, more thought then, that seder by the super non-religious Jews. So was there any difference in how I felt at a seder with all Jews not doing it the way that I would prefer...
Tiffany Wang: I think it's understandable if you did feel differently, because I think if Charlene and I went to a Chinese family’s Chinese New Year celebration, that was very different than ours? We would just be like, "Oh, these people do it differently." But I think if we were at like a Chinese New Year celebration of people, who are not Chinese or not people or culture that generally celebrates Lunar New Year, and they did something pretty close, but not fully, we might feel more strongly. So I think I understand—I understand that feeling. And I don't I don't think you shamed us. I just think that we reacted to, like, your honest reflections. And we're like, we don't want to make anyone feel that way.
Dan Pashman: I hear what Tiffany and Charlene are saying. But as I tell them, I still feel that something good comes from other people experiencing Jewish culture, learning more about it, even if it’s imperfect. So, is it possible to share our cultures in a way that strikes a balance between these conflicting feelings? Between the discomfort, and the connection?
Dan Pashman: A few years ago at the seder, Tiffany talked about how she'd be marrying a Sri Lankan man, how their kids would be Chinese and Sri Lankan and American, and that would be something they’d have to navigate. Today, they're married, and they have a baby girl. As their daughter grows up, those questions, that once felt theoretical, have become more real.
Tiffany Wang: Whenever cultures are coming together and you pick and choose the things that resonate with you, I always think about what are the things that are going to shake out and I should hold onto, and I have no idea. And there's a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of like, I have to try to tell myself to keep an open mind. But like, I don't know. I don't know what's the most important thing that I want her to take. So I don't know the answer.
Dan Pashman: Thanks again to Tiffany and Charlene. In recent years, Charlene has done a lot of work with tea, writing about it for Whetstone Magazine, and creating a website called Tranquil Tuesdays. She's got a lot of info there on tea and teaware, stories about heritage tea in rural China, and more. She’s looking to expand that work so you should check it out, we’ll link to Tranquil Tuesdays at Sporkful.com
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani returns, this time with his wife and creative partner Emily V. Gordon. As you may know, since the last time he was on, Kumail has put on, I don't know, about 50 pounds of muscle, for a role in a Marvel movie. How have his feelings about his own body image changed? And what do he and Emily say to people who worry that Kumail, himself has changed. I’ll ask them. Plus, Emily talks about finding deliciousness in the time of COVID, when you’re immunocompromised. That’s next week.