itsct: The Eating Scene

The Eating Scene

by Lilian Min

I learned how to speak Spanish because otherwise, he refused to answer my queries. Day in, day out, I would approach the man behind the counter at the carnitas stall; day in, day out, he’d feign ignorance of my English. I’d spin on my heels, frustrated by him and embarrassed by my own non-fluency of the language that flows through Los Angeles, names it, powers its economy, seeds its cultural roots. It was my job to help him and his team get customers and make money, but until I spoke to him the right way, his way, I would get nothing out of him. For him, he would rather lose sales and piss off management than give in and speak English to the girl who worked for The Man. I couldn’t blame him, and instead, I learned — “Yo como. Tú comes. El/Ella come.” A week into my language app lessons, I walked up to him and ordered, each word preceded by the hesitation of insecurity. When I pulled the sentence through my teeth at last, he cracked a huge smile and handed me a bulging torta.

It was 2014, and I was working as a PR flack for the oldest public market in LA. There was a lot of excitement over the place, as it was in the process of “revitalization” (read: adding new, “hip” vendors), but that also meant it was letting go of decades-established vendors. The rebranding and shakeup were part of change that had started in the larger, lower downtown and was now spreading northward, a fertilization that prioritized money, whether from a refurbished performance space or an artisan soap store, over the empty, abandoned, or just plain “unattractive” places that’d existed there before. The money was, of course, welcome; the people (oftentimes, creatives-with-corporate-jobs or boho-leaning-finance-folks, oftentimes white), and especially the concurrent rent increases, it attracted was less so.

I was, I am, guilty of being someone who profits off of gentrification. Before I started working at the “revitalized” market, I had only been there once before and not to eat or shop — instead, to document its vivid signage for a school project. While working at the market, I answered interview question after question about the market’s direction: How will this affect family businesses? What’s the grand plan for the market’s revitalization? Who will lose out on this new money? Each time, I answered with the same stilted reply, in so many variations. We’re working with all of the vendors to make sure that we’re all on the same page for the market’s vision! We’re committed to keeping the cultural history, the Spanish-language history, of the market intact! LA wouldn’t be what it is without its myriad of cultural influences, and we’re definitely going to keep that diversity in the forefront of the new market!

These things both were and weren’t true. The only Spanish-speaking vendor who’d regularly do press engagements had pledged allegiance to the new market’s direction and was reaping the financial benefits. While I was there, he renovated both of his stall storefronts, raised prices, and got a special shout out in a Bon Appétit feature on the market at large. He — his name, his stores, his food — was always referenced on the tours I would give tourists or journalists or, in one memorable case, a group of wine-drunk real estate agents. But for most people, they were dazzled by the artisan cheese shop run by a prickly but exacting couple; the butcher counter where you could find logs of beef tongue next to whole hens; the breakfast truck-turned-storefront whose lines would crush and condense the market’s already tight corners into human traps. These were all new additions, and almost all of them were owned by white people. If a vendor wasn’t on good terms with management, especially right as a new potential vendor was eyeing the market space, I would be told to stop addressing them during press tours. At a certain point, most of the “in trouble” vendors realized what was going on, and I was given a colder and colder shoulder as I made my morning rounds. Most of them were also non-white; weathered Latino and Asian men, mostly, who’d smile at me and then scowl when they realized who I was. I took it personally, but if anything, they should’ve been meaner to me.
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Though I’m not religious, I’ve made a lot of pilgrimages; instead of holy sites, I seek out ties to my home culture, especially in the form of food. As a teen growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, this meant driving an hour away to get to one of the specialty Chinese groceries, or taking a train and then the subway into Flushing, New York. I would lose myself in a sea of familiar (though not, as white people had me believe, identical) faces and breathe in the scents that I associated, still associate, with Asia — pungent, acrid fungi and lush tropical fruits; the sea tang of a fully-stocked fishmonger; still-hissing fried street food and the warm perfume of just-sweet bread. When I went into those spaces and saw white people in them, I would recoil. This revulsion stayed with me as I moved to LA, and would manifest itself in the tone that white peers would take on when describing Chinese food. (This was satirized, albeit very, very clumsily, by the white male poet Calvin Trillin.)

At the market, I was doing the very thing I swore I hated: acting as a guide for people outside of a culture I wasn’t from, welcoming and courting them in. I laid out the carpet for people whose engagement with the market was surface-level at best, and downright exploitative at worst — and I did my job diligently, as well as I could. Learning Spanish was something I did for work, and the man who refused to talk to me in any other language was a puzzle who impeded my ability to work. Writing it out now… it’s a cold way to treat people, and a disturbing way to treat the sanctity of home culture. If someone told me that they’d learned Chinese just to speak to me, I’d be creeped out.
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After I graduated from college, I (in a stroke of chance and circumstance) moved into a modest apartment in West Hollywood, a rich mini-city within LA County. Similar to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, WeHo has used its wealth to draw boundaries between itself and the rest of LA. That the city is also a bastion of queer culture of all classes isn’t to be overlooked, but at the same time, most of my neighbors were modestly well-off white men and women. My taste for rich, spicy foods was left untouched within its city limits (which must have the highest concentration of juice and health food stores in all of LA County), and I’d oftentimes venture eastward for “good” ethnic food, which is to say food that lived up to arbitrary distinctions of authenticity. The main thing I really looked for was a paucity of white faces; I wanted to eat food without being seen as an outsider, viewed as an extension of the eating scene, to blend into the dining room spread rather than be seen as a tourist two-fold — once, by the nature of dining out, and twice, by my non-white body.

I live in Los Feliz now, and on our first night eating out, my roommate (Chinese-American too) and I sipped on strong drinks and laid out our secret fears. “You know…” she murmured, her eyes scanning the patio, “I don’t want to, like, only live around white people.” Her fear isn’t unfounded; Los Feliz is known to be an expensive, white-coded area of LA, an even more exclusive Silverlake. She and I had chanced into the apartment, which had been posted on Craigslist with no photos. The moment we finished touring it, we put our applications in; I wrote my information down on top of a Domino’s box I fished out of a trash can near a bus stop.

The previous tenant had died in the hospital. When we were signing our lease, our (white) landlord remarked, “He was a good tenant… He was our only Asian tenant too.” About a month later, when we’d finally moved in, I saw another Asian woman walking around the building. I wanted to ask her if she was new too, but stopped myself. The mortification stayed inside my thoughts.
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Is it possible for a non-white individual to de-gentrify a space by moving in? Does this conversation not apply to Asians and Asian-Americans, who oftentimes by virtue of silence are implicated into a narrative of anti-blackness, anti-brownness? To the white majorities of the spaces in which I live(d), I worked, I and other upper-middle-class Asians are perhaps the slight intruder into their snowy interior and exterior worlds, but because of money and class, we (or rather, the “we” that moves into these white-dominated spaces) aren’t seen as completely different. We may not be the telltale marker of gentrification, but we are complicit, whether actively or tacitly, with it.  

I remember a story my mom told me recently: when Beijing hosted the Olympic Games, in order to allay Islamophobic fears from Western countries like America, the city government banished all of their Muslim residents from the city. My mom told the story so cavalierly that I thought for a moment that she believed what’d been done was right. “Oh no,” she clarified, “It’s more that the government there doesn’t do anything halfway.” All or nothing; change as a means of social order, accelerated for a specific aim.
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I visit the market every now and then. Every time, it’s different; something’s gone up or come down, but for now, I still recognize these differences as part of the plans my bosses started implementing while I’d worked there. One day, I’m going to walk in and see something totally new, and that’s when I’ll know that it’s over, the revitalization has been relaunched.

The carnitas stall’s owner is thriving; his friend has opened up a cevicheria in the market, taking up the spot of a Hawaiian food place that used to give away its heat lamp-lit leftovers to transient folks. I note every new business that comes in, every old business with waning ordering lines, who’s working at the stalls, which owners are on-site, what kind of music plays at each stall. I walk swiftly through the aisles, sunglasses on, trying again and as always not to be seen.

 

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Lilian Min is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's covered music, food, cultural identity, and fandom for The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, The FADER, Bitch, and The Toast, among others. More and other iterations of her work can be found at Zodiac Cafe and Comic Practice; she tweets (a lot about anime) here.

Dawn Wu