Despite being given a food show by HBO Max, Lisa Ling never really learned how to cook. “Grandma never taught us,” she recalled during episode two of Dating Lisa Ling, sitting in the Chinese restaurant that once belonged to her grandparents in Northern California. “She didn’t want us have work in a restaurant. Now, after a successful 30-year career as an investigative journalist, launching a docuseries that explores Asian American food stories feels like both a tribute to his grandparents’ legacy and a exploration of shame – specifically, the shame they felt about restaurant work and that she felt her identity growing up – especially when she examines the complex dynamics of Asian diasporas around food, culture and culture. tradition and class.
In this six-part series, Ling unearths some of the buried stories of Asian America and tells them plate by plate. The first episode begins with the continent’s first Asian colony (Filipinos, who basically invented the shrimp industry in the bayous of Louisiana), and the season ends with an episode titled “Korean American Dream” (featuring a trip at the H Mart with Michelle Zauner, author of Crying in H Mart). Throughout the series, Ling uses moments like a community seafood boil, a glimpse into a chef’s kitchen, and an intimate family dinner to have tender conversations about immigration, labor, and conservation ( and often the reimagining) of culture.
The Cut spoke with Ling about the emotional weight a dish of food can hold and how To go out is his professional peak.
Why did you choose food as a medium to tell stories about Asian American history?
There is no better connection to culture than food. This series was a very personal project for me because my own family story here in the United States begins in a restaurant, and restaurants have become the gateway for so many Asian immigrants. So following these journeys of different Asian American communities has allowed me to share the parallels between what my family has been through and what so many Asians in this country have been through. Food seemed like an obvious entry point to tell these buried stories of Asian America.
You dig into your own family history and how each generation before you helped lay the groundwork for your career. What was the experience like as a journalist, focusing on your own personal story?
I’ve spent over 30 years working as a broadcast journalist, and I think I’ve become decent enough to share other people’s stories. This show was a unique journey for me into my own family’s legacy – especially in light of the violence that has occurred over the past two years against Asian American communities in this country. So I really encourage other Asian Americans to do the same because we come from a culture that is not the most outgoing and asks us to keep our heads down for the most part. But after really exploring my family roots, and also the Chinese roots in my hometown of Sacramento, for the first time in nearly 50 years, I felt really connected to my Chinese-American identity.
Since Asian American history isn’t really taught in school, it’s easy for us to feel like we don’t belong entirely. When there is no inclusion of our experiences or contribution to a country, it becomes easy to ignore and even dehumanize an entire population. So I think the last two years have been this real toll for Asian Americans, and it’s really challenged us to know our stories, to know our stories, and to try to communicate them to a more American audience large.
What is a dish that has emotional meaning for you – and what do you associate with it?
When I eat Chinese fried rice, which is more of an American dish than a Chinese one, I think of how my grandmother liked to make it for us. She didn’t cook us much of the food she served in the restaurant, because the restaurant food really catered to a non-Chinese palate, a more Americanized palate. But she cooked the fried rice, and I loved it, but I had a lot of shame about Chinese food when I was a little girl. Now when I have the opportunity to have Chinese fried rice, I not only think of my grandmother, but I think of the sacrifices she and my grandfather made. They were very educated people when they immigrated to the United States, but they couldn’t work in the professional world because they were Chinese. And eventually they raised enough money to open a Chinese restaurant, even though neither of them really cooked at the time. So when I have Chinese fried rice I feel a different kind of shame now that I was never ashamed of this food and my identity growing up.
What is the best culinary writing or media you have consumed recently?
I really appreciate what Eric Kim writes for the New York Time. He is always on the lookout for new and exciting flavors and combines so many different tastes together. And Anthony Bourdain – may he rest in peace – he really connected us to the world through food. His work will always stay with me, so I always appreciate him.
How do you prepare yourself mentally to share a big project with the world, especially one that is so personal and emotional?
You have just prayed very hard for the universe to receive it well! I’m someone who grew up with a lot of shame about being Asian – and even grew up with a lot of shame about Asian food – so this opportunity to tell Asian American stories is one that I never would have imagined. In my wildest dreams. . As you can imagine, there is always apprehension that comes with this: Do people really want to know these stories? But there is one thing that is undeniable, and that is that Asian restaurants are ubiquitous in America. There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Pizza Huts combined. And these days, you’ll find Vietnamese restaurants, Thai restaurants, maybe even Lao restaurants in your small hometown. So if you’re really into Asian American cuisine, I hope you’ll take the time to learn the stories of the people behind it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.