I grew up in old Taipei, Taiwan, on a narrow street that no longer exists, together with a bustling family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. I always looked forward to mealtime, during which my grandmother would share her wisdom with those around the table. Mama Chang—a nickname my grandmother earned because she took care of everyone—regaled us with stories of how she left wartime China for Taiwan and was able to create a new life for herself and her family. She did it by understanding that there is fluidity in dated gender roles and expectations. By challenging the narrow-yet-normalized gender constructions of the Chinese culture she grew up in, Mama Chang paved the way for future generations of women, including myself, to be able to be proud to be both Chinese and female.
The foundation of traditional Chinese Taoist philosophy is the concept of the yin and yang, which describes how opposite forces and concepts like masculinity and femininity are not mutually exclusive, but harmoniously connected. Within every person, there’s a seed of yin within yang, and vice versa, so that gentler and stronger qualities—which need not be assigned to a biological sex or a gender identity—are inherent in all of us. My grandmother believed balancing yin and yang kept our life force, or qi, creative through every stage of our being. This idea that I can simultaneously hold these energies has allowed me to abandon any engrained notion of gender roles and helped me access my power as a company founder, a single mom, and a strong woman.
Within every person, there’s a seed of yin within yang, and vice versa, so that gentler and stronger qualities—which need not be assigned to a biological sex or a gender identity—are inherent in all of us.
As a first-generation Chinese-American woman, it’s often required hard work to tap into my grandmother’s wisdom to honor all parts of myself rather than shrink into labels that my cultural background and gender identity may otherwise lay out for me. Whenever I’ve doubted myself through the different phases of my life, I’ve asked myself, What would Mama Chang do?
For instance, when my family moved from Taiwan to America when I was 5, our first stop was Houston, Texas, where I spent 10 formative years as the only Asian student at my school. I weathered many instances of bullying and insensitivity—especially in the beginning when I didn’t have command of the English language. At lunchtime, I was mocked for what my classmates regarded as my smelly meals. I called upon my grandmother’s strength in this situation to not feel diminished; her nurturing side would just feel sorry for those who didn’t understand how delicious and life-giving Chinese food really is.
During those years, I also often heard her voice telling me to be proud, purposeful, and to lead by action. So, I didn’t let the nonstop bullying I was subjected to distract me; when kids called me names like Ching Chang, I just wondered how they knew my mother’s name! Instead of distancing myself from my heritage, I wanted to set a good example for Asians: I kept my head buried in books, read the dictionary for fun, and even slept to the sound of language tapes so I could subliminally learn. Within three years, my grasp of English grew so strong, I won the school spelling bee, and went on to win for the next three years.
Despite my victories, though, I was not allowed to represent the school at the state tournament for the first two years. The school decided that my classmate Greg, who came in second, was a more fitting choice. I didn’t know if the problem was my race, or my gender, or both, but I knew that Mama Chang wouldn’t have taken it personally. She would have continued to work hard and to lead through action—so that's what I did. I kept up my studies, and by the time I won the spelling bee for the third year in a row, the school finally allowed me to compete.
Progress can come through greater cultural understanding—through the kind of harmony of gentleness and strength my grandmother intuitively sought.
Ever since, I’ve been doing what I know she would have done: seeking a more equitable world for myself and my daughters in our chosen home of America. As the Asian population in America continues to grow, so has greater awareness of our diverse cultures. Though there is still much more to be done, I believe progress can come through greater cultural understanding—through the kind of harmony of gentleness and strength my grandmother intuitively sought.
That’s why I’ve built a career (and founded a series of businesses) that allows me to share the best parts of my heritage—be it in fashion, food, or wellness. When I founded the food-focused lifestyle and branding company Luckyrice in 2010, we championed then-emerging chefs like David Chang and Eddie Huang, casting a spotlight on Asian voices in the culinary world. Over the years, the popularity of Asian food has grown as our appetites have shifted east. My hope is that no one (or at least many fewer kids) experiences the lunchroom bullying I did, in light of this growing understanding of and appreciation for global cuisines, including Chinese.
After Luckyrice expanded across the country, I was approached to create a television series, and now Lucky Chow is entering its fifth season on PBS. I wish Mama Chang could see the stories I’m able to tell featuring Asian contributions to America through the lens of food.
Just as Asian food has grown in popularity over the years since those lunchbox days, I believe there is much to share through our wellness practices and medicine. That’s why I am excited to shine a light on the healing power of Chinese medicine with my most recent company, The Hao Life. With it, I’m proud to lean into Mama’s Chang’s wisdom: if we can accept our inherent interconnectedness and find the balance of energies within all of us, we can find a way to happy, healthy, harmoniously balanced lives.
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