Commodified Authenticity and Ethnic Resistance in Nahnatchka Khan’s ‘Always Be My Maybe’

Authenticity is an ideological construct that should be questioned and critiqued, as Nahnatchka Khan has done so well in her film, Always Be My Maybe

Always Be My Maybe
Nahnatchka Khan
31 May 2019 (US)

From a distance (a distance that obscures the materiality and specificity of race), Nahnatchka Khan’s Always Be My Maybe (2019) may appear as just another of many formulaic romantic comedies currently saturating Netflix’s ever-growing offerings. In many ways, it is. The film closely follows the rom-com formula, featuring light-hearted jokes, a love triangle, and a montage that crams an entire relationship into a 30-second timeframe.

However, while writing their “
Asian-American version of When Harry Met Sally”, writers and stars Ali Wong and Randall Park simultaneously wrote a love story about Asian-American culture and cuisine. (“What ‘Always Be My Maybe’ Understands About Making an Asian-American Rom-Com”, by Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, 4 Jun 2019.)

Wong’s character, Sasha Tran, is a celebrity chef who learned her craft as a child through cooking Korean food with the mother of her friend, Marcus Kim (Randall Park). Years later, in her successful high-end restaurants, Sasha serves the same dumplings, kimchi, seafood, and rice that she cooked in her friend’s kitchen, only now she has scaled down the portions and plates with an elegant flare that she describes as “modern Vietnamese fusion”. Marcus scoffs at Sasha’s imaginative versions of the dishes they grew up with, telling her, “Asian food isn’t supposed to be elevated, it’s supposed to be authentic.”

However, it’s important to recognize that ‘authenticity’ is an ideological construct that should be questioned and critiqued. Food evolves, fuses, and transforms as a result of myriad, material conditions and symbolizes new meanings in different contexts. For Marcus, food is about comfort and the memory of his now-deceased mother. The “elevated” cuisine that Sasha cooks and prepares is extracted from the realm of “authentic” Asian food because it’s not “served in a big-ass bowl”. Authenticity for him is shaped by his own personal and social experiences. It is not an objective reality.

Authenticity can be a form of resistance when utilized by minority cultures. Food is rarely just sustenance; it holds cultural and personal meanings and functions as a form of narrative, community building, and metaphoric creation. For immigrant communities, authentic and traditional food can be a signifier of one’s culture that has not been assimilated or corrupted by the dominant culture, as well as a powerful expression of identity formation and association. In contrast to the dominant culture’s exclusionary use of authenticity, sustaining authentic ethnic food is a way of holding on to traditions and cultures that are constantly being threatened.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), Walter Benjamin critiques the idea of authenticity and how it is used for the purposes of exclusion and even violence, identifying it as fascist logic. He argues that the term is used to categorize and exclude anything not considered “original”, “traditional”, and intimate with living communities. Authenticity becomes a mechanism to differentiate the “impure” from the “pure”.

In the United States, the dominant, white culture’s expectations and impossible standards of “authenticity” placed on ethnic cuisines often restrict the chefs and restaurateurs, limiting both the food they make and the prices they charge. It is a commodified authenticity that forces ethnic restaurants to choose between serving food that’s “authentic” enough to be considered exotic or modern enough to be considered gourmet, restricting creativity, perpetuating stereotypes, and categorizing ethnic restaurants as other; that is, not American.

While Marcus may condemn Sasha’s food for its “inauthenticity”, Sasha recognizes the challenges of being a minority chef cooking ethnic food whose mission is to change the dominant misconceptions of what Asian-American food is and how it signifies.

In their essay, ” The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment” (1995), scholars Shun Lu and Gary Alan Fine explain that ethnic restauranteurs must unavoidably adjust to the market’s demands in order to survive, yet simultaneously resist and alter the market through gradual culinary modification. Although “authentic” is a desirable term for white Americans seeking an exotic, ethnic experience, this ostensible authentic experience is typically an artificial construct. For social and economic reasons, ethnic restaurants often must alter their food’s ingredients and preparations in order to conform to the tastes of the dominant culture.

In Always Be My Maybe, Sasha tells a designer to print her restaurant’s menu on rice paper, reasoning that “white people will eat that shit up”. As an ethnic restaurateur, Sasha’s success in contemporary America depends on her ability to use socially constructed authenticity to her advantage.

Constraints of authenticity are not fixed, however, and can be negotiated. Lu and Fine explain that “by combining tradition, adaptation, and innovation, continuity of an ethnic food tradition is possible”. Through gradual modifications of both traditional and American food practices, ethnic restaurateurs are able to push the boundaries of what constitutes authentic cuisine, altering the value placed on certain ethnic foods, as well as preserving many of their culinary traditions.

Theorist Stuart Hall recognizes the contradictions in the constant struggle between “containment and resistance”, explaining that there is no simple binary opposition of “resistance versus incorporation” because the balance of power is never won, but rather, is always changing the “configurations of cultural power”. Similarly, there is no simple opposition of “authentic versus inauthentic”, because what is considered authentic or not is constantly shifting based on social and economic structures. However small the changes are, Hall contends that these cultural strategies and struggles can and do make a difference by shifting dispositions of power.

Always Be My Maybe demonstrates the paradoxes of authenticity by both resisting it and utilizing it for resistance. In many ways, the film critiques the United States and its legacy of racism and colonialism against Asian-American people, demonstrated mostly through Park’s character, Marcus. Marcus’s band is named “Hello Peril”, a play on Yellow Peril, a term given to the racist and xenophobic fear of East Asian people during the late 19th and early 20th century. He also wears a “Stay Angry” T-shirt, designed by Phil Yu or “Angry Asian Man”, which signifies Asian pride and critical awareness.

Marcus’s criticism of “elevated” Asian cuisine is not a direct attack on Sasha but one of resistance to assimilation. He tells Sasha that she’s just catering to “rich white people”, himself preferring the Korean food his mother made in his home kitchen and the neighborhood Chinese restaurant with signs written in Cantonese and workers who speak the Chinese dialect. The foods that are traditional and authentic for Marcus are those that have been seemingly unpolluted by the dominant American culture that has historically oppressed his community.

The term “Asian-American” has been criticized for its erasing of differences among a wide range of diverse cultures and traditions. Immigrants from the vast Asian continent have historically been lumped together by white Americans as one homogenous group, obscuring specificities of language, culture, and cuisine. However, Asian-Americans have also been able to use their similarities in order to resist white supremacy and create political change. During the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Americans of Asian descent unified through their shared experiences and similarities in order to denounce the racist and xenophobic treatment of all Asian-American people.

Rather than focusing on one ethnicity, Always Be My Maybe seems to embrace the combination of many Asian-American ethnicities, their diverse cultures, and shared racial experiences. At her newest restaurant opening, Sasha unveils her signature dish to Marcus: a large pot of kimchi jjigae, just like his mom made it. She tells him she now wants to cook the “kind of food that makes people feel at home.” “Home” for Sasha is a blending of many different Asian cultures and cuisines, a fusion of her Vietnamese ancestry, Marcus’s Korean household, and the Chinese restaurant of their childhood. The story of Asian-American culture and food includes the merging of cultures as a form of resistance.

Sasha’s celebrity chef status allows her to push the boundaries of what the dominant culture views as valuable. She resists the authentic versus inauthentic binary and instead alters the market altogether. Rather than abandoning her high-end restaurants in favor of “authentic” cuisine, Sasha includes the kimchi jjigae in her gourmet repertoire, equating the stew’s value with the more “elevated” cuisine. Both the traditional pot of kimchi stew and the small-plate fusion food have cultural and political value, each doing different but important work for the ethnic cuisine it represents.