A Taste of Home: How Chino Latino Cuisine Connects Me to My Heritage

“What are you eating?” 

I still remember the day in high school when food suddenly made me question my heritage. I was eating ropa vieja and bok choy with white rice — a totally normal meal in my Chino Latino household. But the kids around me gave my food curious looks and then turned their gaze back to me, their questions unspoken. To me, it was just lunch. To them, it was proof that I was different. 

Growing up, my understanding of cultural heritage was not like most kids. While many of my friends could easily trace their roots to a specific country or culture, my family’s heritage was a delightful blend of three seemingly distinct worlds: Chinese, Latino, and American. 

From a young age, I knew my mom’s family had immigrated from China to Uruguay, and while I struggled with the pronunciation of the country, our shared love of telenovelas hinted at our connection to Latin culture. Still, it was challenging for me to identify my mom as Uruguayan since she resembled me and sounded similar. This disconnect deepened because I couldn’t speak Spanish fluently like she did. (My parents believed I didn’t have a strong passion or interest in the language, so they didn’t actively teach me.) Nevertheless, my mom always made sure to remind my siblings and me of her roots. 

My Chinese heritage has been deeply ingrained in me, too. My dad’s family immigrated from China and Hong Kong to New York City in the late 1950s, and I’ve always felt Chinese American. For the first decade of my life, I attended a bilingual school in Manhattan, immersing myself in studies from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM daily, the last two and a half hours dedicated solely to Mandarin.  

Surrounded by peers who shared my appearance and upbringing only strengthened that connection; I celebrated two New Years, eagerly receiving red envelopes during the Lunar New Year. Our Chinese traditions also included an annual ‘Bai-San’ day, where we paid homage to our ancestors by visiting the cemetery and offering food. One cherished delicacy during this time was ‘Bak Ting Gao’ (steamed rice cake), a once-a-year treat that my cousin and I eagerly anticipated.  

Following Bai-San, our family gathered in bustling Chinatown restaurants, savoring dishes from succulent roasted duck to oysters drizzled in hoisin sauce. Whether for birthdays, weddings, or milestone achievements, the significance of food in binding our family and culture together cannot be understated. Food has always been our shared connection. 

But my transition from a bilingual elementary school in Manhattan, where I had spent years surrounded by kids who looked like me, to a Staten Island high school marked a stark change. This shift was the first time I truly felt ‘othered.’ What are you eating? 

Still, it didn’t bother me so much when I could come home to a steamed plate of beef and broccoli with noodles or fried rice with Milanesa de Pollo (Chicken Milanese). My worries about not fitting in with my peers melted away as soon as I got a whiff of whatever my mom was cooking in the kitchen. As a kid, she used food to express her love and connection to Uruguay. Home was where the unique fusion of my Chinese and Latin American heritages came to life in the most delicious way possible — through food.  

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