Editor’s note: Yi-Shen Loo is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley with majors in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies and Ethnic Studies, as well as a minor in Japanese. After interning with the CHSSC in 2022, Yi-Shen served as the research manager of the CHSSC’s Five Chinatowns project. Currently, Yi-Shen is Special Initiatives and Communications Manager at the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).
In my family, we celebrate New Year’s twice. Once at the start of the new year, with Japanese osechi and our family custom of duck with soba, then again in February for Chinese New Year with a full spread of golden spring rolls, fish and dumplings. It’s when I’m eating and preparing these foods that I feel most at home and connected to my multiple ethnicities. While the book discusses different traditions and customs than my two new year’s, Linking Our Lives opened my eyes to my place within a larger Asian American history. As Feelie Lee and Elaine Lou write, “Food is not only culturally significant but also a sign of emotional well-being.” Reading about the special foods cooked during holidays and recipes being passed down, I remember afternoons spent wrapping gyoza with my mother, speaking Japanese and copying her folding technique. The history of Chinese American women in Los Angeles described in Linking Our Lives is not my family’s history, as my mother immigrated from Japan and my father immigrated from Singapore, but I still felt a tie to the book’s narrators in their stories of the everyday.
Being multiethnic, I spent a lot of time during my undergraduate years thinking about the spaces in which I belonged and those I felt excluded from. Having a Chinese name but not being able to speak a word of it often leaves me feeling isolated from my Singaporean Chinese side, while speaking Japanese but not appearing Japanese, distances me from that side of my heritage. “Asian American” felt like the first term I could fully belong under, but even within Asian American spaces, people are curious about what labels I identify with. The summer after I graduated, I was still thinking about and navigating that sense of not-quite belonging. Participating in the Five Chinatowns project reminded me that it’s okay to feel in between cultures, whether that’s reflected through language, generations, or even things as simple as what I eat. Linking Our Lives was my first insight into that world of the unknown that the Chinese American women in Los Angeles grappled with throughout the 1900s and demonstrated that I’m part of so many threads of intertwined history. It was the perseverance of these early generations of Asian Americans that allowed later generations to band together under the term “Asian American,” who then inspired the creation of the field of Asian American studies.
Over the summer of 2022, interning with the CHSSC also allowed me to realize my hope of connecting with the community through oral history interviews. After the interviews I supported in-person, one narrator gave me two books and a tried-and-true corn casserole recipe, while another narrator sent me off with almond cookies from her bakery. Moments like these made me so grateful to the pioneers of the Asian American community who brought us together to recognize the similarities despite the diversity across the diaspora. These women in Linking Our Lives were a crucial part of that history that allowed students like me to be able to pursue Asian American studies, and I hope to continue to be in Asian American spaces where I belong for the rest of my professional career.