According to DoorDash’s metrics, the California roll is the most popular sushi roll in America, a fact that is very unsurprising despite the existence and widespread availability of much better options. Even though I usually enjoy imitation crab, avocado and cucumber, something about the California roll always unsettled me. I was a picky eater as a child, and just thinking about the texture of avocado and rice together caused me to clench my jaw in disgust. But beyond just the taste, in my naive youth, I associated avocado with American cuisine and rice with Asia, and I thought mixing them was sacrilegious. I used to just write it off as white people altering cultural recipes for their exotic novelty but still being too weak for raw fish. I scoffed at its inauthenticity, treating the California roll as nothing more than harmlessly ridiculous because I wasn’t mature enough to understand this cultural colonization as a serious attack on Japanese cuisine.
But behind my mockery, I hid deep insecurity and shame. I have an Asian last name and half of my family is fully Asian, but the combination of being mixed and being fifth generation meant I lived in a very Americanized household. I was raised on potatoes rather than rice, and while I appreciate the food my mother provided for me, I couldn’t relate to my friends’ love of rice as a result. It often felt as though I was Asian in blood alone. As a result, I felt the need to prove that I was a “real Asian.” I forced myself to use chopsticks for every Asian dish (even when I would’ve been more comfortable just using a spoon and fork) and watched anime subbed, never dubbed, because that was supposedly the way it was meant to be enjoyed. When my high school friend group teased our other friend for his improper use of chopsticks, I nervously laughed along, secretly having learned only a year prior.
So I channeled my repressed feelings of inferiority and isolation into contempt for the California roll. I rolled my eyes whenever I saw it on sushi menus as if it didn’t truly deserve to sit among tekka maki and tako nigiri, even though I didn’t have the cultural knowledge to know if those were “authentic” either. I resented not knowing. I resented myself for not knowing, for not being “Asian enough” to know. My anger with myself manifested as envy for others. Why must my culture’s cuisine be mutilated to please a white person’s palette? Why should they get to enjoy aspects of my culture that have been filtered out of my family’s heritage through generations of American influence?
When I left my home in Hawaii to return to campus at the beginning of this school year, I found myself deeply missing Spam musubi, a dish created by Asian-American chefs. It was the food of my youth, my go-to whenever I strolled through the linoleum aisles of 7-11 with my dad after my elementary school volleyball games or my high school final exams. I had been eating Spam musubi long before I had ever learned to examine my cultural heritage, so I never thought to question it in the way I had criticized the California roll. Much like the California roll, Spam musubi does not meet the rigid authenticity standards I had set for myself. However, I still loved Spam musubi, and I wasn’t going to stop enjoying them just because they weren’t traditionally Japanese. Due to the colonization of Hawaiian land by white plantation owners, many workers from Asia immigrated to the islands in order to find work. These immigrants brought over their knowledge of their cultural recipes and allowed them to transform into something new as generations grew up. Hawaii’s immigrant history was the catalyst for the creation of my favorite dishes, but I never did consider mainland America’s relationship with Asian cuisine. I realized that I had never actually confirmed whether or not the California roll had been created by Asians. My curiosity gnawed at me, so I finally searched for the origins of the roll.
In the darkness of my bedroom, my laptop screen illuminated the keys as I carefully typed “California roll origins” into the Google search bar. The search result only said “Japan.” I rolled my eyes. Insulted by the algorithm’s matter-of-fact attitude while presenting misinformation, I scrolled down to Wikipedia, and my eyes widened in shock upon reading the page. While the true identity of the California roll’s creator is unclear, both chefs laying claim to its invention were Japanese immigrants. I slumped down in my desk chair, feeling so ashamed that I had so harshly misjudged this dish that was made by my own community. Yet my shoulders relaxed, as if a great weight had been lifted from them. The stories of creating the California roll are slightly varied, but they have one thing in common: The California roll was created by immigrants using the resources available in America to imitate the dishes they used to enjoy in Japan. These immigrants were just doing the best they could to survive in a new country and ended up creating something completely new. How can I remain bitter about that?
I still don’t love the California roll’s taste, but I can respect its existence as a creation of Japanese-Americans before me. While it isn’t “authentic” to Japan, it is authentic to the immigrant experience, and our ancestors and their creations do not deserve to be viewed as lesser just because they are Americanized. In the same way, I no longer view my identity as a lesser form of the Asian experience. Just like the California roll, my family is the product of immigrants adapting to their surroundings and doing their best to keep their traditions alive. I may not speak Japanese or know every cultural tradition, but those experiences are not essential to my ethnic heritage. Asian blood runs through my veins, and that alone is enough.
MiC Columnist Andrew Nakamura can be reached at email@example.com.