Tasting the Immigrant Experience at the 2017 CAAMFest 35

Good Luck Soup's Eva Hashiguchi

My earliest memory of my maternal grandmother is in a kitchen that I can just barely picture. It's far too large and blurry at the walls, which are dim and milky white. The table in front of me comes into focus, along with my grandmother's hands. She is making tortillas, flattening balls of dough with a rolling pin and then quickly transferring a disc of flour and lard from hand to hand before depositing it on a hot plancha. The finished tortilla lands in front of me. My little hands bring it to my mouth as the memory fades. Before disappearing, this brief image has communicated volumes about who I am and where I come from. It is my family's immigrant experience encapsulated in a single tortilla, passed from my grandmother's hands, which repeated these gestures countless times over the decades, preparing the staple that nourished her ten children and, when we were lucky, their children as well.

As 88-year-old Eva Hashiguchi prepares the many dishes that populate her annual Japanese New Year party, I couldn't help but flash on the above image of my own grandmother. These rituals are about more than just the acquisition and combination of ingredients, they are a complicated dance that involves the whole body in the offering. In Matthew Hashiguchi's film, Good Luck Soup, which takes its name from the centerpiece dish of Eva's annual family celebration, this meal is the site of more than just cooking and eating. Matthew and his extended family have been sustained by their matriarch's relentless positivity, but also shaped by a defining trauma without which their family may never have come into existence.

Chef Roy Choi
Chef Roy Choi (Travis Jensen)

Good Luck Soup is one of just a few food-related films screening at this year's 35th annual CAAMFest, put on by the Center for Asian American Media, which runs March 9-19, 2017 and features 113 films from around the globe at various Bay Area locations. As usual, the festival is kicked off by the CAAMFeast, a celebration of Asian American culinary achievement on March 4, 2017. Each year, the Feast acknowledges the contributions of a trio of chefs and food organizations. This year, alongside the Asian Chefs Association and People's Kitchen Collective, the feast honors chef Roy Choi, whose Kogi fleet of L.A.-based Korean taco trucks is credited with kicking off the current food truck phenomenon. Choi's signature Korean BBQ taco is a quintessentially Los Angeles invention, famously representing the city's diversity through taste and giving voice to a certain part of the immigration experience.

The CAAMFeast annually celebrates the centrality of cuisine to culture and identity. This year's food-related selections elaborate the complicated issues surrounding the immigrant experience, taking on added relevance in the current political climate. The kitchen is so often the site where individual flair meets family tradition. Flavors melt but remain distinct. Immigrants may arrive and assimilate other aspects of their original cultures, but taste persists. Food defines.

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Good Luck Soup (March 18) begins with a startling admission; the filmmaker remembers yelling "I don't want to be Japanese" at his Japanese-American father. As a mixed-race kid growing up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, Hashiguchi felt intense pressure to assimilate. He and his siblings recount the constant requests for definition their looks, their culture and their name inspired. His family belonged to a tight-knit enclave of American citizens of Japanese descent that formed shortly after World War II, when they were released from the infamous internment camps. It is this trauma that worries Eva's progeny.

Still from Good Luck Soup
Still from Good Luck Soup

Eva is an American citizen, born in Florin, CA to Japanese immigrants. She and her family lost their fruit farm and were interned by the United States government shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She spent her teenage years in the camps, where she also met her future husband. While Eva freely shares her experiences from that period, she lived her life determined not to let this deep betrayal limit or define her. If anything, the internment clarified many aspects of the American experience for Eva and redoubled her commitment to celebrate her Japanese heritage.

Eva's three children married non-Japanese men and women. Today, her grandchildren struggle with their heritage and wonder what will happen when 88-year-old Eva no longer prepares that annual bowl of good luck soup. The film is a heartfelt and personal exploration of what it means to be American, using the preparation of an annual meal to reveal the complicated issues of immigration, race, heritage and assimilation, while exploring the lasting impact of a great injustice the U.S. government committed against a group of its own citizens.

Still from Sunday Dinner
Still from Sunday Dinner

Sunday Dinner, a short included in the program Eat Chinatown (March 11) provides an interesting contrast. The film is a loving portrait of a patriarch's prep for his weekly family sit-down. While he cooks Sunday dinner, Kwok Wai Chan briefly describes his escape from Mao's China and professes his admiration for the United States, a land where his hard work has been rewarded -- a place where he has felt free. The film calls into question much of the current rhetoric about immigration in the U.S.

CAAMFeast honoree, Roy Choi's immigrant experience is best expressed in the flavor of his food. Both Choi's parents are from Korea, his mother from the north, his father from the south. His family arrived in California when Choi was two years old. Their entrepreneurial adventure included selling jars of his mother's homemade kimchee out of the trunk of the family car. Choi describes her as having "flavor in her fingertips," a quality he obviously inherited. The family ran several businesses, including a Korean restaurant in Anaheim, CA, which launched and failed during a formative period for Choi. Later, his parents would make their fortune in the jewelry business and move into an upscale suburb in Orange County. Choi's misspent youth, which included some famous addictions -- to drugs, milkshakes, and gambling -- and time spent as a low-rider in Norwalk, is well documented in his memoir/cookbook L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food. He runs a fleet of food trucks and has opened several restaurants across Los Angeles, but his main accomplishment seems to be synthesizing the flavors of his Korean roots with the Mexican street foods of his youth.

Innovation is powerfully connected to diversity, which cannot be separated from the global circulation of influences and populations. The CAAMFeast is an annual reminder of how the food we eat expresses where we come from while providing fuel for the way forward.

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The CAAMFeast is Saturday, March 4, 2017 at the San Francisco War Memorial Green Room in San Francisco. The 35th annual CAAMFest is March 9-19, 2017 at various Bay Area locations. For tickets and information visit caamfest.com.

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