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Living in Two Worlds, Eating in One: Growing Up in a Multicultural Kitchen

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Kurtis Chan, a senior at Lincoln High School in San Francisco, says he navigates relationships with his immigrant and American-born relatives differently. (Courtesy of Kurtis Chan)

The following story was produced for Youth Takeover week at KQED.

more stories from the youth takeover

Growing up in a family that's a mix of immigrants from China and those born in America can sometimes feel like living in two worlds. It means having to act differently toward different family members.

I feel pretty comfortable doing this because it's something everyone does. How you act depends on the people you are with and the environment you are in.

For example, when I am with my grandparents I listen to whatever they say and do whatever they tell me to, because they are my elders and I want to make them as happy as possible.

But when I’m with people closer to my age, like my cousins, I can joke around and challenge them because that is how we express our friendship.

I feel this most whenever I’m at big family gatherings. My cousins and I talk about what we’ve been doing and how we’ve been, but when I see my grandparents, I listen to whatever they say and respond with a nod and an "OK."

Kurtis Chan recording his radio story at KQED's studios in San Francisco. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

I also see this difference in the way my grandparents and other relatives cook. Every week since I was a baby, I've gone to my grandma’s house to eat her delicious food. There’s the mellow smell of the beef and tofu mixing in the pan with the crackling sound of green onions cooking in oil. And then there's the deceiving smell of the bitter melon in black bean sauce and the boiling of bok choy in chicken broth and garlic.

During holidays like Thanksgiving, I get to smell and eat all the standard American dishes alongside my family's traditional Chinese food.

My aunts and uncles take care of most of the cooking of the American food, like turkey, ham, baked potatoes covered in cheese, mashed potatoes and a mushy spinach dish with onions in it.

Even though we are celebrating an American holiday, my grandma likes to make things like sticky rice (nu mai fan) and chow foon. She also likes to bring dumpling-like appetizers called foon guo and sweet bean paste filled pastries called te doi.

My aunts and uncles show me what great American food is out there and my grandma shows me what great Chinese food is at home.

Kurtis Chan is a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco.

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