“I had spent a lot of time working on freelance projects that ultimately weren’t my own stories, so I wanted to create a story that came from my own heart and voice,” says Brooklyn-based illustrator Sarula Bao about her zine Real Fast Food. A touching and nuanced exploration of diaspora identity and its connection to food, the zine follows a young Chinese-American woman who has a complicated relationship to ordering Chinese take-out with her white friends.
“Colonialism, racism, and assimilation are fundamental aspects of how we form relationships to food,” Sarula tells It’s Nice That, when discussing the autobiographical nature of the zine. “My relationship with Chinese food has changed a lot over the years, starting with being a kid in the thick of internalised racism and really wanting to distance myself from it, getting KFC every day when I visited China, to eventually, by late high school, being very proud of it and what I considered to be ‘real’ Chinese food.”
Until Sarula went to college she hardly ever ate Chinese-American food, considering it to be “fake garbage”. But while studying, she and her friends would often order it as fuel for an all-nighter in the studio or TV marathon, and it became a way of connecting with her community. “Throughout that time in college I felt ashamed of that, to the point where I would say things before ordering it like, ‘Oh I’m a bad Chinese person’ or, ‘I’m a traitor to my race,’ always jokingly, but of course there was truth to it.”
These moments find their way quite directly into Real Chinese Food, where these statements are put into the mouth of her white friend – a defining moment that prompts a turning point for the protagonist. “The white friend vocalises the fears and shame that she didn’t even know she had, and coming from a white mouth, she realises how wrong it is,” Sarula explains. The zine cleverly presents overt, indirect and internalised racism, where the protagonist is othered both by her friends and her Chinese family. “The primary emotional quality I wanted to express in this comic was shame,” Sarula says. “It’s a shame born out of being a second-generation American, othered by white society, but also desperately wishing to be fully accepted by Chinese people as one of them, to belong with people who I may not be visibly othered by at first glance, but would be as soon as I opened my mouth to speak in accented Mandarin.”
“I don’t feel that identity crisis anymore,” says Sarula of finding acceptance and pride in being part of the Chinese diaspora, having “a Chinese cultural background and upbringing” but also “with American values such as self determination and independence”. “This comic was my way of expressing that love for a cuisine that was created for survival, out of perseverance and strength, by people like my blood family, and is also something I share with my friends who are my found family, and is that not the realest thing?”