Chrysalis Convos

Jane Dai: Brew Boba, Break Barriers

“How does diasporal cuisine stay true to its roots?”

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JANE DAI is cooking up a recipe for change. Foodie, researcher, veteran boba brewer – she dreams of nourishing communities, one slurp at a time. Starting at her own family table!

Jane discovered her culinary calling in the process of healing relationships at home. Embracing food as an expression of love in her family, she brought bubble tea to her campus and organized Chinese cultural events at Williams College in Massachusetts. Hungry to build healthy communities around food, Jane is now completing her masters at the Yale School of Public Health. She recently researched food decision-making through a Global Food Fellowship in Malaysia, where we reconnected six years after our editorial days at our high school newspaper in New Jersey!

Our #ChrysalisConvo digs into why migration impacts food culture and health outcomes, how Jane speaks to her parents through food, and what it means to stop “running away” from her roots. 

What is your dream?

I want to feed people! I want to create a humble, non-elite, public space where people can gather, communicate about tough topics, and feel nourished by community. How pompous can you really be when you’re digging into a plate of really good food? What’s more unifying than enjoying the basest experience of “taste gud! must eat moar!” together? Food breaks barriers!

I imagine a community-centered space that bridges the gap between academia and community, traditional and modern medicine, with conversations, open mics, and books for Asian/Asian-American communities to learn about health in a way that’s relevant to them. There's a seed of something in everyone. What does it need to bloom and grow? I want to empower communities to do what they believe is best for them. To come in hungry, and leave excited for the next thing you do.

How have you experienced food as a “love language” and space builder? 

Growing up, my mom would give me bowls of noodles at 10 p.m. after band practice. She had no idea how deeply that would stick with me. She fed me, and I was fed. The idea behind feeding is “you feel satisfied.” You’re not just physically able, you're also mentally motivated. Called to action to help others grow. Whether it’s food or ideas, if you consume and don’t feel compelled to do anything, did you really learn anything?

As a homemaker, my mom spends most of her time feeding people. Although she always says, “I’m not a people person,” we always host people at our house. School friends, traveling pastors – we open our doors and show hospitality. My dad’s role is to drive them everywhere. My mom’s role is to make a home where they can relax with a good bowl of food. She takes time to ask questions, and the table becomes a cathartic space to reflect on the good, the bad, and how to move onto the next day. 

How did you plug into Asian American community on campus?

Many second-generation immigrants grow up in enclaves. For our parents, such gathering spaces provide comfort. But once you arrive on a college campus where you’re “counted” in the cultural diversity, you’re like, “What is my culture?” I had never identified as Chinese American or Asian American before joining the Chinese American Student Organization (CASO) and Asian American Students in Action (AASiA). I remember we organized a Human Library event where Asian Americans shared anecdotes about identity and activism. It was a cool space where everyone who was there wanted to be there. 

I became the chair of CASO my sophomore year because I wanted to do more food events on campus. It was my way of making it up to my mom and reconciling our bitterness in the past. I always resented what she thought was best for me: “Why can’t you just let us be ourselves?!” Last year, I learned that her mother sent her to live with her grandparents to be closer to school. I think that’s why she pushed me and my brother so much. That was her way of being present. She didn’t know any better because she didn’t have a mother to model herself after.

Dumpling Night:  Scavenge for 20 cups of flour for wrappers. Empty Stop & Shop’s supply of napa cabbage and ground pork.

Dumpling Night: Scavenge for 20 cups of flour for wrappers. Empty Stop & Shop’s supply of napa cabbage and ground pork.

How did you build community around food on campus? 

I was premed until senior year, when I finally asked, “What is my purpose? What means a lot to me that I haven’t considered because I’ve been consumed with pleasing authorities in my life?” I realized that all my internships had involved food and Asian Americans. Even when I volunteered at a medical center, I brought cookies and juice to the patients, then ate saltines in the corner! So I decided to become a barista at Goodrich, a coffee bar on campus. I loved working there. Seeing someone’s happy face after their first sip of caffeine at 7:00 a.m. is pretty cool when you woke up at 5:00 a.m. to prep the bar for business. 

One day, it dawned on me – there’s no bubble tea here. So I applied to become manager, and we started serving bubble tea every Tuesday night to big crowds! I saw faces I would never see on campus. At 7:45 pm, a line would start forming out the door, and we always ran out. That was the best feeling ever. It became a way to share why bubble tea is beloved by many, not just a trend. We explained its origins in Taiwan, how tapioca comes from the cassava root, why the process and traditions are significant. For Valentine’s Day, we served free red bean because it’s a symbol of love in some cultures. It was about being transparent: What exactly are you drinking? It has a history!

Foodie tangent: What was your boba process?

Ha, yeah… I didn’t do schoolwork or eat dinner on Tuesdays. Just boba! I'd start testing around 2:00 p.m. Steep teas at 4:30 p.m. Lug milk, three tons of honey, and a 6-kg bag of tapioca to dining services. Make tapioca for 2.5 hours. Lug the buckets back. Serve boba nonstop for three hours. Then rinse out three 10-gallon vats to make cold brew for the next morning. Tapioca is supposed to be served warm, so we would time ourselves to finish the tapioca 15 minutes before opening. Just enough time for the the flavor to steep into the tapioca and stay warm!

We also used everything we had in-house. Milk pitchers as measuring cups for water. Coffee filters as tea bags instead of cheesecloth. All this tea in supply that we weren't using before. I really liked our jasmine green tea with lychee jelly and two pumps of passion fruit syrup. I remember spending my first two months taste-testing while pretending to study for the GRE. I probably felt closest to Asian American community then: "Friends from L.A., tea snobs – please come and taste! Tell me if this is good enough!” My biggest fear was selling bad boba!

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What connections do you see between food, diaspora, and health?

Because of immigration, traditional diets become distorted by limited access to traditional ingredients. For Overseas Chinese, there’s Chinese American food, Chinese Malaysian food, Chinese Peruvian food (called chifa in Spanish, which literally sounds like “chi fan,” or “eat food” in Mandarin!). Even within China, there are different Chinese foods. What essence do dishes retain as people move from place to place? How does diasporal cuisine stay true to its roots and adapt to the local geography? When you’re displaced, willingly or unwillingly, how does that change affect your identity? 

In a diaspora, food is often the only way to connect to your home. A dish can give you security and comfort. I heard about a community in the U.S. with refugees who, due to the abundance of a certain ingredient, make one festival dish very frequently. However, this has resulted in a buildup of chronic disease. Should we take that dish away? If people are genuinely happy, do other factors matter at the end of the day? If you’re not able to feel at home in a community, what’s the point?

Tell me about your summer research. Why did you choose Malaysia?

My research question was “How do working women in a multiethnic population make food decisions about processed foods?” I used mixed methods, supplementing quantitative data from surveys with qualitative data from interviews. Why do you eat out or cook at home? How do you choose what to eat? What is your attitude toward health and nutrition? How do your childhood food experiences shape the way you eat as an adult? How do factors like time, taste, family, and work-life balance play a role?

Malaysia statistically has the highest rate of processed food consumption in Southeast Asia, as well as the fastest rising rates of diabetes and obesity. I’m interested in how different ethnic groups define what “healthy” or “eating well” means, amid a larger phenomenon called "nutrition transition,” i.e. McDonald’s-ization or Coca-Cola-ization. It’s the idea that with time, due to the globalization of markets, the world is converging onto a standardized diet of highly processed food. Products that last forever, that aren’t nutritious at all, but "do the job” in terms of caloric intake. So in developing countries, we're seeing a double burden of malnutrition and over-nutrition.

How would you compare Western and Asian food cultures? 

Western culture is very individualistic. Nutrition is scientific, rigorous, and detached. We’re obsessed with “eating healthy” and choosing the “right” foods, so you yourself have the right balance of caloric intake and energy expenditure. Versus the French paradox, where everyone eats “forbidden foods” like fatty cuts of meat, lots of cheese, lots of wine. Why aren’t they having worse health outcomes than the U.S.? The Japanese eat tons of rice and noodles – so many carbs! Why do they have the longest life expectancy? What’s going on there? There’s more to diet and health than just nutrition. How do you quantify and describe that?

In collectivist societies, eating is about community, but in the U.S., there are few family shared meals. People eat quickly because you want to get ahead. American culture emphasizes time and achievement. Yet so much of growth, whether it’s consuming food or ideas, is a slow process. You gain or lose weight over time. You grow over time to become someone you never imagined you would be. 

Why did you use “mixed methods” in your research?

Numbers mean nothing without the narratives behind them. If you want to make change, you have to understand the full range of experiences. “But confounding bias–” No, the bias is what's interesting. Why does it exist? Why is it confounding? That’s what I want to know. You can’t get that with surveys. You need to do interviews and learn straight from the source. What themes come up in conversation? What difficult-to-define processes generate behaviors we detect in a survey? How do you create culturally sensitive and specific interventions for behaviors that are also culturally sensitive and specific? How can we imagine effective solutions that communities actually want? What do they think is best for them, and why? What values and systems decide that? 

Interventions have to be tailored and community-driven. Less of a "quick fix,” which is what people like in the West. That mindset is spreading everywhere, but research is a collaborative relationship: “I know a little bit, but please tell me your story, so I can learn a little bit more and correct the way I’m thinking.” 

How has the research process opened your eyes or challenged your expectations? 

Researchers have a responsibility to question everything, especially the things they know best. For me, the call to research is about testing your assumptions, challenging your expectations, and respecting what you learn. "Why do I have this gut reaction? Where did that bias come from? What is the reality?”

I've realized that I came to Malaysia because I was running away from China. Being a Jonah. Following the “ugh” gut reaction that goes back to my parents. So the past year, we've been rebuilding our relationship. I talk to them pretty much every single day now, which is pretty cool. I’m realizing that they have lots to say about life, and sometimes know me better than I do. Apparently in middle school, I was interested in storytelling through writing. Recently, they said they appreciate that I'm trying to learn their stories. Connecting it all together has been really healing. 

I’ve come to a place where, in my free time, all I want to do is read about the history of Chinese food diversity and agriculture. I want to understand how food is connected to health and my family’s heritage. I want to learn the stories of a place that I’ve run away from.

No detail spared. Not even pineapple families.

No detail spared. Not even pineapple families.

As you dig into your parents’ stories, in what ways have you discovered you can relate to them? 

My neuroticism! I always go head-in with 200% focus on something I get really obsessed with. I will learn everything to an unnecessary degree of knowledge. I could have just bought powder to make bubble tea, but no, I had to read until I understood what’s acceptable, authentic, and the best way to use what we had. That obsession to know everything in detail comes from my parents. They’re incredibly work-driven. Very “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”

My mom grew up in a military family. Her father was an officer, so the family always moved around. One year, she moved in the middle of the school year, so she had to make up the entire curriculum by herself. My grandma had little education, and with three other siblings, she had to take care of herself. My dad was born in a poor neighborhood in Xinjiang, China, near the Gobi Desert, but spent a lot of his childhood in Canton with his aunt. I think my independent streak comes from him. I don’t want to rely on my parents for anything! He went to the U.S. for grad school and now runs a chemical surfactants company in China. We actually went back ten years ago and found the building where he grew up. Open roof, just straw in some areas. Plain, simple, dirty. It was about to be torn down for condos. My dad always says he wasn’t smart – he just worked hard to get to where he is now. 

How is food encouraging your family’s healing? 

Food has given us a regular rhythm to communicate as we try to become more of a functional dysfunctional family. My brother and I grew up academically pitted against each other. Now, we Skype every week when he’s cooking his midnight dinner. 

My dad eats so little, he’s like a twig! He sees food as something he "has to do.” I have to pile his plate and say, “Daddy, you have to finish this food before you leave the table.” It's my way of saying, “I see how hard you work for the family. I get it, but you need to feed yourself.” When I’m home, I learn to make things he likes, like bread, so when he does eat, he feels happy, not “Ugh, she’s making me eat brown rice again.” Honestly, I think I started dabbling in making Asian breads to say “I’m sorry” and “I care about you.”

My mom, she gets me now. She knows what I’m trying to do without me saying it. When I go home, I stay in her presence when she’s cooking and try to help out in kitchen. It’s my way of saying, “I see what you’re doing. I support you. I’m going to carry this on in relationships in my own life.”