Fuller Prize Winner
By Lea Ramaswamy
The distant clanging of woks and sizzling of hot oil meld to form a soundtrack at Tin House, a Sichuan restaurant in Monti. One day, within moments of settling in for a late lunch, we watched as another customer walked in and left in a huff. The problem? She was upset that the all-you-can-eat-sushi was not available. We felt the sting of rejection almost as keenly as did the owners, painfully aware of the empty tables that surrounded us. Any doubts this encounter may have prompted about the quality of food were quickly put to rest when a platter of shiny golden and fluffy white buns piled high arrived alongside sinfully buttery pork belly, and heady chicken stock with a shimmer of oil floating on top, broken only by the tops of dainty dumplings like icebergs in soup. My friend and I savored every bite; but once it came time for tea, the woman who had stalked out with contempt reoccupied our minds.
It has been a hard year for all small businesses here in Italy. Stores owned for generations have lowered their blinds, and gut-wrenching posters blaming a lack of government support papered the streets in the months following the first lockdown. Arguably, no one was hit as hard as the Chinese community. Last February, right before the pandemic had set in as reality in Italy, a Chinese couple were ordered to isolate after testing positive for COVID-19. They were quickly pinned as the cause of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, although we now know that Patient Zero of November 2019 was in fact a Milanese woman. Pinning fear to the Chinese origin of the virus was not without consequences. A few days later, Chen from Jiamo Lab––a Chinese restaurant in Piazza Fiume––uploaded a video responding to concerns regarding their ingredient sourcing and employee contact with relatives from China. With a smiling face, Chen assured his customers that their ingredients were 100% Italian. Knowing that these queries likely stemmed from the recent proliferation of savage images of Chinese wet markets, I imagined the strength so many Asian business owners would be forced to muster when probed unremittingly on the hygiene of their food, their culture, and their people.
Despite being part of an international community here at JCU, it often seems like immigrant life in Rome runs parallel to the beautiful—but gentrified—neighborhood of Trastevere, but taking the initiative to cross Ponte Sisto can reap delicious, with diversely culinary (and human) connections. Spend your Sunday at Mercato Esquilino, buy dumplings and lotus root at Pacific Trading, and head for some Bangladeshi, Filipino, or Peruvian food at Tor Pignattara. However you choose to support immigrant businesses in these trying times, we can all take a cue from Clarence Kwon, author of Chinese Protest Recipes— a limited edition zine devoted to anti-racist resistance through Chinese food whose activism greatly inspired this article. It has never been more urgent to eat widely, with love, pride, and appreciation. And if all that seems too difficult, order in your favorite Chinese…and don’t forget to tip.
Lea is a graduating senior this semester with a major in Art History and a minor in Creative Writing.