Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

Karima Chellouf: Not Too Sweet 

Saturday, September 23, 2023, 1 – 3 PM PDT

Centre A (Zoom) 


Register HERE


Not Too Sweet is going to push back against the racist, fatphobic, shaming trashfire that Diet Culture is, by discussing the power of balancing cultural foods for joy and nourishment. Protecting API lives, includes helping us live longer by preventing and fighting cancer and diabetes, which majorly impact our diasporas. Pull up a chair, let’s sit together!

My Home Is A Museum And My Heart Is A Mausoleum

Dear readers

My participation in Centre A’s CAARDI project includes the great honour of providing a written reflection in any format. We received an audience question that has stayed with me, asking about how I connect and engage with my culture.

This tugs at me every day, like a Rubik’s cube that clicks and turns on its own in the background.

The attendee was asking specifically about finding the confidence to cook, after being berated into a place of fear by their Asian grandmother. 

I think about this every day, too. It wounds my spirit, knowing that many of our elders (and sometimes even parents) are infamous for a callousness that flattens them into brash, one-dimensional stereotypes. It’s dehumanizing to them, and often has the opposite result that they were hoping for, with us: 

instead of *making us want to live up to their standards,* this can impact every area of our lives, and result in lowered self-esteem, decreased life satisfaction, negative physical/mental health outcomes, and higher suicide rates. Coupled with a lack of acknowledgement for/support of neurodivergence, and Asians statistically being much less likely to have access to/willingness to seek mental health care (and there being a lack of practitioners with cultural awareness), I consider it to be dangerous.

This is not the dream for us. This is a nightmare, an epidemic that destroys our personal health, families, and communities from within, starting at home. At a bare minimum, it can and will create distance and harm, where room for connection should have been. Expected obedience and conditional love do not provide an environment for people to flourish.

I recently finished reading the most disgusting, excellent book, Tell Me Pleasant Things About Immortality by Lindsay Wong. It’s about Chinese women, monsters, ghosts, and more, out for revenge against violence, misogyny, imperialism, and other forms of abuse. It’s the literary evil twin of Crazy Rich Asians, and a visceral, up-close look at the horrors of Sinophobia, and how the continued reverberations of pain and suffering drag us all down, keep us small, and ultimately kneecap our chances of truly reaching peace and happiness. I and other racialized kin who have been working hard on ourselves, commiserate about how the essential heavy lifting of breaking curses and creating new patterns, is like fighting ghosts from 100 years ago, if not longer. 

The epigenetics of unresolved intergenerational trauma (past and ongoing/present) have been killing us. It’s like the polar opposite of intergenerational wealth: it robs families of joy, and all of the compound interest happiness that it had the potential to accrue. It is the emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, and energetic equivalent of a fallen, crackling live wire that moves erratically, threatening to stun anybody who gets too close, including the person that the sparks are coming from. 

Every racially diverse group is at steeply increased risk of experiencing these adverse circumstances. There are so many reasons why we might have deep family and cultural wounds (many of which can be traced back to colonial/imperial violence), and the stakes are higher for us, as most of us reading this live on stolen land, where the societies and systems built around us may appear broken, but function as intended: to uphold and perpetuate the harm of White supremacy, through systemic oppression.

There is no failing upwards for us. There is no grace that will catch us. For many of us, there is no room for mistakes, and barely room to breathe: control has historically been exerted by authority figures (and if we’re unlucky, even family members or partners) as a way to keep us “safe,” or “good,” but look around, because I need to ask: has it?

For most of my life, I did not connect with my roots in a tangible, meaningful way. Over the last few years, it has been all that I want. I have been hunting and aggressively reclaiming, on my own terms, because this is a common existential struggle for multiracial people, third-culture kids, immigrants, and diasporic kin born on Turtle Island, all of whom search for where we belong, and feel that maybe it doesn’t exist.

My parents bravely and heartbreakingly wanted us to just get to be kids here, and they were busy trying to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table: ESL parents in survival mode do what they can, in conditions that aren’t set up for them to win. They took us to prayer at the mosque, and Lunar New Year parades. I would fold wontons and eat couscous at home. But they didn’t explicitly talk to us in depth about our cultures, our history, what it means, and why it matters. The space in my spirit that was meant to be filled with heritage, was, partially: in a slight trickle of pieces and moments, many of which were less obvious to me (and so, woefully under-appreciated at the time) in my youth. In retrospect, I notice how my parents floated us in a sea of support in a way that was so understated, with Arabic Chosen Uncles, Jewish and Chinese doctors and dentists, that I didn’t fully realize its value until I had to find my people. At the time, I took their presence for granted; I had failed to see my own reflection in the glimmers of these waves. It was like quietly being given a fruit plate, one piece at a time. Knowing who you are and being able to live and express it is something that many people take for granted. There are people marching and fighting and dying for theirs.

My parents thought that we might not care, and they were giving us freedom from a burden, but that left opportunity to be gripped by a lack of identity, and a bigger risk: if you do not define who you are, others will gladly tell you. When it suits people and systems to do so, they can manipulate us with self-doubt, criticism, or misinformation in the hopes that we don’t realize and fully grasp our power, because fear, barriers, and lack will keep people busy, instead of asking questions and retaining our agency. What they usually don’t anticipate is flat-out rejection, and we are seeing this globally, every time people rise up and speak out against brutality. We need more than sterilized, neatly packaged (but hastily recited) land acknowledgements after massacres and times and silence: we need awareness, action, and an end to genocides, everywhere and forever.

The pursuit of liberation and justice requires having to undo and stop the flow of inherited, accumulated harm that has and is being passed down. Many of us are working through a great unlearning about Western media/pop culture bias and the need to continue dismantling racist tropes, as we look for content and news directly from journalists and civilians in places that people don’t want us to see. I must be honest and say that as a person who is Asian and Arabic, daily watching of Indigenous Arabic Asians being massacred in a genocide has kept my head in a bad place. But I cannot make myself not bear witness. Community with aligned values in action has been truly life-giving. 

I am grateful to Centre A for taking a stand and declaring their solidarity with the Palestinian freedom movement. Project 1907 noted on social media, as did I, that not enough Asian advocacy groups are speaking up in support of Palestine, which has long been held in regard as the litmus test of  progressive values. It does feels like saying anything about current events comes with imminent and inevitable threats of shock waves, rife with Islamophobia, Orientalism, and anti-Semitism. These are never not poised and hungrily waiting to crush people in the same way that I use the flat side of my chef’s knife on cloves of garlic. I anticipate receiving hate mail for this. It is what it is.

The health and freedom of all groups of people are tied together, and my friends of all backgrounds (including Jewish and Muslim) have found ways to educate themselves and show up. This is ancestral work and healing in action, and it’s a duty of ours, as well: repairing for those who came before us (whether they like it or not, especially if they do not), those who are near us, and for those who may arrive after us. I have to share all of this, so that my words can never be misconstrued, or twisted into something untrue and rotten to bludgeon people with. Having my Jewish friends is easy. We refuse to let people hurt the other. That’s it. Have you ever tried fresh latkes with harissa mayo or toum?

We are living through a true examination of what we have actually learned and practiced from previous and ongoing social justice movements in support of other overlapping communities, as we observe the pendulum now moving ferociously in the other direction, around the world: continued erosion of civil rights, large scale suppression and censorship (banning of flags, algorithmic targeting, removal of content), punishment (professional, academic, community shunning), and violence (even murderous hate crimes) in response. Pay acute attention to who people are showing themselves to be right now: what are their words and actions telling you? Centuries of oppressive systems and the people conditioned by them are not happy to let go.

We are expected to believe that this is for our own benefit, but pay any attention, do any amount of homework, and you won’t be able to, as we watch people whose job is to serve their constituents, lying to us in real time and ignoring global calls for peace and justice. So many of us have ancestors (living or not, whether we knew them or not) who fled authoritarian regimes and/or fought to protect their land. I often wonder, these days, about how Western governments manufactured consent to kill millions of people at home and abroad, through wars, invasions, colonizations, and deciding who gets deemed as a threat. How their people are devalued. Voices erased. How we are taught to fear and hate them. This is an old tactic that keeps getting recycled.

Most of us have heard about the Fight or Flight responses that humans tend to experience when encountered with danger and fear, but there are others that are less commonly known: Fawn and Freeze. What I want us to consider today, is how freezing shows up as inaction, at a time where we need to move the most. Neuroscientists have touted that the human brain and body don’t know the difference between risks. When a bear approaches, when you’re nervous to ask someone on a date, or the split second after you realize you have knocked your boba off the table, before it hits the ground. It’s all the same. Our voices and presence matter. If we aren’t already using them, we need to get curious about what it will take to help us shift gears and add all the oil. The lifelong work of stepping into our fullest spirits, and pursuing freedom for ourselves and others has become an emergency.

The glacial pace of authentically diverse representation in pop culture and media is a testament to whose voices (therefore stories and lives) get prioritized, and whose don’t. We have historically been minimized, and even now, in our glow-up era (which particularly favours East Asians), the price of admission for our acceptance often feels like we are only allowed to keep things simple, positive, and surface-level. We need deeper, nuanced progress, and to be mindful that the respectability politics of clamouring for proximity to Whiteness and prestige, often makes it easier for us to be manipulated, used, and discarded, or worse, put to work. The colour of the foot in the boot on people’s necks stops mattering as much when they are doing the labour of White Supremacy. There is nothing like the bitter self-loathing that comes after sitting at tables where we were expected to be silent and grateful to be present, thankful for crumbs instead of a meal, while someone else gets to pat themselves on the back for “including” us.

The Model Minority. You can’t enjoy the taste of celebratory champagne when your mouth is full of blood from biting your tongue. This does not serve us. We are worthy of more.

The Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora/network was formed as an umbrella for larger collective power against prejudice. Our gathered energy has the potential to be so strong and purposeful. Excluding entire groups (and subcontinents) from solidarity and recognition makes no sense: the impossible goalpost moving and infighting of Who Gets To Be Asian or Who Is Asian Enough is counterproductive and insecure, taking away from us, and diverting our gaze. As peoples who separately and collectively have been repeatedly shattered by imperialism and colonization (both Eastern and Western), brutal military sieges, human experimentation, dictatorships, trafficking, femicide, nuclear attacks, chemical weapons and more, it’s my hope that we can lean into sorely needed unity, and choose better for all of us. Whether people are trying to destroy us, fetishize us, or appropriate from us, they are trying to separate us from our humanity and essence. To extract from us. We cannot allow that to make us complicit in the destruction of others: dehumanizing people, to make them easier to kill with impunity, instead makes an oppressor lose their own humanity, and diminishes the purpose of life that they themselves could have. What could it look like, in a future where we are celebrating that there are billions of ways to be us, and traces of colonial norms are outright rejected? Skin lightening cream should not be a billion dollar industry. It shouldn’t be an industry, period.

Years ago, I saw an interview about the movie, Hidden Figures, where the lead actress, Taraji P. Henson, said that in learning about the real-life department of brilliant Black women mathematicians doing calculations at NASA (during segregation), “I felt like a dream had been stolen from me.”

Every cell in my body wants to explode like popcorn, knowing that millions of people are being forcibly starved to death. Real history isn’t being taught in textbooks. It is carried forward by people who survive. Food systems are inherently political, and inextricable from power dynamics. My self-directed study of food history over the years, truly, has been observing constellations of what happens to people. Reading about culinary origins unearths stories of resilience, waiting to be picked up. If you choose to look, you will find stories, photos, and records of Asian activism waiting for you. My wish is for us to inherit a legacy of justice. 

We have a moral imperative to act with the urgency and love that people should have had for our families and communities before us. As we rightfully and validly call out anti-Asian racism, we can’t turn away when it threatens to devour another group. We need to be cautious and curious about who benefits from that, and where we learned to think and feel this way, because I promise you, they hate us, too. If we hope that people are willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, in genuine accompliceship, is that not something that we must also be able to extend? Respect is mutual or it isn’t there. Learning, growing, and changing can be uncomfortable and ugly, but we are being shown what people can do to others. And are reminded of what has been done to us.

My late maternal grandmother arrived in so-called Vancouver after a nine-day boat ride. Her family in China was considered to be doing well, with rice fields and a plain, four-storey concrete home. In childhood, I saw a home video of it, when a relative went back to visit, and asked her why there were metal bars in the windows. Her reply was simple, but as I understand it now, carried so many layers.

“Everybody was hungry.”

She was 17 when she immigrated here, with almost nothing, and an interrupted grade-school education, that required running past a jungle to get to class. The government had been displacing people, and taking their belongings. The video showed the inside of our former home: it was barren, with the exception of a mural on the ceiling. The one thing that couldn’t be stolen. When I asked Grandma a few years ago if she ever wanted to return to school and study after learning English here, she said, “Nobody wanted us.”

I do not have an ounce of the type of bravery required for that journey, but I must expand in other ways, because I see how fear and barriers shrank her life in many directions, as it often has for our immigrant ancestors. It takes immense strength to be a warm and loving person. In a few months, she will have been gone for four years. Two of her last zongzi are nestled in my freezer door, neighbours to a box of Mochiko flour. Knowing the ingredients she made them with for decades, and a blip of a childhood memory of my mom mentioning its English name, an online acquaintance helped me find the village that our family came from; a mystery puzzle piece clicked into place.

I’ve looked it up on Google Street View, it’s mostly jungle now. At Museum of Vancouver’s breathtaking A Seat At The Table exhibit, I was able to see this place through a VR headset playing drone footage. It is lush, green, and overgrown around the concrete towers, as younger people moved away or immigrated, and remaining elders joined the ancestors. A volunteer shared an attendee’s story, that citizens there would fight back from their rooftops, against raiders and the authoritarian regime coming for them. This gave strategic context to the photos I have of our building. Screens can bring us exasperatingly close-but-still-too-far from people and places that we want to see or help. As we watch others losing everything and having to start over, if they even survive, it feels vital that we extend our empathy and do as they have asked of us.

There’s a popular bottle of olive oil that you may have noticed in stores. It’s dark, with a notoriously exuberant yellow label that features a black horse. A product of Tunisia, where my dad is from. Tunisia produces around 4% of the global olive oil supply, which sounds like a small amount, but when you think about how much is in the world, that is…a lot. I have heard about and seen videos of Tunisians marching in the streets, protesting for Gazans every day, calling for freedom. My dad mentioned that our late aunt sponsored two Palestinian students for years and they were chosen family. I recently learned that our famous olive trees, the fruit-bearing, life-giving, income-bringing, ancient friends, originally came from Palestine, where their own agricultural kin, decades, hundreds, and even over a thousand years old, are being cut down, burned, and bulldozed.

A small bag of almond paste cookies lives in my freezer, a recent gift from a cheerful relative who spent a few years in their home country’s prison in the 1970s, for distributing information about government corruption. They refused to apologize, which would have avoided their sentencing altogether. They did not accept the carrot that was dangled. This staunchness in the face of intimidation, is similarly palpable every morning when we check our social media feeds to see if journalists are still alive. The algorithm is in Hell. Every morning when I take out blueberries to make a smoothie, the cookies are there. When we hugged and laughed, seeing each other for the first time in 30 years, I thought: this person is made of stone, and I love them for it.

This morning, I had to visit a Great Auntie, whom I recently reunited with after more than 20 years apart, or longer. I’ve been seeing and helping her clear out a relative’s home, while she restores my breath with a steady stream of encouragement, timelines and family context, and heirlooms. Today she had some last gifts for me to peruse, from her late parents: a steel thermos, that my great-grandmother would make Hong Kong tea in daily, and a small suitcase that belonged to my great-grandfather (who passed away before I was born), our first ancestor to arrive on the shores of Turtle Island.

Inside was a metal lockbox, with its key tucked inside a small Yucho Chow Studio envelope, for a photo taken in June of 1968. It is the cash till box for our family’s store, Bryan Grocery, that existed on Renfrew and Broadway starting around 1953 and has now been an empty lot for years. A local historian friend is helping to find out what else we can about it: we met while I was managing Oh Carolina, formerly Charles Grocery, which was previously owned by, as I was told, one of Great Grandpa’s housemates and grocery delivery business colleagues. They were eventually able to save up and open their own shops. And this is a piece of my origin story. 

One of the best parts of working every day in that space (aside from hosting pop-ups with guest chefs and having sweet regulars), was being visited by people with childhood memories of family connections to generations of Charles Grocery. Asian elders happily shared their stories, glad to hear that someone was trying to take care of the place against the odds.

The cash box’s metal handle was detached, and one of the bolts to secure it was unscrewed. I love to fix things when possible, it is care and curiosity at once. We turned it over, found the missing pieces, and I put them back together, tightening them with fingertips and determination. We tested the key in the lock, and cheered as it clicked shut and opened again easily and happily.

Families are lucky if they have one storyteller. My home is a museum and my heart is a mausoleum, for cherished items that I hold gently, from people that I wish the world was better to. With the exception of one, I now have treasures passed down from every relative that I visit with clementines and flowers at the cemetery, as if the blood coursing through my veins wasn’t already enough. Entire family lines are being wiped out overseas, via bloodshed, and being erased from public record. I look, heavy with melancholy, at our 7-generation Chinese family tree diagram that none of us can read. Grandma told nobody about it, and left it hidden in a box of papers that a relative almost threw away after her passing. The only reason it was found, is that the bottom of the box collapsed as it was being taken to the recycling bin. Another puzzle piece. I must thank Grandma and the spirits of weak cardboard/divine timing.

I engage with my culture as a pair of glasses to look for where generosity and creativity might live. It lingers in my hands and words, ready to nourish, build, and repair. It is a power source when I want to have a scream. My culture is a reminder to be the neighbour that I wish my elders had, to try and be soft with living family members (they deserve it, I am The Black Sheep and a handful). I see it in the looks, waves, and peace signs being given to protesters from uncles, who feel seen and loved as crowds march in front of their hookah, shawarma, and man’oushe businesses. It is in every tear that I shed for what I’ve been able to piece together for myself and the family, and for what (and whom) others have lost and continue to lose as the slaughter continues. It is a call to action, coded in my DNA. My handle, Hey Have You Eaten, is the international language and signal for I Love You.

SWANA and Muslim friends and I talk often about how hurtful silence is. People who want to harm others, love it. They need it: This is why (over here) they invented the Model Minority myth (which is not at all the same as Asian excellence), to keep us compliant, and weaponize us against other marginalized and targeted demographics. We must disrupt this. Racialized folks are so much more than our pain, but even if a person runs away from the truth of being impacted by violent events, it is still a piece of who they are. Ignoring it is also a form of being impacted. When I see someone who is silent in the face of oppression, it is like looking at a person who doesn’t realize they have a giant, open, unaddressed wound. A dream has been stolen from us.

The human brain is wired to try and shield you, numb you, from ongoing suffering and distress, because it’s a lot to process. I agree, it is a lot to process, because oppression is relentlessly hungry, and people shouldn’t be suffering. It’s a deliberate, intentional daily system override, to avoid shutting down. My heart breaks open every day, and sometimes it feels like it’s the only way to stay in touch with my humanity. I am writing to you about love, grief, fear, and belonging, because out of necessity, we have historically been endlessly adaptable and resourceful, no matter how bleak the circumstances are. The human brain is also wired for connection. You can do this. I know you can.

Let this be a reminder and a balm to anybody who is disappointed by or isolated from their community, for wanting them to step up, and instead is being met with indifference, or even vitriol: You are not alone in this diasporic angst and environmental frustration. If you feel alone, or that it’s too much for one person, because it is, it’s even more important that you keep going and find your people: When Centre A and Project 1907 hosted a sign-making event, many showed up. Sometimes an invitation is all it takes. If each of us is a thread, our tensile strength is much greater together. The fabric of change is woven from countless additions.

If you feel unmoored, start dreaming, and start building, because others need it, too. Find the medium that works for you. Food and words are the ones I chose. I need to remember everything. We must not forget ourselves, and in doing so, we must not forget each other.

I hope that enough of us can use our anger and grief as a compass for love, and find the courage to mobilize, create change, and use our voices. My dream is that the conditions of injustice everywhere will cease to exist, so that one day we may not need to. I imagine that every person who has had to fight for their lives, deserved the peace to find comfort and ease in restorative joy. They deserved to be picking flowers and eating fruit.

What gives me any ability to even think about a future that feels uncertain and nebulous, is knowing that there are caring people, we just need to find them, and we have to believe that life can be better than what currently exists.


We can be afraid, together. 

We will be brave, together.

With love and gratitude

Karima Chellouf, CNP

Karima Chellouf, CNP, is a proud/aggressively Asian chef, nutritionist, educator, writer, presenter, content creator (and more!), who uses words, food, history, and jokes to connect people in an effort to make sense of the world around us.

For the past decade and a half, Karima has survived in “Vancouver’s” elevated dining scene and fine patisseries, while bringing fire and humour to independent work. These celebrations of culture, community, and food justice (plus the occasional comedy roast of bigotry) have been featured by local and international media and events.

Accessibility: The gallery is wheelchair and walker accessible. If you have specific accessibility needs, please contact us at (604) 683-8326 or [email protected].

Centre A is situated on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. We honour, respect, and give thanks to our hosts.