While recently cooking for a family in their home, I uncovered six drawers, two cupboards, and a freezer drawer full of supplements, health elixirs, tinctures, vitamin syringes, and all manner of trendy wellness paraphernalia. Just the sight of it all made me dizzy. As a chef who owned a plant-based restaurant and a devoted proponent of a healthy lifestyle, I can tell you firsthand that you cannot buy your way to wellness.
How we cultivate self-care in our lives will look different for each of us. For me it has always included yoga, healthy eating, and a mindfulness routine. But perhaps most importantly, it is centered on connection—with my community, and with myself.
By showing up for ourselves and our communities, we are saying we are worthy. And during these twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racially fueled violence, cultivating self-love and reminding ourselves that we are worthy is the single most powerful thing we could be doing.
The Search for Belonging
I didn’t grow up with much positive reinforcement about being Japanese. Some exceptions were when my grandfather took us to Buddhist church and taught us how and why to pray, took me to Japanese restaurants, and eventually I got to go to Japan with him. But despite that, there was mostly shame messaging about being Japanese American. My grandparents were interned during World War II for being ‘enemies to the state’ and lived in a horse stall with several other families. My grandmother never recovered. She was a catatonic ghost floating through our childhood. The only time she ever spoke was to scream at her own ghosts. My aunt Naiomi was born in that horse stall. Interesting that she was given a Western name while her other three siblings (born in Japan) have Japanese names. They returned to the states in 1956 when my father was six years old and proceeded to live a life of quiet assimilation. My father pretended he was Mexican to blend into our Latino neighborhood, goes by an American name, and speaks no Japanese. My grandfather never taught us Japanese or kendo (the martial art that he practiced); in fact, he told me to “marry a nice American man that would take care of me.”
So, in essence, I was raised to believe that my Japanese heritage was shameful and that my worth was measured by finding a husband. In addition, the mental illness and trauma in my family were not to be discussed. Well, I never did find that husband. But I did marry a Filipino woman with whom I opened a restaurant.
Being women in a male-dominated industry is enough to foster imposter syndrome on its own; put queer and BIPOC on top of that and you have a recipe for struggle. For many people of color, it manifests as overcompensating. We feel the need to work harder, be harder, achieve higher than our peers. The restaurant industry is a self-sacrificing culture. We wear our suffering like a badge of honor. So when you add imposter syndrome, internalized racism, and homophobia, it can be a dangerous place. Some of the most toxic chefs I’ve ever worked for were women, queer, and/or people of color. It took me a long time to see the conditioning behind that.
A Vegan Haven and a Safe Space
When my former partner and I opened Jewel in 2017, it was important to us that our restaurant be a reflection of us and our community. We both came from fine dining backgrounds in New York and we wanted to say goodbye to the tweezers and white tablecloths and all the straight white patriarchy that goes with those things. We wanted a restaurant that was not a culinary temple or a “scene” but a place of community and healing. A business model that was better for the environment, that promoted a healthy lifestyle without being preachy or elite. We envisioned a bustling dining room filled with people eating vibrant plates of food, chatting blithely, and hugging each other warmly. We wanted to go back to the roots of breaking bread with folx, sharing food as a catalyst for sharing ideas, joys, triumphs, and struggles.
This is indeed what Jewel became—a plant-based restaurant using the gifts (or “jewels”) of the earth to create food to bring our community together. It was my dream come true, and I am filled with pain reflecting on it all because I’ve recently stepped away. But even though I’m no longer a part of her, my creativity, passion, and holistic approach will live on in the culture I helped create, and for this, I feel immense pride. I never subscribed to the hierarchy and toxicity that plagues restaurant kitchens. As the chef-owner, it was my job to lead, inspire, create and be authoritative when necessary, it was someone else’s job to wash the dishes, but we were both equally important to the whole organism. If the dishwasher was sick or going through something personal, we all pitched in collectively until she was able to work again. We used ‘we/us’ pronouns. If someone made a mistake the conversation was “how do we fix it, and how do we avoid a similar mistake in the future?” I believe singling people out and shaming them is counterproductive and is actually extremely dangerous as it leads to disengagement and, eventually, rage. When people are in shame they lash out at people weaker than them and on and on it spirals. These are the kinds of kitchens I came up in, and I wanted to break that cycle.
In the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Duante Wright, and the too many humans that were the wrong color, gender, or identity at the wrong time; in the wake of elderly people and AAPI women that look like me being attacked and murdered in the streets and in their workplaces; it’s hard not to be filled with horror and despair. But I have found resilience in the simple concept of unity. There is beauty in the togetherness that has been born out of collectively surviving a pandemic, and all forms of injustice, together.
In my industry, that has manifested in the collaborative problem solving and creative pivoting that we have been thrust into. You see examples of communities rising up everywhere and shining a light on racism, police brutality, transphobia, toxic masculinity, and systemic injustice. Yes, the last four years have incubated seeds of racism, hatred, and divisiveness, but now that they are in full bloom, we can no longer look away. It took exposing the ugly roots to finally start the work to cut them down.
Healing also comes through simple communication. When we talk about mental health and self-care in our Black, brown, Asian, and queer communities, we are resisting. When we talk about systemic racism and defunding the police, we are talking holistically about shifting paradigms. When we reject the claim that the murder of six Asian women was “not racially motivated,” we are speaking truth to power. Of course, we are angry, and rightfully so, but underneath the outrage, we must be rooted by a sense of self-worth to push change forward. We must be united by the deep-seated belief that we deserve better.
Feeling a sense of belonging and feeling loved are intrinsically linked so when you grow up in the margins you are receiving a constant negative reinforcement that you are not loved and worse, that you don’t deserve love. It takes a lot of courage and work, often daily work to overcome that messaging. I’ve spent a lifetime cultivating my own self-love, and sense of belonging and it is what roots me in my identity. I am a queer Japanese-American woman, a child of immigrants, a restaurant owner, and a community leader. This is the power of the word “Pride” in the LGBTQIA community.
By leaning on our communities we achieve a sense of belonging. By embracing our identity we cultivate self-love. By celebrating our identities we feel pride. By resisting societal messaging that we deserve anything less, we affect cultural change.
Here are some of my favorite community resources for support or if you wish to donate:
The Trevor Project
California LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network
Los Angeles LGBT Center