FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — David Rasavong’s cultural pride is evident all throughout his restaurant.
It’s on the wall of family portraits and where a stunning mural depicts his family’s journey from Laos to California. It’s on the menu filled with Lao and Thai dishes like the crispy coconut rice salad of Nam Khao and the stir-fried rice noodles of Pad See Ew.
And it’s in the fact that Love & Thai in Fresno, California, restaurant is open at all. A baseless accusation grounded in a racist stereotype about Asian food using dog meat brought a six-month barrage of harassment so heated that Rasavong, 41, closed down its previous location over fears for his family’s safety.
His earlier restaurant had itself only been open for seven months when a so-called animal welfare crusader in May implied on social media that a pitbull tied up at an unconnected home next door was going to be served on the menu.
A day after the initial commentary, vitriolic statements, voicemails and calls rained down. Rasavong’s body still tenses up when recounting, in particular, a call from an elderly woman.
“She was so disgusted by me and yelling and screaming, and the only thing I can remember hearing her say at the end was ‘Go back to the country you came from you dog-eating mother-effer,’” Rasavong recently told The Associated Press.
Within days, he closed that restaurant because it no longer felt safe between the harassment and people loitering in the parking lot outside of business hours.
The false accusation tapped into a longstanding slur against Asian cuisines and cultures that has persisted in the U.S. for over 150 years, dating back to the xenophobia that grew in the U.S. after Chinese immigrants started arriving in more visible numbers in the 1800s and other Asian communities followed. It’s also one that Asian American communities are fighting against.
It may be astonishing to some that a claim rooted in a racist stereotype took down a family’s restaurant three years after “Stop Asian Hate” became a rallying cry. But for many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it’s something they’ve heard before as an insult or under the guise of a “joke,” along with other negative reactions to the actual foods of their cultures. In December, a comedian received some backlash for dressing like a UPS delivery driver and walking into an Asian restaurant with caged puppies for a social media video.
There is hope though that more people will learn to tell truth from trope. Since the pandemic first fueled anti-Asian hostilities, AAPI communities themselves have tried to take control of the narrative that Asian food is “dirty,” “weird” yet “exotic.” Furthermore, the appetite to learn about food from the Asian diaspora has only grown across traditional and new media.
Still, there were moments where Rasavong felt like nobody, even media, was on his side. He said a few reporters approached him assuming the claims were true.
But he soon received tons of community support, and the closure ended up being a new beginning.
A shopping center property manager offered him the chance to take over a suite vacated by another restaurant. Nkundwe P. van Wort-Kasyanju, a graphic designer in the Netherlands, and Los Angeles-based interior designer Danny Gonzales proffered their services for free. Hana Luna Her, a local artist, painted the mural. By the Nov. 3 grand opening of the new space, Love & Thai definitely felt the love. The place was bustling all day, Rasavong said, and the city presented a proclamation.
Rasavong is holding onto the belief that he went through this whole saga for a reason.
“There’s a journey that we’re supposed to go on,” said Rasavong, who declined to say if he’ll pursue legal action. “Don’t get me wrong. People need to realize this business is not easy … But you know, we believe in what we’re doing and so far so good.”
In actuality, consuming dog meat is something that has happened in various parts of the world for centuries, where they weren’t seen as domesticated family pets, said Robert Ku, author of “Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA.” Greeks and Romans referenced it. The French also ate dog meat during World War II.
But when Chinese immigrants came to the U.S., it was linked to them as part of “the myths that the Chinese were these bizarre people who had bizarre diets,” Ku said. “It was one of the attractions of actually going to Chinese restaurants back in the day because it came with ‘danger.’”
As other Asian immigrant groups came, the stereotype spread to include them.
“This is a real just blurring of the Asian identity where it doesn’t matter if you’re Thai or Korean or Vietnamese or Cambodian. You’re all the same,” Ku said.
Along with the false allegation of eating dog meat, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders over the generations have often faced disgust and worse from others when they’ve brought their cultures’ foods from home to public spaces like school or work.
They’re taking steps to fight back, like in 2021, when San Francisco-Bay Area-based writers Diann Leo-Omine. Anthony Shu and Shirley Huey self-published “Lunchbox Moments,” a compilation of over two dozen personal essays and illustrations that raised $6,000 for charity.
The project became “a powerful thing for all of us,” Leo-Omine said.
“We tried to show it’s not always about being in relation to being American or being white or assimilated,” she said. “You can have moments of joy, too…I hope that it opened people’s minds a little bit more — or made them want to try new foods.”
It’s actually been a big year in publishing and food media for Asian cuisine. Publishers Weekly dedicated a feature in August entirely to Chinese and Taiwanese food after observing nine new cookbooks on the subjects were coming out this year. Several of the authors grew up outside of Asia. The titles range from “Vegan Chinese Food,” to “Kung Food” and “A Very Chinese Cookbook” from America’s Test Kitchen. Also, children’s book author Grace Lin released “Chinese Menu,” which relays folklore behind favorite Chinese American dishes. They all share personal anecdotes and readers often seem drawn to “personality-driven” cookbooks, said Carolyn Juris, features editor.
“It’s not just about the recipes. It’s about the stories behind them and I think people respond to that,” Juris said.
Like any other culture, Asian cultures encompass many different regional cuisines and nuances. With the growing Asian diaspora, it’s not strange that so many cookbooks can be mined and “publishers are savvy enough to know that there is a market for these books,” Juris added.
Back at Love & Thai, Rasavong is busy filling online orders for a waiting third-party delivery driver. He is optimistic about keeping up business now that the initial hoopla around his restaurant renaissance has calmed down. Rasavong also hopes his situation will remind others to think before they speak.
“People say these jokes and they think it’s just fun and just light-hearted,” he said. “There are certain things that you shouldn’t say that really do cross a line.”
___ This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Diann Leo-Omine’s last name to Leo-Omine, not Leo-Omineto.
Tang is a Phoenix-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @ttangAP.