Lisa Ling grew up ashamed of her Chinese heritage.
The history books she read in school made no mention of Asian immigrants’ many contributions to the United States. She assumed no one cared about their stories.
Now she knows better. And with her new show, the veteran journalist is telling the stories she wishes she’d heard as a kid.
Each episode of “Take Out With Lisa Ling” explores different cuisines that Asian immigrants brought to the United States: Filipino food in Louisiana, Chinese food in Sacramento, Vietnamese food in California’s Orange County, Bangladeshi food in New York, Japanese food in Los Angeles and Korean food in Fairfax County, Virginia.
But the mouthwatering meals are only the beginning of Ling’s journey. The people she meets along the way reveal hidden stories about the deep roots of Asian immigrant communities that have helped the country grow.
For Ling, who also hosts a CNN original series, this project is personal. Her grandparents opened a Chinese restaurant in Sacramento when, despite their professional degrees and qualifications, they couldn’t find work in the United States.
The day her new show premiered on HBO Max (which is also owned by WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company), Ling spoke with CNN about why telling these stories is more important now than ever, what she learned that surprised her and what she hopes you’ll take away from “Take Out.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you pick which cuisines to focus on for the show?
That was probably the hardest thing of all. Because I told HBO Max when they greenlit the series, “I need 20 episodes at least, because the Asian American diaspora is so vast and diverse.” They gave us six, and we really chose the six that we did because we learned of incredible stories that we didn’t know about before.
I like to think that each episode will introduce you to a community, introduce you to an aspect of the cuisine that you might have otherwise never known about, including Asian Americans. For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this was the opportunity to just learn so much about this community whose stories just haven’t been told.
So many people you spoke with talked about feeling invisible, or like their histories in this country have been hidden. You talked a lot about how you used to feel ashamed of being Chinese American. At one point on the show you said: “I wonder how things would have been different if I’d known our stories.” What do you imagine would have happened if you’d known these stories sooner?
I think I would have felt pride. I would not have felt as much shame. When you go through life as a young person not knowing anything about Asian American history, that provokes you to feel like you don’t belong. I was teased every day for being Asian, even though I had a lot of friends and I was a fairly popular kid. It was something that made me feel different. And when you’re a young person, that’s the last thing you want to feel. You just want to fit in.
When you don’t include the history, it becomes so easy to overlook or even dehumanize an entire population. If I had even known about the Chinese roots in Sacramento where I grew up, I think I might have felt differently. Knowing that the Chinese came and they toiled working on the Transcontinental Railroad. And as soon as they were done, they were chased out of cities. They were lynched. Chinatowns here on the West Coast were burnt to the ground.
But yet they persevered. The state of California, where I live, wouldn’t be California if it weren’t for Chinese labor. Not only did they build the railroads, but they built the levees in Sacramento. They planted so much of the agriculture for which California became known.
What are some examples of surprising things you learned making the show?
I had known that the first Asians to settle in America were the Filipinos. But I didn’t know that they settled in the bayous of Louisiana, and that those early Filipino settlers jumped off Spanish galleons. They were either sailors or indentured servants, and they built a life for themselves in southern Louisiana.
The mayor of Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, believes that 70 to 80 percent of the inhabitants have Filipino blood running through them. And when you go to Jean Lafitte it looks like any other town, with lots of blond, blue-eyed people. And gumbo, which has become an American staple, might not have shrimp in it if it weren’t for those early Filipino settlers, because shrimp wasn’t even part of the diet when they first started shrimping and shrimp drying.
There are those little nuggets in every episode, where most people, I think, will just go, “Wow, I had no idea.” And why? Because these stories aren’t included in our history. But yet, these are American stories. They’re not only Asian American stories.
How did your grandparents’ restaurant shape your family and your personal experience growing up?
My grandparents sold the restaurant long before I was born, but my grandmother was very adamant about me not cooking. My grandparents, when they immigrated here, they were very educated people. My grandfather got his undergrad degree at NYU and got an MBA from University of Colorado. My grandmother had a degree from England.
But my grandfather could not get a job in finance, because he was Chinese. And so neither of them knew how to cook. But they scraped up enough money together to open a Chinese restaurant. And so for my grandmother, Chinese food and the restaurant were about survival. And she did not want me to have to live in that world. She wanted me to focus on other things. And so she didn’t teach my aunt – her daughter – or me how to cook, because she just wanted better for us.
What was it like for you to go back to the restaurant to film the show, and what was it like to bring your daughters there?
It was my first time going to Hop Sing. And quite honestly, you know, Hop Sing sells Chinese American food, and when I go have Chinese food, I usually seek out authentic Chinese food these days. So it was my first time ever having chop suey. It was an interesting experience. I’m glad to see that it has survived. I felt grateful that this was a way for my family to eke out some semblance of the American Dream.
Bringing my daughters there was awesome. They loved the chop suey. My girls are growing up in a different world where they are proud of being Asian American. They love Asian American food. They want to take Asian food to school in their lunchbox. I would have never done that. My grandmother threatened to send me to school with some soy sauce eggs once and I was horrified. Now my girls ask for soy sauce eggs to take to school, and they are just, like, unabashed about it. And that just makes me so happy.
But the bittersweet thing about all of this is that here we are promoting something that we’ve worked so hard on, that is really a celebration of the Asian American experience, against this backdrop of continued violence and attacks on Asian Americans in the wake of Covid.
I always have that in the back of my head – that no matter how much we achieve, no matter how much we contribute or the roles that we’ve played in this country, there will always be people who don’t see us as Americans, and don’t think of us as people who belong in this country.
Did you pitch the show after the pandemic began?
It was after Covid, but before a lot of the attacks. And I was shocked that HBO Max greenlit a show like this, because I just didn’t think that I would ever see the day when I would front a series about the Asian American experience. I grew up not ever thinking that anyone cared or wanted to know about it.
But just given what has transpired since we first pitched it, and how many attacks have happened, to me it’s not just a fun, illuminating, entertaining series. There’s a sense of urgency to it.
When you were making the show, did you end up learning anything about your family that you didn’t know before?
I know my father’s parents’ story pretty well. But it’s compelled me to really want to know more about my mother’s family, which if we get another episode, we might, because she’s Taiwanese, and there’s great Taiwanese food in American now.
But really, I hope that it compels people to want to ask questions of their own family members or relatives, particularly if they have come from other countries. I think growing up the child of immigrants, there have been at times these sort of fundamental disconnects.
Like my parents, even though my dad is very Americanized – he came when he was 11 – he still, if I speak out of turn, you know, he would always tell me, “Keep your head down. Don’t speak up.” Because that’s culturally what Asians have done. And it’s taken a while for many of us to find that power in our voice and have the courage to exercise our voices.
And I hope that this show kind of opens the door or gives people permission to to ask questions and want to know more about their family, but also about their culture and to feel pride and appreciate just the vastness and diversity and the resilience of immigrant communities.
Are there any particularly memorable dishes you tried that you’re still thinking about?
Oh my gosh, all of them. That Filipino kamayan, it was so delicious, and such a beautiful communal experience. I’ve been craving all of the food that was on that banana leaf.
And I love Bangladeshi food. I’ve traveled all around the world, and lived in New York for a while, and had so much Indian food without realizing that so many of those Indian restaurants were operated by Bengali Bangladeshi proprietors. So having that meal at the Korai Kitchen, oh my God, it was so delicious, and so different from Indian food. And I’ve been fantasizing about that fish.
I didn’t realize that Bangladesh was, you know, called the country of rivers and that the Bangladeshi community is the fastest growing Asian community in this country. And so that meal, and that shrimp paste that they were so afraid of me eating because it’s so strong and pungent, it was so memorable. I can’t wait to have that again.
You noted that many people, like you, don’t realize that a lot of the Indian restaurants in New York are run by Bangladeshis. What are some other common misconceptions about Asian food in the United States that you came across?
When people think of Asian food, they often think it’s limited to Chinese, sushi and, I don’t know, maybe Thai food. But there is just so much. And that’s why I’m hoping we will get extended for another season, because there are so many cuisines and so many cultures within our culture to explore. I’m glad that the American palate is really evolving and people are becoming much more adventurous, because food does tell stories.
And we are experiencing a time in America where there’s so much division and misunderstanding and discord. And I think that one of the best ways to get to know different immigrant communities is through their food.
These are people in some cases who have left their home countries with little but the clothes they have on their back and in their suitcase. But they have these recipes in their heads. And when they share them, they’re not just sharing food, but they’re sharing their story and the story of their culture and their country.
The show has an original, very punk theme song belted out by the Linda Lindas, the student band that got a lot of attention and a record deal after the video of them singing at the L.A. Public Library went viral. How did you end up connecting with them and why did you think they were the right fit for this?
It’s funny because my sister has been friends with the mother of two of the girls. So I’ve known the Linda Lindas for a long time. I mean, they were even younger, like babies. When we were thinking about the opening title, we definitely wanted to have an Asian American artist or artists score the soundtrack. And Bao Nguyen, who directed the Little Saigon episode, brought up the Linda Lindas, and the showrunner and I looked at each other like, “Of course! They’d be perfect.”
And I just think that their energy, their edge, their song like, so set the tone for the series. The lyrics are so simple, but profound. “Tell me a story that I don’t know. Tell me about these tastes from home. Tell me a story.” And that’s what these are. They’re just these beautiful stories of culture, of home, of food, of assimilation, of struggle, of hardship, of triumph.
There are so many conversations in the show about different generations and how they feel about identity. And to have this very loud, empowered, in-your-face-in-a-delightful-way song seems to fit really well with that.
It was really cool, because most of our crew were Asian American. It’s the most Asian Americans I’ve ever worked with. It’s the most Asian Americans they’ve ever worked with. And we worked hard. Our days were long and grueling. We were just so invested because all of us take this opportunity that has been bequeathed upon us to tell these stories just so, so seriously.
Our showrunner Helen Cho, this is her first show that she’s run. She comes from Bourdain’s show, “Parts Unknown.” And she took a major risk, because she brought on all Asian American directors, some of whom had no TV experience whatsoever. But she realized, if these people are ever going to get that experience, they’ve got to get it somewhere.
And she just saw their raw talent in their films and their work and brought them on. And the show wouldn’t be the show that it is if it weren’t for Helen’s risk and the unique perspectives of the directors and the people who put the show together.