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Clarissa Wei, on how to break into food writing and winging a backpacking trip in China

Welcome to Five Questions, an occasional series at the Alhambra Source, where we ask cool people with cool jobs about how they got to where they are today. Clarissa Wei, 25, is a full-time freelance journalist known for featuring Chinese restaurants located in the San Gabriel Valley. She recently traveled through China, writing for Vice, CNN and Eater. The Taiwanese-American, based in Arcadia, is currently taking a break but plans to travel back to China after the 2017 Lunar New Year. Her best advice to young writers is to cold pitch stories to editors and gain connections that way.

Why did you choose food and travel writing as your beat? Why particularly within the SGV?

I sort of fell into it by accident. I was studying abroad in Shanghai when I was in college, and pitching about food was my only way—it was the only pitches that got approved because I knew more about Chinese food than the average person because I am of Taiwanese or Chinese origin. When I came back to the States, and I moved back to Los Angeles, it was a similar mentality, like, "I really want to be a journalist, what topics do I know more than the average person?" It was kind of my stepping stone really, and it really took off I guess because not many people were giving an in-depth look of Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley so I sort of ran with it.

Tell us about your recent trip to China and Taiwan.

It was really hard traveling in China, especially since I went to the most remote places you could be at in the Northwest region. It was just tough because culturally, people don't know to wait in line. I'm a pretty low maintenance person, and I can deal with unsanitary conditions but just after nine months of that, it was very difficult. In terms of what was great about it, I got to hang out in some pretty remote communities and I learned about where food comes from. What was interesting to me was the effect of development on traditional communities and aboriginal tribes. It was a lot of lessons, but it was definitely an emotional struggle, which is why I came back to the states earlier than I thought to take a break for a bit.

For example, I was hanging out with the Ocean Tribe [Editor note: the Amis Tribe, which Clarissa wrote about for Vice] in Taiwan, a fishing tribe… I attended their ocean god festival. Traditionally at the end, men would row out to the sea and catch fish, but they were like, “There's no more fish in the ocean so we're not going to do that.” I dug in deeper and wrote a couple articles about this. Taiwan ran out of fish since the 1960s, which is really funny because as someone who has written extensively about Taiwanese food, I always list Taiwan as a seafood-obsessed country, but none of the seafood is coming from Taiwan.

How did you plan this trip?

I didn't really plan it. I feel like before I went, everyone asked, "What's your plan?" But I kind of knew I couldn't plan these things. My goal is still to go to every single province. I started with the place that I knew the best, which is Shanghai because I studied abroad there… I decided to go to the Northwest because the weather there was the best, and I winged it. I didn't plan more than two weeks at a time… I went where the stories were. It's really hard to plan China.

I was in the San Gabriel Valley for so long writing about food here, I had a strong understanding of the food was in each area, and which agriculture was the strongest, so I prioritized that because that was what I knew. I have always been obsessed with Sichuan peppercorn, the spice that is unique to that province. I spent a week figuring out how to get to the mountain, where all the peppercorn are grown. 

How were you received in China?

People don't take you as seriously, it's more so in China ironically because their perception of American journalists is the white male, which is based on reality I guess because all the people who go over there and write books are white men. I remember a very funny scene in a hostel in a remote part of Sichuan province, and I check in at the hostel. The person is like, "Oh, are you a student?" And I'm like, "I guess, whatever," because sometimes I just lie to not gain attention. I sit down with my friend in the lobby doing work, and a guy comes in—this guy ends up being one of my closest friendshe's this tall German guy, and he checks in. He speaks perfect English, and the person who checks him in says, "Oh, you must be a journalist." And he says, "No, no." It was funny because I was the real journalist. People don't assume that an Asian female that speaks Chinese is a journalist. Even when I tell people, they say, "That's cute, when is your assignment due to your teacher?"

It was an interesting social experiment after a while, like how people just don't believe it, even if you insist, they refuse to believe that we exist. A lot of people don't believe I’m bilingual. They just don't get it. And it's frustrating too, people in the rural areas don't believe that Asian Americans exist. Where are they getting their perceptions of American people? They say they get it from the movies they watch. Americans have to be blond with blue eyes. It's all Hollywood's fault for generating these stereotypes. And China believes that everything they see on TV is American. Anyone who doesn't fit into that bill is not American. What happens in Los Angeles in Hollywood influences how we are perceived as Asian Americans all over the world. I wasn't treated as an American by people in China because of Hollywood.

Can you share with us one of your favorite recipes?

I have a recipe column with East West Bank, and every single province I've been to, I've given them a recipe. My favorite—I learned how to make mooncakes in Hangzhou. They are actually really easy to make, but I think in America, we make it sound like an exotic pastry. But really it's a two-part skin made of butter, water and sugar. Another thing is how easy it is to make noodles.  I hung out with a lot of poor people who didn't have a lot of resources, in terms of land, crops or buying power. They would make a lot of noodles. And noodles are so easy to make. It's just flour and water. You can whip a batch up in 30 minutes.

The interview was edited for clarity and length.

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