Connecting with culture

The 28th annual Penn event featured a keynote talk with BuzzFeed’s Inga Lam, a senior video producer who showcases Asian culture through cooking videos.

A pink banner has an image of a smiling woman and text that reads "BuzzFeed's culinary queen Inga Lam, Nov. 10 @ 7PM EST. Bodek Lounge
Inga Lam was the headliner at the in-person 2021 Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. 

If Inga Lam could live happily ever after with any food, she would marry bread. “Even as a kid, bread was my to-die-for food,” Lam said during a talk in Houston Hall’s Bodek Lounge: “Who doesn’t like bread?” she asked. “Raise your hand, and get out.” Lam, a senior video producer at BuzzFeed, was the keynote speaker of this year’s Asian American Pacific Heritage Week (APAHW). 

Founded in 1993 with earlier versions of the program held in the 1980s, APAHW is one of Penn’s longest-running heritage programs, says Peter Van Do, director of the Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH). APAHW celebrates heritage and community and fosters awareness to “address how invisible the community is within the context of the American mainstream,” Van Do says. 

Every year, APAHW brings together guest speakers, faculty, staff, and students with a series of student-organized events that attract hundreds of attendees. This year, the week included “We’re All in This Together,” a discussion on Asian and American cultures with a “Squid Game” themed icebreaker, a talent show, an arts and crafts workshop, and a presentation from Penn professors called “Sharing Our Roots,” in collaboration with the Asian American studies program.  

“It’s amazing to see the support from Penn and PAACH communities in making sure that APAHW continues to bloom and flourish,” Van Do says. “APAHW’s programming as well as other Penn Asian and Asian American spaces are absolutely paramount, especially during these times.” 

APAHW went virtual in fall 2020, with performer Anik Khan delivering the keynote. “If there was any speaker that was needed for that time, it was him,” Van Do says, calling the Bangladeshi American hip-hop artist “uninhibited.” That realness is the overlying thread in both 2020 and in 2021, as students crave connection points, Van Do says. “People are looking for something more tangible,” and APAHW provides that in significant ways. There’s been a focus on genuine authenticity and connection.” 

Lam was chosen by popular vote of the APAHW general board, says Grant Li, a junior from Toronto majoring in biology. Known for filming herself making Pixar’s Ratatouille, a confectionary version of Harry Potter’s golden snitch, or 24 hours of only eating clear foods, Lam showcases her Taiwanese culture through scallion pancake and beef noodle soup how-tos. “We all love the videos, so we wanted to invite her to speak to us here on campus,” says Li, who serves as the programming treasurer and tri-chair of APAHW. “She’s so good at promoting Asian American values.”

In her keynote talk, Lam answered questions moderated by students Sabrina Tian and Julia Yan before fielding questions from the audience. She also tasted dishes created by students from Penn Appétit, offering feedback on a biryani-style rice dish with paneer and raita as well as a strawberry tart macaroon inspired by one of Lam’s own videos

A group of students watch student chefs present a meal onstage
Members of Penn Appétit present their culinary creations to Inga Lam. 

Tian, a senior from San Jose, California, studying design and cognitive science, was on APAHWs general marketing board in her sophomore year and later served as tri-chair during APAHW 2020. “It really became a community that I loved to be a part of, and it helped me learn more about my Chinese American identity,” Tian said, “and to do that for other people has been really rewarding.” 

The moderators asked Lam how she balanced the desire for and necessity of online clicks and shares with cultural authenticity. “I never want to just stay in this bubble,” Lam said. “For me, I want more people to learn about it. How do I introduce the outside community to our world?”

Lam’s strategy is to hook viewers first. “Once you’re intrigued, I’m going to tell you more,” she said. “You know how people say music is a universal language? Food is that for me,” Lam said. She uses food as an entry point. “It means less if I talk about my culture than if I say, ‘Here’s a really good bowl of beef noodle soup,’” Lam said. 

She said she won’t jump on a trend because it’s a trend. There has to be a different take, something meaningful in the videos she shares. “I’m not here to just give you a recipe; everybody’s giving you a recipe. What's the context behind the recipe? How will you make it new? What do you bring to the table?”

One of Lam’s recent “What I eat in a day” videos shows her adding boiled, salted bok choy to rice. “That’s actually one of my favorite comfort foods ever, growing up in Hong Kong, and to see people being really excited about that and being like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a new thing,’ I think was really cool,” she said. “That really is what drives me or just makes you want to keep doing it. That’s what gives me meaning.”

One of Lam’s popular early videos is titled, “I Made the Impossible Cotton Candy from Ancient China.” She asked the Penn audience if they had seen it, and the room rumbled in affirmation. In the video, Lam shows viewers how she made 16,000 strands of hand-spun dragon’s beard, a hand-pulled specialty that takes a lot of practice. Lam didn’t want to be in the video, but she couldn’t find anyone else willing to take it on, she told the audience. The video shows her failed attempts with multiple cuts, but “I can’t just give up!” she says in the shoot. “My dad didn’t bring me up like that.” Lam said that showing the process has made her more relatable to viewers. “I never call myself the expert,” she said. “You’re always learning. Every video I make, it’s not the end-all, be-all; it’s part of my own culinary journey.”