Growing up Chinese didn’t prepare me to be American.
Like most American kids in my generation, I watched a lot of ads growing up.
This was the early 2000s, when TVs were still the centerpiece of the household. Sitting on the couch with my legs hanging off, staring into the screen with my mouth hanging open, I watched advertisements play out with the kind of dumbfounded attention that a kid could muster.
Of course I loved the toys, the games, the bright colors. But even back then I remember a vague fascination with food ads that I couldn’t quite explain.
In every ad, normal American families were ones that lived in big suburban houses like we did. They had a mom and dad like I did, and a little sibling like my baby brother. They didn’t quite look like us, but I was used to that.
I saw the big smiles on the faces of those kids next to their food, all of it shiny like plastic. I saw those families sit around the table, with plates instead of bowls, forks and spoons instead of chopsticks.
They were American kids just like me. That was what I understood. What I didn’t understand was why instead of pizza bagels and Chef Boyardee and hot dogs on the grill, I always came home to the warm fragrance of rice in the rice cooker, oil sizzling in the wok, vegetables seasoned with a flavor so familiar I never learned its name.
There’s a certain delicateness to growing up in an immigrant family. You don’t understand how you’re different from other Americans until, suddenly, you are.
I was always lucky. Instead of becoming the token Asian kid in my Massachusetts suburb, I went to China and became the token American kid in Shanghai. I lost my appetite for donuts, fries, and pizza and developed an eternal craving for soup dumplings, beef noodles, and smooth bean paste buns.
Coming back to America for college, I was optimistic. The liberal arts college I was attending would be nothing like the small, white suburbs I had left behind.
Besides, I was American. That meant my food was American too. In a country like America, exclusion was a thing of the past.
College was miserable. For a few months I shoveled leaves and vinaigrette into my mouth, pretending I understood salads. When I peeled the skins on potatoes like I had always done for my steamed sweet potatoes in the morning, people stared. No matter how much food I picked up with the lightweight single-use chopsticks in the dining hall, my stomach still felt empty. Even the pizza I had been excited to eat as a staple left me with nothing but bloat.
Worse than that, I couldn’t talk about food. When I talked about not being able to stomach salad, people told me I needed to eat better. Mentioning a craving for whole steamed fish and roast duck only earned me blank stares and an “Ew”. And when I complained about the dining hall chopsticks, I was told that a better Asian would carry their own chopsticks.
What I wanted wasn’t just to understand American food. I never cared about salads, pizzas, bagels. What I wanted was to fit in right next to those kids in the TV commercials and to take it in stride. To be accepted as American, and to understand what that means.
When I look at the news, I see a version of America that I never saw in the smiling faces of food advertisements. Chinese food is associated with unhealthiness and grotesqueness. We are a foreign palette that needs to be sanitized, a comfort food that should know its place as a cheap alternativeinstead of a valuable mainstay. In the melting pot of America, some immigrant cultures have been chosen over others.
The argument has been made already that there’s no such thing as American food. Personally, I think that American food is like the American dream. It’s a mishmash of sensibilities, of hopes and ideals, of cultures and people that clash and come together.
For each American love affair with the white picket fence, there’s ten Americans wondering if they’ll always fall short of what they’re expected to become. And for each Americanized pizza and hamburger and teriyaki dish, there’s an immigrant kid somewhere, afraid of never fitting in.
I for one will never understand American food. It’s tied too deeply into the American longing for reclamation and homeland that won’t hesitate to sever family histories or cultural complications to belong.
But at the end of the day, there’s a lot to be said for the food that sits comfortably in your stomach, without pretense or definition, just like what you always came home to.
Originally published in P.S. I Love You, June 19, 2019.