This post is the namesake of a beautiful essay by Chang-rae Lee that was recognized in The Best American Essays 2011 and Best Food Writing of 2011. His essay uses family meals to describe growing up in America but not necessarily growing up American.
It’s a theme common among writers who are children of immigrants. Food is such a powerful tradition–the tastes and flavors represent familiarity and comfort in a new country that is not always familiar or comfortable. But for the children who just want to fit in with their American friends and classmates, these foods only highlight their differences. There’s nothing more “un-American” than eating leftover zha jiang mian when everyone else has peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
I remember a time my mother decided to surprise me at school by bringing tupperware filled with home-cooked Chinese food. She stood in the cafeteria, smiling and waving, and was so excited to eat lunch with me. My mouth salivated as she showed me the dishes she had spent the morning making–these were not leftovers from the night before–but my hunger soon turned into embarrassment. My classmates and friends, unfamiliar with Chinese food that wasn’t beef and broccoli takeout, started to make comments about the smell of the food. And how it looked funny. And how they had never eaten Chinese food like that. I ate lunch with my mother, though I sadly did not enjoy it as much as I should have.
It wasn’t until I was in college and left to my own devices in the kitchen that I really began to appreciate growing up in America and not necessarily growing up American. I cooked the dishes that I had grown up eating because they represented comfort and familiarity and home. It wasn’t until then that I started to understand why we ate Chinese food at every meal.
Last year, a few friends and I were in San Francisco during Chinese New Year. On our way to Chinatown’s New Year parade, we stopped by a restaurant recommended by online reviews. My friends looked at me to order an “authentic” meal. The menu was overwhelming with Chinese characters, English translations, and vague descriptions. But my mother had given me a pep talk on the phone right before and reassured me that this was the food I grew up with and this was the food I would always come back to eat. When the waiter stopped at the table, I spoke in Chinese with a heavy American accent, and ordered.