“Can we stop at McDonald’s? I never get to eat at McDonald’s.”
That was a familiar refrain when I was younger. I would break it out every time my parents and I went on a road trip. In all honesty, I had probably been to McDonald’s just two weeks prior for a friend’s birthday party but I wasn’t about to let that stop me.
As Cale wrote in our previous blog post, fast food seemed to be the epitome of the times for many of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. It was a special treat for me, something that I looked forward to whenever it happened (usually once a week or so). McDonald’s, Burger King, Arby’s… We had a small cluster of fast food places in the commercial area of Germantown that my parents would swing by whenever they were a little too busy or tired to make dinner. I loved them all. It was never truly about the food itself for me, though. Sometimes it was about the mini Beanie Babies that came with the McDonald’s Happy Meals. But mostly, it was about fitting in.
I grew up in the suburban Midwest, an awkward and shy Chinese girl attending a school that had a mostly Caucasian student body. A common school day outfit for me consisted of thick-rimmed plastic glasses, bright pink sweatpants, a yellow turtleneck, and a bright orange sweater vest. I also had a bowl cut. I was a real fashionista. Whether or not I liked it, I stuck out — and like any school age child, I hated that and desperately wanted to fit back in.
Food played a large part of that. For breakfast, I didn’t want anything to do with sticky, bland congee and its accouterments. I ate instant oatmeal packets, toaster strudels, and cereal. For lunch, I would pack a sandwich or eat school lunch. There was absolutely no way I was bringing leftovers. My mom would buy me Lunchables to take if I was lucky (and more importantly: if they were on sale).
In the evening, I transformed into the least picky eater in the world. Both of my parents would cook the most amazing meals with 4-5 dishes shared family style and I would try anything. Frogs legs, liver, eel, sea cucumber, salted chicken gizzards; the list goes on and on. On the weekends when there was more free time, my mom made dumplings, wontons, zhongzhi, shumai, and all sorts of other delicious food. I was lucky. I was really, really lucky – but I didn’t realize it at the time. For me, those meals were the “ordinary” meals and those dinners that we ordered from Cousins Subs or Arby’s were the “treat” meals. The individually portioned burgers, subs, and Happy Meals represented what I thought of as family time more than a shared dinner where we all served ourselves from the same dishes. That was the image the media showed me, after all. It’s what I saw on television, in movies, and is why we still practice Thanksgiving as a tradition even though the majority of the dishes my parents make are better than their roast turkey.*
I’m not sure what happened to flip the switch. My college years were a blurred culinary wasteland, as they usually are, but I started to cook for myself when I moved to Chicago; I also started to explore different restaurants in the city. Sometimes, it was just a late night diner here and a delicious Thai restaurant there. It was a slow climb. At first I lacked both the money to explore the city as well as the culinary skills to make my own food – but I saved and I learned. Over the past five years, I’ve begun to truly embrace my heritage and background. I started cooking more of the dishes that I grew up eating. Now I make steamed scallion rolls, hand-made dumplings, fried rice… Whole steamed fish, the simple yet delicious eggs and tomato, and even dishes that are new to my parents. Homemade congee in the morning has now become a “treat”. It’s not that I dislike fast food now, nor do I look down on people who eat it. It has its time and place. It’s just that all of those dishes I have grown up ignoring and not appreciating have now become incredibly special. They have become the treats that I make for myself and for friends and family here in Chicago.
Food is the tapestry our lives plays out on, the background scenery of our daily life. For me, the journey that I took towards accepting Chinese food was a parallel journey to that of accepting my own heritage and of accepting myself for who I am. Food has been truly important in shaping my life and will continue to lead me on adventures, whether abroad or in my own home. I’m more than happy to go on them.
On one of our first dates, Cale asked me “Where do you want to go eat?”
I said, “I’m not picky. I like food.”
He paused for a beat. “I like food too,” he replied.
And that was that.