For a foodie, I had a spartan culinary upbringing.
Perhaps it began in utero, when my mother ate tomatoes by the bushel during her pregnancy, believing it’d lead to a smarter child.
Out I came, eight pounds of screaming joy, born to China’s new breed of post-Cultural Revolution, university-educated brethren. Becoming American was an unlikely reinvention for my father, whose family, up until a few years ago, lived in a two-room concrete building heated by a coal furnace. Chickens still roamed the dirt roads.
My family held onto every dollar, never forgetting how difficult they were to come by. While my father was a Ph.D. student, we rented the top floor of an old house in upstate New York, wearing jackets indoors to save money on heating and faithfully finishing the leftovers.
I didn’t feel so different from other kids back then. In elementary school, I qualified for a free school lunch, and I ate the same food as everyone else. Later on, my mother would pack strange lunches—fried rice with oil leaking out of the takeout container—and I remember feeling ashamed as I saw how my classmates’ lunches were so sterilized and scentless, so perfectly contained and uniform.
My parents did their best, and for the most part, I was very happy with what I had to eat. I never went hungry, and I did like my mother’s unambitious but earnest Chinese home cooking. When we wanted to celebrate, we would predictably choose one of the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets nearby, no matter what the occasion. The $12.95 price tag seemed exorbitant at the time.
As I got older, the feeling of being different grew. First off, I was hungry—an unceasing, irrational kind of hungry that favored the novel to the familiar and the spicy to the bland. No one else ate quite as much as I did or savored every last crumb of a restaurant meal like I did.
I couldn’t understand why people picked Applebee’s for dinner given the chance to eat out, or why they always ordered the same thing and ate two bites before declaring they were “so full.” My conclusion, naturally, was that there was something wrong with me.
When I came to college and finally began eating out at restaurants other than Chinese buffets, I discovered that there was another entire world of food out there. Prior to this, I had thought eating at restaurants with entrees priced above $12 were for the wealthy. That’s why eating out was such a head rush at the time; I felt like a clever impostor, a pauper in prince’s clothing faking the life of a high roller.
I began to write about food almost by accident. Up until this point, all I knew was that eating out was the highlight of my week and I was prone to what looked like small seizures after eating something truly delicious. Writing on my blog about meals was therapeutic, a way to clarify those feelings and bring them into focus. I realized, unequivocally, that I loved food and experienced it more intensely than many other people. For the first time, my identity seemed descriptive rather than painfully different.
Unlike others, I don’t have the same backlog of food experience—outings to French bistros in Paris at age 12, or celebrating birthdays in four-star restaurants at age 16, say—but I do have a better grasp on how a restaurant is like a theater, how our food choices reflect our aspirations and insecurities, the contradictions between what we say and what we eat. For that, I have to thank my parents for teaching me to appreciate the experience of dining out. I encourage you to branch out and try new things as well; you may discover yourself in the process of figuring out what’s for dinner.