Takeaways From Chinese America
When my sister told me she wanted to become a pescatarian, I instantly thought of my mom, a lifetime meat eater, whom I knew would distress over her decision. And I wasn’t wrong. When she found out, she turned to everyone she knew for advice: my father, her friends, and the internet. She even consulted a pediatrician to reduce my sister’s risk of iron deficiency. Despite my mom’s initial anxiety, our family soon embraced my sister’s lifestyle change. Our dinner staples shifted from rice with spare ribs and Chinese sausage to soy-sauce noodles with vegetables.
Even with new changes in our diet, we never completely eliminated meat. While my sister staunchly adhered to her pescatarian diet, my mother and father continued to consume meat openly and encouraged me to do the same. Eager not to let any food go to waste, my grandmother unloaded leftover chicken scraps and bones into a pot to concoct homemade chicken stock, which my mom fed us every night until it became a ritual. Witnessing my family’s extreme reaction, or lack of a reaction, to dietary change, I knew that if I ever confronted my family about vegetarianism, I would face a similar passive pushback.
Forget America’s iconic snacks. Forget the supermarket mountains of Lays, Coca-Cola, and Oreos. Forget the brainwashing snack commercials I watched every afternoon on Nickelodeon as a kid. For as long as I can remember, my sister and I have both agreed that Asian snacks reign supreme in taste and quality, especially compared to their American counterparts. My sister and I would go on what became our sentimental snack safaris, waltzing down the aisles of Nijiya Market, a supermarket in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown, mesmerized by rainbows of flavored treats and charming Hello Kitty and Pikachu packaging. We always picked up the largest basket at the front of the store, knowing we would bring it back overflowing with spicy curry instant noodles, thin nori strips, and strawberry Pocky.
The one obstacle between our basket and the cashier was our mom. Before we could line up at the register, she would prod our basket and pick out snacks she had not seen before.
Looking around the dining room, I meet the gaze of a stranger. Within seconds of our eyes locking, I reach for my phone and start scrolling incessantly. As a solo diner, I hope my phone will make me appear occupied in a flurry of dining hall conversations. But moments later, I feel embarrassed for recoiling.
I wasn’t the only solo diner — in fact, I was surrounded by many solo diners. Why did I feel particularly ashamed about eating alone?
Flipping through the flimsy menu of Dumpling House, one of Harvard Square’s few Chinese restaurants, I was reminded of Robert Irvine. Host of Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible,” Irvine traveled across the country offering his counsel to failing restaurants. He heckled servers, taunted décor, flipped tables, yelled profanities, and spit out food prepared by hopeful chefs. Though his methods were highly questionable, the results of the transformation were undeniable. Once unpalatable restaurants blossomed into thriving establishments with remodeled rooms for diners, enhanced service, and revamped menus. This was the trashy culinary thrill I yearned for every week.
And yet, as I reflected on my affinity for “Restaurant: Impossible,” I began to consider Irvine’s pigeonholed definition of a “successful” restaurant. The transformations all seemed to follow a particular formula — and look a certain way. Classy, sharp interiors. Pristine service. Short menus. His restaurant revamps suggested that only 12-item menus could embody the next trendy restaurant, and that there was something inherently wrong with long menus that provided over 100 options for customers. I looked down at the multi-page Dumpling House menu, which had initially given me pause. The distinctions between Irvine’s idea of culinary success and the Chinese restaurants that I grew up loving, the cultural enclaves that I called home, upset me. Could Chinese restaurants ever fit the mold of a successful business, or would they, much like the rest of Chinese culture in America, continue to be typified as “other”?