Since then, Chinese food as a whole has been wrongly classified as unhealthy or unhealthy unclean– a myth from the 1960s as the New England Journal of Medicine reported a condition known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. Symptoms purportedly related to MSG included weakness, palpitations, and headaches. Merriam-Webster officially added the term to his dictionary in the 1990s, but has since considered Revision of the entry because of its racist implications. And although research has not proven a connection between the disease and MSG, the negative connection still exists today.
As an American child, born and raised in New York, I didn’t know much about this eventful history. But I had seen firsthand its lasting effects. In elementary school, my classmates would often tease me for eating the homemade leftovers my parents packed for me for lunch. One day I remember bringing chicken with bok choy and white rice and a kid mocked me, “Why don’t you eat fried rice anymore to make your eyes perverted?” Though that didn’t make sense (I didn’t even eat fried rice), I put the food away in shame. When my grandma Ah Po came to pick me up after school, I walked ahead of her all the way home so she wouldn’t see the tears run down my face.
I never told my family about these encounters because I knew they wouldn’t understand. My father took pride in the food we ate at home – traditional South Chinese dishes like tenderly steamed whole fish or bak chit gai (slowly poached ginger and spring onion-flavored chicken). He seemed annoyed that Americans mistakenly viewed “dirty” sodium-advancing fast foods as true representations of his culture when those dishes didn’t look like the food on our dinner table. But those kids who teased me at school didn’t look at our homemade meals any differently than what came out of an oyster bucket. They saw what we ate as dirty too.
In retrospect, I spent these formative years in such agonizing limbo. I loved our family’s cooking as much as I liked the fried noodles from the street, but it didn’t seem possible to hold both identities at the same time. So I stopped speaking Chinese and eating my parents’ food in public. I secretly devoured my illegal takeaway when my father was working late. Or at my friend’s home who happily peeled General Tso’s chicken until I feel sick. I kept it all calm so as not to disappoint my father. In doing so, I never found out how to be American or Chinese enough for myself.
Two decades later, these memories still occasionally creep in and reverberate through my body. I now see that my father and I had a lot more in common than I realized as a child. On the surface, it was easier to write off my father’s disapproval of American Chinese food on the grounds of “authenticity”: he didn’t see himself or his family in Egg Foo Young or Crab Rangoon. But what we shared was some kind of related shame. Long after the Chinese Exclusion Law was repealed, when my father first moved to America in 1984, the only job he could find was a Chinese restaurant. In the final act of humility, he cooked the food he despised for 27 years. As for me, any case where I indulged without his knowledge or lied to my friends about his job felt like treason. In hiding these truths, I hid myself in the process; That way I could never hurt him.
While my father may never admit it, takeaway in China is part of his identity. And this food reflects who we are; It’s an imaginative mix of our two cultures, part of our immigration history, a living metaphor for survival. The burn scars on his arms from cooking with hot woks are a symbol of his own resilience and strength. They remind me that it’s an honor to be your daughter.
These days, I still crave chicken in garlic sauce. After a long hiatus, I ordered the dish at another restaurant near my new home across the country in Los Angeles. Although I no longer had to secretly eat it, the food was as tempting as I remembered. Just like my brother taught me years ago, I ceremoniously opened the oyster pail and made myself a plate. Somehow the sauce tasted sweeter, the broccoli more crispy, the chicken juice. I closed my eyes, chewed slowly, enjoying each garlicky, perfect bite.