Daytona State College
Chinese restaurants in America are an awkward existence for Chinese people like me. We are grown up adults, who have transplanted ourselves across the Pacific Ocean to a totally different continent. Ripped out of our motherland, half of our roots are still left behind in our home soil. We seek out Chinese restaurants as an opportunity to soothe our nostalgia. About a half century ago, our parents and grandparents were almost all farmers; that means we ate what we grew. Mostly grains and vegetables, occasionally accompanied with some poultry since we did not have refrigeration to store meat. Food was an important part of life for a family unit. On some important days, like Spring Festival, a funeral, a wedding, or a newborn baby’s Hundred Days Celebration, a host family is expected to prepare a big feast for their guests, including slaughtering a pig and a couple of chickens. We share our food and swallow our happiness, sadness, and confusion with the food. Food is a conduit to relieve our emotions.
I grew up witnessing the important role food plays for a family. The cycle food travels from field to table is multifaceted. The process of butchering, cleaning, cooking, then presenting to the table requires patience. Once the cook, usually the woman in the house, gets her hands on the fresh meat, the whole house will start to fill with the aroma of home cooking. At this stage it is only your nose which is tempted, but soon it will satisfy your stomach through your mouth.
I was shocked when I walked into an American grocery store and saw so much canned food. Can after can of vegetables, meat, fruit, and even broth sitting on the shelves one aisle after another. Those canned foods look like corpses in formation for me. I lost my appetite.
If I try to cook some Chinese food to comfort myself, the spices and ingredients are not always available. So, my last hope is a Chinese restaurant. There are several extremes of Chinese restaurants in Daytona: Panda Express, which is like a person who has rolled down a hill and totally given up and finally slid down into a rabbit hole. If an actual panda knew how his image is related to such shitty food, he would climb down from his bamboo tree and go smash those chefs on their faces. P.F. Chang’s is like a stripper who puts on too much makeup to please her customers, then she cannot recognize herself in the mirror. Last but not least, there are those Chinese take outs. I have never tried one, and I never want to try one either, no matter how Chinese their names are: China Wok; China One; Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant; Wok N Roll…
Just because they call it Chinese food does not make it Chinese food. Authentic Chinese food draws on thousands of years of research and experimentation. But in America, the plethora of spices and flavorings of authentic Chinese food are substituted with copious amounts of soy sauce and sugar. As a result, all the subtlety and depth of Chinese cuisine is lost. If I go to a Chinese restaurant, I will speak to the waitress in Chinese. She will then recognize that I’m a fellow stranger in a strange land. Then, she will whisper to me that she will tell the chef in the back to make it authentic and “not put in any sugar”. Her understanding and concern feel like a warm hug from a family member.
My Chinese girlfriends and I, whenever we feel depressed, get together to cook some Chinese food. Usually we will cook Hot Pot. In which soup stock is brought to a boil in a big cauldron at the center of the dining room table. While the food in the pot is cooking, we are surrounded by the pungent smell of boiling chili peppers; we chat, laugh, curse, and cry. Other times, we just look at the boiling soup, and our thoughts travel through the steam back to where we come from.
Every spring, when the ice starts to melt, my mom will put some eggs under a hen’s belly to let that hen fulfill her duty. About twenty days later, those fuzzy little things will break out of their shells. They are cute, but for my mom, the goal to raise them is more practical. She will count them in this way, “Five for my oldest son, five for my younger son, and there are couple extra for my little daughter if she comes back home this year.” Her two sons are her pride and joy. Both are living in big cities and only come back to visit her a couple times a year. She doesn’t understand what’s going on with their businesses. She doesn’t like to visit them; she says there is too much traffic and too many lights in the city and it makes her dizzy all of the time. She likes to stay in her little village where everybody knows everyone. Where she can walk into anybody’s house to chat or she can walk up the mountain to touch the tree leaves or other farmers’ crops. Her hands gently touch the green leaves, like she used to run them through her young children’s hair. “It will be a good year. They will do good for me. I will pick those tea leaves and preserve them in a traditional way for my kids,” she thinks. With such optimism, she walks down the mountain happily. Her seventy-three-year-old body becomes lighter. She doesn’t need to do this for living anymore; she does this for her grownup kids because she is forever our mother. When her flock of children return home, she will get up early to slaughter some chickens and boil some hot water to clean them. By the time we arrive at the front yard, we already can smell the aroma of chicken soup wafting out of the kitchen. Usually my mom’s big black dog will be close at hand. He is not there to welcome us. He just wants to stay around to get any tasty morsel which might fall to the floor.
After I tried 80% of the Chinese restaurants around Daytona Beach, I finally gave up. There is no way to find authentic Chinese home style food like what my mom cooks, not even close. But Chinese restaurants have another function in society: to provide a first job for new Chinese immigrants like me. No matter if you are a scholar or student or housewife, a Chinese restaurant offers you a path to walk into America. I started working at a restaurant named Asian Sauce Box in Port Orange. This is the only Chinese restaurant I would go to before I started to work there. They even have a menu written in Chinese, which shows they have some authentic Chinese dishes for those real Chinese who still can’t read English. When I am on duty, I especially favor those people who come in and order hot oolong black tea or jasmine green tea. “They really understand something about China,” I feel I am closer to them than others. People in my village only grow green tea; every year we pick it around May to June. You are supposed to pick it at a certain length, too long would be bitter, too young won’t have much flavor. When it is time to harvest the tea leaves, the local women will stay on the mountain all day and every day with a packed lunch. At night they will come home with hands permeated with the smell of green tea leaves. The fresh tea leaves have special scents. Whenever I handle tea leaves, I always take a deep breath of the aroma which lingers on my fingers before washing them. These olfactory memories always please me.
For those people who come in and order Egg foo young or General Tao’s Chicken, I will turn around after jotting down their order and go back to show my manger. We will both giggle, “Those American are cute.” I had never heard of those two meals in my life before I came to America. China is big, but not big enough to have those two meals to hide somewhere thirty years from me. Especially General Tao’s Chicken. Even General Tao’s descendants said they have never heard of such a dish during an interview. Huge chunks of chicken are the same as Chick-fil-A chicken nuggets. Just looking at the dish makes me full. I’ve never liked to eat meat. When my mother boiled chicken soup, she would pile my bowl with meat, but I only wanted the broth. She would look at the uneaten meat in the bowl and sigh with worrying, “Can’t you eat more, look at how skinny you are. No man would want to marry you!” I took her fears to heart and came to America. I had heard that skinny girls are popular in the West. She was happy for me at the beginning, she thought I might gain some weight by living in a meat eater’s country and adjust myself to be a meat eater. But still, it’s not happening. I am still at the bottom of the food chain.
Another fun part of being a waitress is at night right before we close, about nine to nine thirty, a customer will walk in. Even before I seat him or her and start to order, “two buns, two shumai, two shrimp dumplings……”. They are not only hungry but also tired, covered by dust from their daily life. When they order Dim Sum, those small bite-sized portions of food which are steamed in a small bamboo basket, it feels nearly as good as when people order hot tea. But not exactly, maybe five out of ten Americans like Dim Sum, but only one or two of ten really like hot green tea. I don’t mind extending our business time to stay a little late for them. After they fill up their stomach, they often start to talk about their good or bad day. I just listen. We both go to bed with a great satisfaction that night: I have their story; they have my food. It is like we interacted with our mothers a long time ago. Just, we are not kids anymore. A restaurant and a waitress can do our mom’s job instead. In many ways, we are all nomads today. We carry our suit or make up instead of tents. We all miss our mom’s kitchen, we just got stuck in a bigger world.
“Yummy, yummy, in my tummy,” my son always says to me when we make something together. After the first bite, no matter what, he will heap praise on me. I love to watch that half Chinese half American boy try to use chopsticks to eat his mom’s Chinese meal. Someday, after I die, I hope he remembers me by walking into a Chinese restaurant and ordering a hot green tea and some Chinese food. Or maybe he can bring my favorite dish, Spicy Lover’s Beef, with his children to my grave, just like his mom, his Chinese grandma, and great grandma did for our ancestors. I might be so happy that I’ll pop up out of my grave and tell him, “Yummy, yummy, in my tummy!”