Since then, Chinese food as a whole has been unfairly characterized as unhealthy or unclean—a myth dating back to the 1960s, when the New England Journal of Medicine reported a condition known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” Symptoms, allegedly related to MSG, included weakness, palpitations, and headaches. Merriam-Webster officially added the term to its dictionary in the 1990s but has since reconsidered, revising the entry due to its racist implications. And though research has failed to prove a link between illness and MSG, the negative association lingers to this day.
As an American kid, born and raised in New York, I didn’t know much of this fraught history. But I had experienced firsthand its lasting effects. In elementary school, my classmates often teased me for eating the home-cooked leftovers my parents packed me for lunch. One day, I remember bringing chicken with bok choy and white rice, and a kid taunting me: “Why don’t you eat more fried rice so your eyes get chinkier?” Even though this didn’t make any sense (I wasn’t even eating fried rice), I stowed the food away, mortified. When my grandma, Ah Po, picked me up after school, I walked ahead of her the entire way home so she wouldn’t see the tears streaming down my face.
I never told my family about these encounters because I knew they wouldn’t understand. My father was proud of the food we ate at home—traditional southern Chinese dishes such as delicately steamed whole fish or bak chit gai (slow poached chicken flavored with ginger and scallion). He seemed to resent how Americans incorrectly considered “dirty,” sodium-forward fast foods as true representations of his culture, when these dishes looked nothing like the food on our dinner table. But those kids teasing me at school didn’t consider our home-cooked meals any different than what came out of an oyster pail. They saw what we ate as dirty too.
Looking back, I spent those formative years in such agonizing limbo. I loved our family’s cooking as much as the fried noodles from down the street, but it didn’t seem possible to hold both identities at once. So I stopped speaking Chinese and eating my parents’ food in public. I devoured my illicit takeout in secret whenever my father worked late. Or at my friend’s house, blissfully scarfing down General Tso’s chicken until I felt sick. I kept all of this quiet to avoid disappointing my father. But in the process, I never managed to figure out how to be American or Chinese enough for myself.
Two decades later, those memories still creep up occasionally and reverberate through my body. I see now that my father and I had much 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 for “authenticity” reasons: He didn’t see himself or his family reflected in egg foo young or crab Rangoon. But what we shared was a kind of kindred shame. Long after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, when my father first moved to America in 1984, he could only find work at a Chinese restaurant. In the ultimate act of humility, for 27 years, he cooked the food he despised. As for me, every instance I indulged without his knowledge, or lied to my friends about his job, felt like a betrayal. By hiding these truths, I hid myself in the process; that way, I could never hurt him.
Though my father may never admit it, Chinese takeout is part of his identity. And this food does reflect who we are; it’s a resourceful blend of our two cultures, a part of our immigrant story, a living metaphor for survival. The burn scars on his arms from cooking with hot woks are emblems of his own resilience and grit. They remind me that there’s honor in being his daughter.
These days, I still find myself craving chicken in garlic sauce. Following a long hiatus, I ordered the dish from a different restaurant, near my new home across the country, in Los Angeles. Even though I didn’t have to eat it in secret anymore, the food was as alluring as I remembered. Just like how my brother taught me years ago, I opened the oyster pail ceremoniously and made myself a plate. Somehow, the sauce tasted sweeter, the broccoli crisper, the chicken juicier. I closed my eyes, chewed slowly, and savored every garlicky, perfect bite.