I had never eaten “westernised” Chinese food before moving to Chicago to attend college. In Toronto, where I grew up, my parents seldom cooked, but often took me to one of many Chinese restaurants in the expanding suburbs. We ate exclusively at immigrant-run establishments with owners who had arrived on the continent several generations after the initial diaspora – nearly a century and a half after the migrant workers who first docked on the Pacific shores to build the railroads that now span the entire continent.
These restaurants were places whose menus were plagued with grammatical errors or abstained from the English language altogether. Pictures of the dishes filled laminated pages. As first-generation immigrants, my parents had no interest in places like Panda Express, the fast-food joints serving lukewarm neon-coloured orange chicken from behind a glass counter to unwitting patrons. In my parents’ eyes, those foods were inauthentic, and thus unworthy of their time.
Shortly after arriving on the South Side of Chicago, I grew tired of the horrid collegiate dining experience. Immobilised by the lake-effect snow, and unable to cook anything for myself, I downloaded the food delivery app Seamless, using an invite code from a friend. Filtering through the options, I quickly narrowed my choices down: “Chinese, open now, single dollar sign.” Though the selections were plenty they were, regrettably, all variations on a common theme. On a whim, I went with a place named China Wok, complete with chopstick font, serving your run-of- the-mill Americanised Chinese food. Whatever, I thought. I had 20 dollars in credit from joining.
The delivery woman spoke English with a familiar Chinese accent, yet the food from China Wok, albeit sounding vaguely recognisable, felt alien. Egg foo young and chop suey, I read from the menu, uncertain of how any of this was supposed to taste. In lieu of pot stickers – a childhood favourite of mine – I nibbled on deep-fried pieces of crab Rangoon – a purportedly Chinese delicacy that seems to exist only within the confines of the American Midwest. As I bit down, warm cream cheese filling leaked onto my shirt.
My relationship with China Wok would, for some reason, continue throughout college, until the place finally shuttered just a few months before my graduation. On every occasion during these three long years, it was the same woman who made the journey to deliver my food. Sometimes she would bring along a teenage girl, who seldom spoke a word. Only later did I discover that China Wok, like so many other immigrant ventures, was a family business; the patriarch worked behind the scenes, the matriarch in front, while the children helped out. Learning of China Wok’s closure, seeing its greyed-out name on Seamless, I wondered why the family decided to shut it all down.
In Western metropolises, places like China Wok appear to be a dying breed. Countless times, non-Chinese friends of mine would question why I ate at a place even they understood to be so inauthentic, with its stereotypical name and borderline offensive typography. As they liked to remind me, a quick journey to Chicago’s burgeoning Chinatown might have offered something “more real”.
The recipes from China Wok, of course, did not materialise from thin air: they are inherited in the Chinese community from previous generations of Chinese Americans. However, despite being products of a common diaspora, these dishes are often denied their place in the multidimensional, transnational tradition of Chinese cooking. In our search for the most authentic, we frequently get lost in nostalgia – so deeply, I think, that we sometimes forget all the different ways in which something can belong to a culture.