FOOD ESSAY #2: Growing up on Chinese food and then going to college

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When I was in high school, my mom made dinner most nights.

Some sort of meat dish, a vegetable stir-fry perhaps, maybe a simple soup made with clear broth, and rice – always rice. I watched her measure out the granules from a huge bag we had perpetually sitting in our pantry, soak and rinse them repeatedly until the water ran clear, and fill the rice cooker up to the designated line. When she wasn’t at home, she’d call or text me to press the button on the rice cooker around 5:30 – it was almost always already in the rice cooker, rinsed and prepped.

When my family ate out, we opted for Chinese restaurants that we knew had authentic dishes. The dishes would be brought out as they were prepared, not all at once, menu items that didn’t always translate perfectly into English, seafood with the shell on, fish with the bone in. I knew to expect large tables with Lazy Susans, those turntables that made sharing food easier, as was the traditional centerpiece for a Chinese meal.

‘Family-style’ meals were pretty unfamiliar to my non-Chinese friends; I remember going out to a Chinese restaurant with my debate team and everyone ordering a $12 dish for themselves.

That’s not how it works, I screamed internally. It was no wonder that most people didn’t finish what they ordered and looked wistfully at each other’s plates.

As my sister and I grew up, we started to eat out more, on our own. Chick-fil-A and Willy’s became pretty regular in our diets – we got food from there at least once a week, it seemed.

When I went to college, my diet consisted of a lot of dining hall food, which prompted me to eat out a decent amount. But I mainly settled for what I could find in Evanston – mediocre imitations of Mediterranean, Indian, Chinese and more – most in the middle-price range.

When I could no longer bear it, I would escape to Chinatown with a friend and gorge on dim sum and bubble tea. I would walk past Asian bakeries and stores that sold preserved fruits and little snacks. But the Red Line L train ride to Cermak-Chinatown took over an hour, and I didn’t always have the time to spend.

Argyle – Chicago’s main Vietnamese neighborhood – became a closer and more frequently visited safe haven, and a source of comfort for me. A half-hour ride away from campus later, and I would step off the train into a completely different community.

The restaurants in Evanston – where most students unintentionally compromise quality – customize their menus to appeal to college students. By contrast, Argyle offers cheap bowls of pho and even cheaper bánh mì sandwiches. Just steps away from the Red Line stop resides Chiu Quon Bakery, where every student group who does bun sales buys their buns from. Over the years, I repeatedly made my way back to the Argyle neighborhood, relishing the signs and storefronts bearing words in languages that I couldn’t understand, and the alluring smells that wafted up and down the streets.

Over time I was exposed to more of the subtle wonders of the Argyle neighborhood, like the grocery store where I get a lot of my Asian groceries. Sure, I can get soy sauce and hoisin and the like at other grocery stores in Evanston, but the products are overpriced, there’s a limited selection available and I always feel a little shifty lurking in the ‘international’ aisle at grocery stores, thinking to myself, I deserve so much better – which I do.

This grocery store makes H-mart look ungenuine, with its pungent raw meat and fish smells, piles of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, and foreign spices and sauces. I always feel an urge to grab something random and go home to experiment with it, even if I can’t comprehend what half of the packages and labels say. Smells and sights like these reassure authenticity, a quality that is hard to come by in a college town like Evanston.

In college, I’m grateful for a few forces in my life that bring me back to my Chinese roots. If it weren’t for friends who periodically make trips out to Asian grocery stores and traditional Chinese restaurants, I don’t know where I’d be. My friends Kathy and Vicky cook Chinese food in their apartment, and their fridge is jammed with ingredients like bok choy, nian gao and dumplings.

My family sends me care packages filled with Asian snacks, like dried seaweed sheets, a large plastic jar of lychee jellies and non-wasabi peas, because wasabi peas are too spicy for me. These are snacks that I grew up on as a kid. My parents used to try to ration my portions because I had little self-control, but they now send them in large quantities because I often don’t have the time to go get them myself.

Foods like these are a source of familiarity and nostalgia, and they keep me grounded to my Chinese roots and remind me where I come from.

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