What ‘White’ Food Meant to a First-Generation Kid
“Hamburgers,” my uncle said, pointing at me from across the table at New Jersey’s only decent Chinese restaurant. “Lisa loves hamburgers. Right, Lisa?”
It didn’t matter whether I said yes or no. I was the first in my family to be born in the United States, so the decision had been made for me. I was expected to betray Chinese food for American food: Whoppers, Quarter Pounders with cheese, White Castle sliders with onion breath. And that I did.
我回答是或是不，都无关紧要。我是这个家族中出生在美国的第一个成员，所以这个决定老早就有人替我做了。他们料想我会背弃中国饮食而喜好美国食品：皇堡(Whoppers)、加奶酪的4盎司牛肉堡(Quarter Pounders)和带洋葱的白城堡汉堡(White Castle)。我后来的确这样。
For my relatives, Chinese immigrants from the Philippines, this was evidence of how I’d assimilated and they hadn’t. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” my father would say, shaking his head, when my cousin and I begged to eat Popeyes chicken instead of preserved fish.
The year was 1986, I was 10 years old, and my family was on the fast track to expert-level American. We were the first on our block to get a microwave, where, my mother said, we could “zap” and “nuke” our food. Breakfast was a fat slice of zapped Sara Lee frozen poundcake. We peeled back the plastic wrap on Swanson’s Hungry-Man TV dinners, and dug into corn niblets, mashed potatoes and fudge brownies. I’d nuke French-bread pizza for an after-school snack and eat Cheetos, Pringles and Nestlé Iced Tea powder out of the can.
My parents had survived war and dictatorship before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed more non-Europeans to immigrate to the United States, and they overcompensated for the austerity of their childhoods by allowing me to consume any food I wanted, with a side of guilt trip. I was encouraged to assimilate, and also accused of it.
在《1965年移民与国籍法》(Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965)允许更多非欧洲人移民到美国之前，我的父母经历了战争和独裁统治。因为在童年尝尽艰辛，他们出于过度补偿的心理——同时伴随一种负罪感——任由我想吃什么就吃什么。我被鼓励同化，却也因此被指责。
Because my parents had been born and raised in the Philippines, which the United States had once colonized, they were familiar with American food and culture. My mother was a great cook, but to be able to afford and eat American convenience, American abundance, was our way of feeling included in the middle class.
For my parents, “American” was often synonymous with “white,” but the food my white friends ate wasn’t anything like the food on TV commercials. At their homes, there was unsweetened applesauce, baked chicken breasts and celery sticks. Occasionally, a single oatmeal cookie from an actual cookie jar. I wondered how anyone could be satisfied with only one. In my middle school cafeteria, the other kids ate P.B.J. and apples as I feasted on hot dogs stuffed with American cheese. When Chinese food appeared on the cafeteria menu, it was an oozy noodle dish that resembled nothing I’d ever seen.
My white friends didn’t even have cable TV — their parents listened to AM radio and watched PBS — but my parents had talked the cable guy into hooking us up with not just Showtime and MTV, but also HBO, Cinemax and the Movie Channel. Free.
There weren’t enough hours to watch all the TV I wanted, even if it was a fifth viewing of “Cannonball Run II” or “National Lampoon’s European Vacation,” which I’d watch while gnawing the pretzel casings away from Combos Baked Snacks to extract the wads of pizza-flavored cheese and mash them into one big ball. I yearned for us to be chosen to be a Nielsen family, and fantasized about keeping a TV diary and having my viewing habits influence ratings, but my parents said we’d never be asked to do such a thing.
我没时间看所有我想看的电视节目，哪怕是第五次看《炮弹飞车2》(Cannonball Run II)或《国家讽刺》(National Lampoon)杂志的《欧洲假期》(European Vacation)——我看这部影片时，正忙着把Combos Baked Snacks外面的面饼啃掉，取出里面的一块块披萨味奶酪，把它们揉成一大团。我十分渴望我们家会被选中，成为尼尔森家庭(Nielsen family)，还痴想着保留一份电视观看日记，好让我的观看习惯对收视率产生影响，但父母说我们永远不会接到这样的要求。
It was the year the Iran-contra affair came to light, the year of the Challenger explosion and the “people power” revolution in the Philippines that ousted Ferdinand Marcos after two decades in power, the American government airlifting him to safety in Hawaii. (This last event my parents and I did see on TV, at least the clips the American news deigned to show.) But in prime time, it was “The Cosby Show,” “Dallas” and “Dynasty”; and all day long, there were game shows. I got obsessed with how you could spin a wheel on “The Price Is Right” or hit a button on “Press Your Luck” and win a new car, a living room set or a trip to Switzerland.
那是伊朗门事件曝光的年份，是“挑战者”号(Challenger)爆炸和菲律宾发生“人民力量”革命的年份——这场革命推翻了在位20年的费迪南德·马科斯(Ferdinand Marcos)，美国政府将他飞到了夏威夷避难。（我和父母的确在电视上观看了最后这个事件，至少看到了美国新闻媒体惠准播出的一些片段。）但是在当时的黄金时段，播出的是《科斯比秀》(The Cosby Show)、《家族风云》(Dallas)和《锦绣豪门》(Dynasty)；还有整天不断的游戏节目。我一直盘算着怎么才能在《价格猜猜猜》(The Price Is Right)节目中转个转盘或在《强棒出击》(Press Your Luck)中按个按钮，就赢到一辆新车、一套客厅家具或一趟瑞士游。
I wanted to win the cash jackpot on “Sale of the Century,” to be handed a suitcase of money and showered with balloons. Like the New York Lotto cards my father brought home every week and the Wingo game cards I filled out in the back pages of The New York Post, game shows were pure possibility. Everyone could be a winner; everyone could get rich quick.
我想在《销售的世纪》(Sale of the Century)节目中赢得现金大奖，在彩色气球的环绕下接过一个装满现金的手提箱。就像父亲每周带回家的纽约乐透彩票和我在《纽约邮报》最后几页填写的温戈(Wingo)游戏卡一样，游戏有奖赛节目就是一种纯粹的可能性。每个人都有可能成为赢家；每个人都有可能一夜暴富。
James Baldwin wrote that American media is “designed not to trouble, but to reassure.” American movies and TV shows help sustain a fantasy of innocence that masks our country’s violence. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie referred to America’s “addiction to comfort”; Junot Díaz to our commitment to “narratives of consolation.” The soothing myth of American exceptionalism depends on maintaining its comfort and innocence, however false. Perhaps my childhood did, too. After all, my family had the privilege to remain superficially apolitical, to attempt to distance ourselves, mentally and geographically, from the devastation of the Reagan years.
詹姆斯·鲍德温(James Baldwin)曾经写道，美国媒体的“主旨不是带来困扰，而是安抚”。美国电影和电视节目会帮助维持一种天真的幻想，它可以掩盖我们国家的暴力。希玛曼达·恩戈齐· 阿迪奇(Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)提到过美国的“对慰藉的迷恋”；朱诺·迪亚斯(Junot Díaz)说我们一心追求“令人安慰的叙述”。要维持美国例外论抚慰人心的神话，就必须保持其慰藉和天真的属性，不管它有多么虚假。或许我的童年也是如此。毕竟，我的家人拥有在表面上置身于政治之外的条件，可以试图将自己从精神和地理上与里根年代造成的破坏拉开距离。
By cranking up the TV, stuffing ourselves with Velveeta and Steak-umms, we were trying to drown out our own fears, our guilt for the relatives left behind in the Philippines, our economic anxieties and uncertainties. What could be more American than this sort of desperate denial? We didn’t need to prove that we were American; we already were.
The relationship between Americanness and consumption was a complicated one. My friend Lori often ate lunch at our house, where she’d ask for seconds of Spam noodle soup, Spam and rice, or Kraft mac-and-cheese with chunks of Spam. “I love Spam,” she’d say. “It’s so delicious.”
One afternoon, she refused to eat. “My mom says Spam is disgusting,” she said, looking at the bowl my mother had placed in front of her. She pulled it closer, then pushed it away. “My mom said she’d never cook or eat it.”
After Lori went home, my mother rolled her eyes and said, “Americans eat hot dogs all the time, and hot dogs are the same as Spam.”
“What’s wrong with Spam, anyway?” my father said. “Spam’s American.”
Which was true, kind of. The United States military had brought Spam to Guam, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines — places with some of the highest Spam consumption rates in the world — during various wartime occupations. In the Philippines, there’s no shame to Spam. Yet my family had brought this American food back to America, and now we were being told it was inedible.
One dominant narrative of immigration paints a rosy picture of two cultures melting together through food, like my mother stuffing our Thanksgiving turkey with sticky rice. But in reality, assimilation is more violent, history more complex, and cultures less disparate. I’d hungrily devoured what I had believed to be American normalcy, but I was still being seen as American-adjacent. Maybe there was no such thing as American normalcy; or maybe the normalcy was in itself a performance.
Eventually, the food I’d gorged on, with its cheery packaging and bright colors, made me sick, and I developed food allergies and chronic autoimmune issues. These days, a slice of pizza or a handful of Doritos will give me hives for weeks.
Yet once in a while, I feel a sharp envy for people who can eat whatever they want, with no repercussions, though maybe it’s only envy for the innocence of 1986, an innocence that never truly existed, and how I used to make a beeline for the burger stand at the mall food court. Extra cheese. Onion rings. A milkshake to wash it down. Or eat a microwaved dinner, the food never tasting quite as good as the shiny pictures on the box appeared, in front of a blaring TV, unable to look away.