| Arts & Culture
Food What “American Night” Meant to My Chinese American Family
Holding on to our cultural foods and customs was a labor of love, but labor nevertheless. American Night provided a little respite.
My father holds the well-seasoned, heavy black iron wok by its smooth wooden handle. A hot blue flame blooms on our gas stove. After a swirl of oil, garlic goes into the wok, minced with a cleaver on the heavy chopping block that looks like it was hacked off a tree trunk—four inches thick, a foot and a half in diameter, round, with visible grooves you can trace.
My father works from home managing his businesses and our household, including the shopping and the cooking. My grandmother watches the kids after school (me, my brother, and my younger cousins) while my mother works at her clerical job in a big office downtown. Dinner in our San Francisco household is usually Chinese-style, which is to say family-style: a table set for multiple generations, at least five dishes every night, served with steamed white rice.
We might eat some kind of choy stir-fried in a hot wok with garlic or ginger ( jaaah— the sound of the greens as they hit the hot wok, emitting a cloud of white steam); sweet-savory lapchong sausages steamed with the rice and cut into pieces on the diagonal; a dish of tiny dried fish, baak faan yu, finished with a drizzle of oil and soy sauce; minced pork cake with bits of chewy cuttlefish or dried scallops; chicken, cleaver-cut through the bone, steamed with julienned ginger and mushrooms. Perhaps there will be a dish leftover from last night, or something picked up at the Chinese take-away deli: roast pork with a rich rust-colored crackling skin; aromatic roast duck; a whole steamed snapper, slits cut into the skin to encourage quicker cooking, finished with raw slivers of green onion and ginger, then soy sauce and hot oil poured on top (yung you bao, they called it—explode it with oil). If we’ve been fishing recently, we might have pan-fried ocean perch with deeply crisped and browned fins and tails.
Tonight is different, though. Tonight, nobody has to lift the lid of the yellow ten-gallon plastic tub filled almost to the brim with long-grain rice and measure out little porcelain rice-bowl-sized portions into the rice cooker. No one has to cover the rice with cold water, rub the smooth grains with their fingers submerged, three times repeated, discarding cloudy water and any surface-floating brown husks. No steamy, almost sweet scent of hot rice permeates our kitchen, as it does every other night. Tonight is special.
It’s American Night.
Sometimes, on American Night, we pick up a pizza from Pasquale’s by the zoo. These are not cracker-thin, light-on-the-toppings, Neapolitan-style pizzas. These are thick, yeasty pizzas with dark and bubbly crusts. Our toppings of choice are always pepperoni and mushroom—salty, spicy, cheesy. It’s unusual for us; we hardly ever eat cheese in our house, except on Pasquale’s days.
Sometimes, American Night is about spaghetti. On his shopping trips to Safeway, Dad will occasionally pick up a packet of Italian spaghetti sauce seasoning mix. The packet sits on our kitchen counter for a few days—tantalizing, because we know something different is coming. The Lawry’s seasoning packet, white with signature green, yellow, and red stripes across the top, instructs the reader to combine and simmer together water, tomato paste, oil, and ground beef. “For a sweeter sauce,” the instructions say, “add one teaspoon sugar or to taste.”
Tonight, a big pot of water for spaghetti is boiling on one of the back burners of the stove. Pup-pup-pup-pup, the water bubbles, and the lid bumps up and down from the force of the heat. On the front burner, the garlic aromas from the wok begin to permeate the air, and in goes the ground beef off a white Styrofoam tray. Red slowly turns to brown in the wok. My father uses the wok chaan to break up pieces of pungent garlic-infused beef. My task is mixing the spice mixture into water in a Chinese blue and white porcelain bowl. It separates into small clumps—orange with little green specks—and I smell garlic and onion and tomato.
This mixture gets added to the wok, along with a large can of stewed tomatoes. The tangy, robust flavors of tomato merge with the aromatic garlic notes and savory beef. The sauce still tastes like tomatoes—fresh and tart. Mom hates sour things, so my dad takes the “add sugar to taste” instruction to heart. He pours sugar from the dispenser into the wok, one circle, two circles, three circles, sometimes four. The sugar dissolves as he stirs with a wok chaan.
The packet of Golden Grain spaghetti is now cooked. We drain and rinse the noodles under cold water so that they do not stick. (This is also what we do with Chinese egg noodles for wonton or for Hong Kong style crispy chow mein.) We all hate soggy noodles. Noodles must have a chewy bite to them, even if they are going into a dish of room-temperature spaghetti sauce.
Looking back, I often wonder about our American Night tradition. Did my parents want to help my brother and me assimilate into the culture in which we lived? Or was it just about novelty?
I remember the moments at Safeway when our dad had a negative interaction with a checkout clerk, and my brother and I would end up running after him after he left the store in a huff, all our groceries still splayed on the checkout counter. I was never sure what happened, but I knew my dad—friendly to all servers and workers, to anyone he met—was upset. Chou baak gwai, he would mutter. As a kid, I understood he meant stuck-up white person, though literally the phrase translates to stinky white ghost.
Why would he want to eat the food of the chou baak gwai?
I suspect it was intentional, calculated—that my parents wanted us to be comfortable in different environments, that our lives might be easier if we could engage with the foods of people outside our Chinese community, that we might fit in more with the communities around us.
The author as a child (far left), with her family
But part of me also wonders if it wasn’t all about us, their kids. My parents had crossed open waters to come to these shores. Holding on to our cultural foods and customs was a labor of love, but labor nevertheless. From time to time, American Night provided a little respite from the labor attendant to Chinese food, with its many dishes. Sugary spaghetti or Pasquale’s pizza with its smoky doughy crust gave them a break from the endless chopping, a break from the tremendous effort of maintaining our culture against the ever-encroaching influences of TV, school, and the people all around us who didn’t look like us or share our history.
For the last year, I’ve worked Sundays at a San Francisco farmers’ market, where I sell pasta—delicious fresh pasta, made by people who learned the art from pasta makers in Italy. While I have always liked noodles, I never understood the simple beauty of fresh, handmade pasta until I started working for this pasta maker. Now, when I taste and smell and sell it, I am reminded that my parents had another reason for loving spaghetti on American Night.
My mother immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada—first to Toronto, and then to Vancouver for work. My father immigrated from Toisan, China to San Francisco. As I recall, my mother’s cousin’s husband knew my father’s younger brother, and he made an introduction that led to my father’s first visit to Vancouver and one of my parents’ dates at the Old Spaghetti Factory. After they met at a family friend’s home in San Francisco, my parents’ courtship continued for several months with my father making the trek up to Vancouver.
One night they headed to Gastown, a tourist district full of quaint cobblestone streets and restaurants. They wanted something different than Chinese food, which in those days was confined to Chinatown. They ended up at the Old Spaghetti Factory, lured by the promise of excitement, dining in an antique trolley car. My parents sat at table set with a red and white checked tablecloth inside the narrow trolley car lit with antique glass lamps and enjoyed their spaghetti and meatballs. The meal, and the company, was good. By the following spring, my mother had accepted my father’s proposal and moved to San Francisco to begin a new life in America. So perhaps our family’s American Nights were not only evenings of rest from all the chopping, a way to forge a connection between us and our peers. Perhaps they were also regular reminders of love found over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.