| Arts & Culture
Food My Bicultural Comfort Food is the Spicy McChicken Sandwich
Both the sandwich and I were ‘made in China’ but with an undeniable Americanness.
I was first introduced to the McDonald’s Spicy McChicken Sandwich in 2002 as a fourth grader. My family had just moved back to China from the US, where we had spent the past two years in a small town in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, as my dad finished his postdoctoral research. At nine years old, I had a fragmented understanding of home, having already experienced two moves within China, and two more across the Pacific Ocean and back.
Mom took me to a McDonald’s when it opened ten minutes away from our apartment, hoping that fast food, one of the few “Western foods” that agreed with my stomach, would ease my transition back from the US. I picked the Spicy McChicken Sandwich as it was the only burger or sandwich on the menu without any cheese—one Western obsession I’d never warmed to. Plus, I’d had the McChicken countless times while our family road-tripped across the US, and if there’s one thing you can depend on global fast-food chain restaurants for, it’s familiarity and consistency regardless of your location.
The existence of McDonald’s in China is not that much older than I am: The chain opened its first restaurant in China in 1990, in Shenzhen, a mere two hours away from our new home of Guangzhou. Both McDonald’s and I grew up as China opened its economy and its gates to the world—as Beijing hosted its first Asian Games, the stock exchanges in both Shanghai and Shenzhen rang their opening bells, and Chinese consumers eagerly welcomed an influx of Western brands. For most Chinese consumers, McDonald’s became a relatively accessible window into the rest of the world—a McDonald’s meant that your city was “aligned with international standards,” an indicator of economic prosperity that was touted often on the news.
By the time my family moved back in 2002, American imports like KFC and Pizza Hut were all the rage. Always brightly lit and slightly more upscale than their American counterparts, these were the places to be—with McDonald’s being the most popular of them all, even a popular wedding destination and top-choice venue for birthday parties.
I placed my order and prepared my body for the slightly bland and flat sandwich I was used to. As I sunk my teeth through the springy sesame bun, piercing through the crunchy lettuce and crispy fried outer skin, finally reaching the firm yet tender and juicy meat of the chicken, the tangy spiciness hit me with its full force. My mouth was on fire, and I had to take several big gulps of iced Coke to cool down. I was perplexed at the unexpected twist of flavor and angry that it was different from what I expected. However, soon after my mouth recovered, I found myself reaching for the sandwich once more—this pattern of taking a bite, taking a break to chug Coke, then taking another bite continued until I finished the sandwich and the Coke at the same time. My mouth was numb from the spiciness (I’m weak, I know), but the lingering umami of the chicken sandwich stayed in my mouth and on my mind.
I went back for more Spicy McChickens the next week.
After my first encounter, I became a frequent visitor to my local McDonald’s, always ordering the Spicy McChicken with a medium Coke. Many of my adolescent milestones took place in that McDonald’s: bonding with classmates, agonizing over test scores, and sneaking in a first date with a middle school crush. I came of age as the popularity of McDonald’s in China peaked, watching as the price of a set meal doubled from thirteen yuan (two dollars today) to twenty-five yuan (four dollars today).
I was often away—traveling to Europe with family in middle school, coming to the US as an exchange student in high school and eventually for college—and when I found myself missing home, the food I craved wasn’t the steaming-hot shrimp dumplings rolled around on carts in dim sum restaurants, but the Spicy McChicken. I embarked on a passion-fueled journey to find the sandwich no matter which corner of the world I was in during my teens and early adulthood: the McDonald’s at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport’s four terminals, the McDonald’s in the basement level of Rome’s busy train station, the McDonald’s in Shibuya, Tokyo. My failed sandwich-searching attempts across the globe eventually proved my hypothesis that the sandwich was only available in Mainland China.
I’ve always found myself caught between cultures and countries: I’m Chinese, born and raised; I’ve now spent the past decade studying, living, and working in the US, yet I’m not Chinese American. I scored 92 on the “ True Asian Test ,” and I can rap Eminem’s “Mockingbird” in its entirety. I listen to Jay Chou and Eason Chan just as much as I listen to Fall Out Boy and Blink-182 (I call them the suburban American boy bands). I want to just claim global citizenship and call it a day, but the catchall term misses the nuances that come with my bilingual and bicultural background.
I embarked on a passion-fueled journey to find the sandwich no matter which corner of the world I was in.
A friend who shares my conundrum of feeling caught in between cultural identities and places recently forwarded me an article in the Columbia Journalism Review , in which reporter and essayist E. Tammy Kim coined the term “transnationally Asian” to describe a budding community of journalists who write for publications that are focused on reporting local news in Asia with an internationalist view. In the context of Covid-19, the transnationally Asian point of view has meant “critiquing the American response without reflexively defending China or naively recycling praise of success stories.” Kim also mentions a growing group of students and workers for whom “a hyphenated, traditional immigrant label does not apply,” as these folks may consider themselves partial citizens of their birthplace countries while feeling most at home speaking English and committed to a life in the Western Hemisphere.
I paused several times while reading the piece to text my friend: “This is us!” The term accurately describes how I identify: Culturally, I am Chinese with a generous dash of “Americanness,” and geographically I have homes in both countries.
It’s also how I would categorize the McDonald’s Spicy McChicken Sandwich: a localized item that the global fast-food chain created specifically for the Mainland Chinese market. It’s uniquely Chinese with an unmistakable American look and was born out of opportunities created by the rise of globalism. My experience benefits from the same circumstances: China opening its doors to the world and the growing economy granted my family the opportunity to come to the States when I was a child and granted me the opportunity to come back for college as an adult. Both the sandwich and I were “made in China” but with an undeniable Americanness.
As I grappled with my fragmented identity over the years, the Spicy McChicken Sandwich reminded me that there exists something that’s equally Chinese as it is American, as Asian as it is global. Its fiery and unapologetic existence transcends borders and has brought me solace and hope whenever I’ve doubted myself.
I’m proud to be bilingual, to be bicultural, and to have had the experience of being in between cultures and countries. If the emotional and psychological burden that comes with having roots everywhere is what I have to deal with, then I count it as both a blessing and a responsibility that I willingly shoulder. And I know I’m not alone—there’s a growing community of like-minded folks that’s only getting bigger and becoming more visible in sharing their voices.
And I’m not alone in my late-night cravings of the Spicy McChicken Sandwich either. A couple of close friends from Guangzhou are always my go-tos as we share our reverence and devotion to this one specific chicken sandwich via text. I’ve also seen frequent posts on forums for Chinese students abroad asking if the sandwich would ever grace the menu of an American McDonald’s restaurant. To my friends and other members of the Chinese diaspora who’ve wandered away from home, this shared craving connects us and anchors us.
Since my 2016 move from Chicago, where I spent five years for school, to New York for work, I’ve felt more comfortable in my own identity. The city is welcoming to people who straddle multiple cultures and speak many languages—whenever I shop at Hong Kong Supermarket in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I speak Cantonese to the butcher but Mandarin to the cashier. No one bats an eye.
But lately, I’ve been homesick. The travel ban issued earlier this year combined with suspension of work visa issuance has prevented me from traveling home to see my parents. My parents were also worried about me venturing outside, worried that I’d fall victim to the pandemic-spurred anti-Asian xenophobia, which has led to several instances of violence on the streets of New York. Some days I feel utterly helpless as the icy US-China relationship looms over our Chinese diaspora community in America. Days like this make me rethink the complex identity I’m usually so proud of and take me down a rabbit hole of hypotheticals: What if Dad never came to the US for his postdoctoral program, or what if he stayed in the US after his program and pursued an academic career here? Either one of these scenarios would have meant a less fragmented childhood for me. I also imagine I’d be able to answer the questions “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” with confidence and clarity. I wouldn’t have to spend so much emotional energy to keep tabs on friends across continents or avidly follow the news in two countries and three languages. I wouldn’t have to read through the dense immigration policies on my own—policies that I have no control over, yet which completely govern my lawful presence in this country that I now call home.
Throughout this stressful year, whenever I read the news, I reflexively think of how it could impact my life, and almost immediately after, a pang of homesickness hits and I wonder when I’ll see my parents next. The heartache then turns into hunger, and before I know it, I find myself craving the McDonald’s Spicy McChicken Sandwich.