Growing up, it was about breakfast. My father shook the top of my duvet until I cracked my eyes open – or, if he was feeling funny that morning, would gently place his index finger horizontally across my nostrils, giggling to himself as my eyelids flew open, satisfied that I was sufficiently awake.
One day it might be a reheated frozen muffin – a 700- calorie monstrosity from a megapack purchased from BJ’s. The next day – a bowl of cheerios, slightly soggy by the time I dragged myself to the desk in the bedroom my family of four shared – firmly dubbed the Breakfast Desk in my head. Certainly no one used it for anything else. And always with a mug of milk – filled to the brim. A hilarious daily reminder that my parents were firmly and unwaveringly dedicated to the influences of a decade of Got Milk?
And then, of course, there was the macaroni soup.
Hong Kong macaroni soup is a strange thing. Think about it: narrow tubes of curled pasta, boiled long past al dente, poured into a just-heated bowl of chicken or pork broth. In my bowls, there were sad nuggets of rehydrated carrot and peas, a last-minute pitch to add some healthful elements into what was essentially a bland-as-fuck meal. And for me, Hong Kong macaroni soup lay firmly in the average category – a solid 5.5 for breakfast: somewhere above an anemic bowl of soggy Cheerios but decidedly lower than an overtoasted supermarket bagel with a schmear of cream cheese. It took seven minutes for me to gulp it down and dash out the door by 7:10 to catch the bus to school.
I accepted this morning ritual – despite insisting at least weekly that I didn’t need breakfast, and that five extra minutes of sleep was what I really needed. My choice of silent protest was to in get back under the sheets promptly after sleepily gulping down that never-ending mug of milk, always leaving a few drops as an extra act of defiance.
But still my daddy plodded on – shaking me awake (sometimes twice if I was having one of my days), making me breakfast, and then going back to sleep himself. On the days that he’d quietly allow me to sleep in with the knowledge that I’d been up since 2 in the morning finishing a project, I missed the bus. He’d pull on his coat at in the deadest and darkest of Boston winter mornings, breath hazing in the bone-cold air, and drive me the thirty minutes to school in composed silence.
Beyond Hong Kong macaroni soup for breakfast, there were other meals that I’d made regular appearances – food that I’d come to expect from my parents based what they found a few blocks away in Chinatown. My perpetually frazzled and frenetic mother, the holder of three jobs and superwoman of my life, occasionally pushed our apartment door open at 6:30 in the evening clutching a Styrofoam box.
The Styrofoam box, brought in at that time, meant only one thing: char siu – a roasted pork loin roasted in Cantonese style, and so alarmingly delicious that I often wondered at my mother’s choice to introduce it to us, addicted as we were. Opening the lid of the box slowly, where droplets of moisture had condensed on the lid, and steam rose to my nose, showed a slab of pork as long as my entire forearm, glistening with a lacquer of sweet sauce. I marveled at the evenly chopped slices and, despite my mother’s halfhearted calls to wait, unceremoniously stabbed a fork into the pointy end.
The pointy end, scorched near-black, required the type of jaw strength that my ten-year-old teeth struggled with, but that transportive combination of lean meat, sweet honey marinade, and smokey char got me as close to experiencing gustatory enlightenment as possible, cancerous carcinogens be damned.
But then the Styrofoam boxes appeared in our lives in other ways, especially on Saturdays. There was Chinatown Café: a moderately sized takeout joint with linoleum floors and worn booths. It was here that I learned to equate shouting by both cashiers and chefs with the expectation that I was about to have some good-ass food. Fried rice studded with scrambled egg, shrimp, peas, carrots, and char siu that I ate by the bowlful; sticky hor fun fried with dark soy sauce and slices of beef and bunches of bean sprouts until it was burnished brown. It was here that I learned to enjoy the zingy funk of salted fish fried rice and the tongue-curling sharpness of bitter melon wok-fried with beef, which I blissfully spooned over kernels of white rice. And then, for one glorious hour, I forgot about French fries.
I ate these things within my family of four in the corners of Chinatown, while I cultivated my taste for monster burritos and greasy pizza slices with my classmates after school. For lunch I ate Reduced-Fat Cheez-Its from the school vending machine. No, really. Two heartburn-inducing 50 cent bags of Cheez-Its. But if I was really lacking variety in my high school life I’d switch it up with a bag of Baked Lays.
But still, when I left school, I’d go to the clinic where my mother worked – a community clinic on the periphery of Chinatown, where most of the patients were immigrants from southern China, and almost none spoke English. I’d stomp in, chirp a quick “Good morning, auntie” to every doctor and nurse I saw, and make a beeline for the clinic kitchen. Then I called my mother’s office number.
“Did you say hello to all the aunties?” my mother demanded as soon as she picked up.
“Yes,” I said sheepishly.
The aforementioned aunties piled into the kitchen, refilling water bottles or brewing coffee. “Auntie Mabel, nei ho,” I whispered meekly, hoping against hope that would be where the conversation stopped. But it rarely did, and those good aunties – bless them – with their permed hair and their fading highlights and their white coats, remarked on how tall I’d grown since they’d last seen me (last week), and how smart I was becoming, as they peered at my multiplication tables (no smarter than I’d been last week). And I’d nod and smile and acquiesce in Cantonese, imagining – hoping – praying that perhaps my lack of language ability could be mistaken for shyness.
I imagine my existence in this Chinatown bore a lot of resemblance to many other existences in many other Chinatowns in those days – Chinatowns that existed before boba shops with cheese topped caps magicked themselves into every corner and before a single bowl of biang biang noodles appeared on a menu. Where food from Southern China was king, and nary a trend existed. This was survival.
And survival tasted damn delicious.
More than a decade later, I was doing my own kind of survival.
I sat cross-legged on a bed as wide as it was long. Several cardboard cartons lay in front of me, nestled cozily into the duvet where I’d placed them. I gingerly opened them, one by one. Steam rose as I peeked inside the first.
There it was. Korean fried chicken, as recognizable here as it was when I tasted Bonchon‘s version in Boston years ago: red-golden hued, tiny crags of crispy batter.
It was Korean fried chicken, and it was my first night in Hong Kong.
Only it was a terrifying one. Once I’d lugged my suitcases upstairs to the temporary serviced apartment, my hunger set in. And with that hunger came an in-retrospect-laughable anxiety about looking for something to eat. I’d spent so much time in Anglophonic countries, and barely any time in Asia, that I could not bring myself to find something to eat. I couldn’t. I couldn’t read Chinese. I didn’t know where to go. What if they asked me what I wanted, and then I said I couldn’t read, and then they snapped at me? Or worse, laughed?
I could go to McDonald’s. Yeah. I’d go to McDonald’s.
I peered outside at the harbor, where the water shone black, a dark 11:00pm sky lit by a blanket of lights from the International Commerce Center, a hulking form in the distance. A city I didn’t know.
And I was alone.
It was that moment that I called upon technology – ever my soothing travel companion, my beacon of hope in times of darkness – and Googled “Hong Kong food delivery service.”
And so, twenty minutes later, I sat up in bed, let the scent of fried chicken rise to my nostrils, and faced off with my solitude and my shame.
I moved to Hong Kong in February of 2017: a dream that had for the majority of the previous year only existed in fine wisps of smoke. It finally materialized after a flurry of fat virtual stacks of paperwork: email approvals and bad passport photos cut into dimensions just so (no smile, please), tax agreements and a one-way flight to Hong Kong.
Despite neither of my parents actually being from Hong Kong, it felt like a homecoming.
Taxi drivers were my first teachers. I watched them in awe, loving the familiarity of their gruff outbursts, silently repeating their words under my breath once they’d turned away. Getting every syllable right. I liked their rough-around-the-edges curtness and the way they repeated my timid Cantonese and sped away. Along with the trams, they allowed me my first window’s glimpse into this city of lights and sounds and smells.
Getting to work was a different story. At 8:50 in the morning, on my first day of work, I stared across at a sea of black and brown hair, waiting for the elevator. I looked down at my suit jacket, at my just-right skirt length. At my reflection in the impossible shine of the elevator doors. I imagined that I looked just like them, and that I belonged. Until I opened my mouth and spoke. Then no one could mistake that I was actually just like them. I spoke only English in the office, as unabashedly as I might at home. It was only in the wet markets and in the local diners – where the vocabulary necessary shrank down to handfuls of familiar food words, that I, away from the imagined judgment of native speakers, steadily practiced my Cantonese. These were the words that I knew.
And oh, the food!
There were roast geese, slick with basting oils, dangling in glass windows. Springy wonton noodles plunged into vats of boiling water. Egg waffles gently baking in waffle irons. And the first time I nudged a slice of fatty char siu onto a spoon with white rice in Hong Kong and spooned it into my mouth, I knew where I had seen this before. Heard it. Smelled it.
One day, I ventured into the oppressive sunlight of a Hong Kong summer – the kind that lights your head on fire and your skin prickles as pores eke out droplets of salty sweat. And I was about to have a Hong Kong – style breakfast. 30 minutes of sweaty tram-riding and 10 minutes of even sweatier queuing in line later, I was guzzling iced milk tea from a straw, squeezing my brain hard for the right rules to eat in Hong Kong, and contemplating the meal in front of me. It was a bowl of macaroni soup.
And then those memories came flooding in – morning after morning of chicken-broth-filled soup spoons, limp macaroni, my own tired eyes. I sent a text to my mom on WeChat. “Didn’t you make this all the time for us when we were little?”
Time and distance – from leaving high school for college and trading pork buns for pizza, flying 3,200 miles to London and gulping pints of beer instead of bowls of broth – had all but banished the tastes of a Chinese childhood to the cobwebby recesses of my mind.
It dawns on me now that I had to go away to come back again – and this time I was here to stay.