The Spoke / Orange Chicken? That’s Me! Subscribe

Keung and parents at Wellesley for graduation
May is nationally recognized as Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month, which celebrates the culture and contributions of Asian Americans. What better way to celebrate the Chinese American experience than sharing a family’s immigration story.

I was the typical restaurant kid, helping my parents out after school by cleaning tables, sweeping floors, and completing as much homework as I could while sitting between the soda machine and a mountain of takeout boxes. Whenever there was a lull, my dad would put down his wok and my mom her table rag, and we’d sit together at the front counter to fold wontons. I was expected to speak fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese at home and attend Saturday morning Chinese school, as well as to pursue a pathway that no one in my family had ever achieved. I embraced those opportunities, and attended Wellesley College, where East Asian language and culture courses helped me understand my parents’ complicated relationship with China and the sacrifices they made for us to be American. 

My family’s immigration path has been paved by the twenty Chinese restaurants they’ve worked in or opened across three continents — everything from Shanghai-style dumpling stands in Arizona food courts to Canton-style seafood restaurants in Rome. While they learned through experience that different parts of the world had different conceptions of what made ‘good’ Chinese food, they eventually found success in Los Angeles by serving what the diners expected: Kung Pao chicken and fortune cookies. 

Perhaps less expected, though, is when customers asked if we served “real” Chinese food, I frequently found myself telling them that it was as authentic as we were.

I meant what I said: my family has had to continuously remake our identity. 

During the Cultural Revolution, my father and his siblings became ‘sent-down youth’, forced not only to leave their families to work in labor camps thousands of miles away, but more significantly, to recreate their identities as the country shifted to a political system that did not appreciate who they once were. 

To escape, they took low-wage jobs in Hong Kong and assimilated by learning Cantonese. My father built a culinary career in Hong Kong, scrubbing pots and mopping floors. He made a name for himself cooking seafood, a foreign ingredient to him; he had grown up far from oceans near the Gobi Desert, primarily on a Muslim diet. While working in the kitchens, he slept on a piece of newspaper that featured the First Lady of Taiwan, Soong Mayling, class of 1917. That was the first time my father learned about Wellesley. Never did he imagine 35 years later, he’d be able to send his daughter to this same school. 

In the nineties, Hong Kong was returned to the People’s Republic of China, and my parents, fearing the worst after what they had seen previously, were forced to reinvent themselves once again. They immigrated to Italy, so that I would not have Chinese citizenship, and eventually, years later, moved our family to Los Angeles.

And so when I said that the food we served was authentic, I meant it. More than that, though, I think that there is a perfect representation of myself in a dish only found in American Chinese restaurants: orange chicken.

After college, I received an opportunity to return to China on a Fulbright Fellowship to restore a watershed in the country’s poorest region. It was not an easy decision — I had to reconcile my strong desire to return to the country whose culture and history informed so much of my upbringing with the pressure of accepting full-time employment after graduation that would allow me to provide for my parents. Ultimately, though, it was right for me to return to China: it was, strangely enough, where I would really understand my identity as a Chinese American.

As I worked to set up a watershed restoration project along the largest tributary of the Yellow River, I saw pieces of the life I almost led. I looked into the eyes of children who looked just like me and felt the dreams that their parents had for them. More than that, though, I realized that I thrived at the crossroads of all of the cultures that I had learned from and been shaped by. Walking around Xi’an, I could be identified as American through the rapid-fire fluent English banter with my white colleagues — but unlike those colleagues, I could have easy, natural conversations with the boys and girls whose families I was looking to help create sustainable living conditions for.

I became just as comfortable negotiating with local Communist Party officials as I was moderating a debate with local politicians in my California hometown. I was equally capable of conducting household surveys with Chinese professors as I was publishing peer-reviewed research with American academics. I was as at-home with farmers in a rural Shaanxi village as I was in the cultural melting pot of my restaurant plaza.

And so, instead of looking down at a menu item that many decry as ‘not authentic’, I proudly think of myself as orange chicken: it is associated with China, but not Chinese; quintessentially of America, yet not American. It is the most authentic American Chinese dish.


Photo Credit: Nancy Zhang '16, "Wellesley Graduation," via Christine Keung, 2014.