Asians and Fast Food: It’s Complicated

Have you seen the recent study saying that Asian immigrants eat high fat food to fit in with mainstream America?

Is that really why? Yes. and No.

When I look back at my own childhood, the 1970s Midwest, McDonald’s was one of our main gateways to American food. One of the oldest photos of my brother and I shows us sitting at the feet of a large Ronald McDonald statue.  There are other photos of me, at the table of our graduate student apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan– with a hamburger as big as my toddler head. And it wasn’t just burgers. If my mother had her choice back in the day, Kentucky Fried Chicken would have been our treat. I can remember those red and white boxes, the little cups of mashed potatoes with that peppery gravy, and the wet wipes! Bracingly lemony, they were perfect for wiping off those freshly licked fingers.

Asian kids with Ronald McDonald statue

Me, my brother and the Ronald

Even in later years, when our family moved to California, the Lunar New Year’s celebrations held by the Taiwanese community included bento boxes for the adults… and fried chicken boxes for the kids. Really? Fried chicken for Chinese New Year? Everything was washed down with orange punch from the familiar yellow and red jug. We weren’t the only ones. On Salon, Francis Lam reminisced about Chicken McNuggets and McRibs.

But is this all to fit in?

A little. Let me share another story from my youth. As part of a fourth-grade nutrition lesson, my teacher assigned us to keep a chart of all the foods we ate during a week. Sounds simple enough, right? Sure, if your dinner consists of spaghetti and meatballs, or even tuna casserole. But what about stewed chicken with those little shriveled red things (that I now know are goji berries)? Or those crunchy brown pickles that come from a can your grandmother shipped from Taiwan? I do believe that the nutrition chart was the first time in my academic life that I fudged the truth. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy those meals. It’s just that I didn’t know how to explain them. And there was a part of my nine-year old heart that was embarassed to be eating food that was different. So I wrote vague answers: beef, chicken, vegetables, rice.

While fast food and other high-fat meals are not the only new choices immigrants find — but they are the most easily accesible. Picking up a bucket of the Colonel’s secret herbs and spices doesn’t require deciphering a Betty Crocker cookbook. And immigrants are not immune to the tantalizing marketing. Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce fries? Have it your way? Looking back, memories of fast food are sprinkled through all the stages of my life. As soon as we could drive, my friends and I made pit stops at McDonald’s on the way to “study” at the library. In college, we made up for lousy dorm food, with by ordering pizza and gorging ourselves on hot fudge sundaes, but also making late night runs for chow fun.  

In my twenties, I lived and worked  in a small town in Idaho. For the first time in my adult life, I experienced a world in which standard American fare — whether fast food, diner fare, or home cooked — was really the only kind of food. Driving hundreds of miles somedays in the news Jeep, many of my meals came from the drive-through. (Remind me to tell you about fry sauce someday!) My lovely suits became really tight around the waist. I was sort of like a female, Asian Michael Moore before his time.

Of course, many middle-class adults can decently manage to avoid most fast foods. The real test comes when you have your own little ones. Our family mostly avoided fast foods and convenience foods for the first few years. But when the picky toddler years set in, it’s easy to give in to the “Better to have them eat anything, rather than have a low-blood sugar meltdown” mentality. It’s a mindset that’s reinforced by many Asian immigrant grandparents. My own parents recall that back in the day in Taiwan, meat wasn’t an everyday thing. During World War II and the rough years that followed, food sometimes wasn’t an everyday thing.  I can see the legacy of those experiences as they feed their grandchildren.

My boys recently went on an outing with a grandparent. Upon their return, the grandparent proudly reported my children’s eating prowess.

“They each ate nine chicken nuggets!”

“Um, nine? I usually cut them off at six.”

“But at least they’re eating meat!”

I have to admit, that after a few days of mulling over this topic, and in my rush between swim lessons and Adventure Guides, we stopped at the golden arches for some Happy Meals. For whatever it’s worth, the prickliness of salt on french fries and the sugary effervescence of a cold Coke are as much ingrained in my palate as a flaky tsung yu bing or spicy bowl of niu rou mien.


    • says

      Good point. “Treat” is the key. I learned that the hard way when I was working as a one-man band news reporter and stopping at drive-throughs while frantically driving back from stories. I’m embarassed to say how quickly those pounds added on… and how hard it was to lose them.

  1. says

    Really great points! When I was a kid we rarely ever got to eat fast food, so I always saw it as a special treat. Now that I’m an adult, I find myself ‘treating’ my daughter more often than she probably should be. It’s not the healthiest food, but to be sure, they’re ones that many of us have built memories around. Hard to resist! ;)

  2. says

    I really appreciate your honesty–and I totally relate. I remember the first birthday party my mom hosted for my older sister was at McDonald’s. On a recent trip to NYC’s Chinatown with my parents and my toddler son, my mom kept on urging us to go to “Pot-pies.” I thought she was talking about a new fusion pot pie restaurant until I realized she meant the new Popeye’s that had opened up right near the Fung-Wah bus terminal. I find myself giving into the ‘better to have them eat anything’ mentality too–I think it’s a legacy from my mom who would buy us KFC buckets and Dunkin’ Donuts to keep her ‘so skinny!’ kids’ bellies full. Luckily my son loves Chinese food as much as french fries.

  3. says

    Sian, that’s funny, I can vaguely remember people having McDonald’s birthday parties back in the day. didn’t they give out paper hats? Good thing that your son also likes Chinese food! Thanks for reading and commenting.


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