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Orange Chicken

BY SPRING CHENJP


I purged orange chicken from my life in third grade along with speaking Cantonese and using chopsticks. For a little girl growing up in a predominantly white middle-class suburb, orange chicken was unquestionably Chinese, and being Chinese was foreign, strange -- other. Later that year, my parents chose to visit our family in China, and all the sulking in the world couldn’t dissuade them. Over the dinner table, my grandparents bantered and teased each other, while my mother recalled decades-old anecdotes and memories. My brother chattered in fluent Cantonese as the table cooed over him. I didn’t understand a single sentence.


I shoveled in another spoonful of rice -- if my mouth was full, I didn’t have to talk -- and weighed the merits of crawling under the dinner table. My grandmother asked me a question, and my father swooped in: “her Cantonese isn’t as good as her brother’s.” Cheeks aflame, I kept my eyes down until the plates were cleared.


My loss hit home. I begged my mother to teach me to write in Chinese, hovered over her shoulder as she cooked congee, and resolved that the only English to enter our house would be brand names. I still turned up my nose at orange chicken, now because I deemed it insultingly inauthentic. Though I had no clue what a ‘model minority’ was, my first year of high school played right into the stereotype, at school and at home. Anything less than perfection -- my broken Cantonese grammar or flat American accent -- deserved the same scorn previously reserved for orange chicken. Checking my grades like clockwork every morning became as instinctive as lying about subpar test scores. I had to seem perfect at all costs.


Despite having little interest in community service, I applied for the Sammamish YMCA’s Teen Leadership Board. My mother asked why, and the dreaded words fell from my lips. “It’ll look good on my college app.” But sophomore year was my breaking point. I couldn’t handle volunteering at the Y, a rigorous AP and Honors courseload, and five days a week at my taekwondo studio teaching and training. My carefully crafted façade crumbled.

I had never quit anything in my life. Admitting I was running myself ragged meant I wasn’t the perfect Asian poster child I thought I had to be, but I couldn’t keep pretending. I composed a tearful email to quit the Teen Leadership Board, fearing the disappointment of my youth leader. Within an hour, I received a shockingly bland “sorry to see you go, wish you luck in your future endeavors...”. In true adolescent fashion, what I regarded to be my most shameful failure was…mundane.


A shocking revelation, I know -- but one that pushed me through the next year of three AP classes, a six-month long original research study, and organizing the largest Model United Nations conference in the state. Making the decision to quit was admitting that I would always fall short of perfection, but despite my fears, it didn’t hold me back me from success. I view my culture with the same lens: my mother taught me to cook a mean stir-fry, yet there’s a certain humor to how I still can’t remember how to say ‘lamp’ in Cantonese and resort to ‘the thing that light comes out of’. I am not entirely Asian, or American, nowhere near perfect but certainly not a failure. I claim the hard-won title of human, with all the contradictions and complexities implied.


I tried orange chicken for the first time a year ago. It tasted like deep-fried chicken nuggets packed with preservatives and reheated from a plastic bag. It tasted like immigrant determination and the fusion of two vastly different cultures. It was too sweet, paradoxically mushy and dry, mediocre at best. It was undeniably rooted in Asia, forged in America, and brashly, daringly, imperfect.

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