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Ngai Kay Rachel Wong

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Ngai Kay Rachel Wong describes her immigrant experience moving to Georgia from Hong Kong using the metaphor of Cantonese cuisine and the traditions which come with it.

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0:04:08

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Please contact Immigration History Research Center staff for permissions not covered by this Creative Commons license.

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飲茶Yum cha. Its meaning is so straightforward – literally to drink tea (or to eat 點心 dim sum, as it is most used) – yet the phrase embodies so much of the Cantonese culture that I have idealized as a young child in Hong Kong. I remember eating 蝦餃 har gow and 腸粉 cheung fun after ah sum handed the dish from her steaming cart. I recall my mom asking my grandparents about their morning exercise routine and diet. I remember, as a six-year-old, falling asleep at the table when adult conversations neared three hours. I remember the feeling of contentment that came with being in each other’s company. There was no doubt yum cha was an integral part of my Hong Kong identity.

It all changed when my mom and I resettled in a predominantly white neighborhood in Atlanta in 2006. Nearby restaurants all served “American-style” or Southern foods. Unlimited bread rolls with the nine-ounce steak that comes with two sides. The closest Chinese diaspora community was a 45-minute drive away and, well, yum cha was no longer part of my life as a result. The only Cantonese food I ate regularly was the food my mom cooked. I looked forward dishes like 節瓜抄瘦肉(stir-fried wax gourd with lean pork) after eating a public school lunch consisting of a questionable meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Little did I know that I have embraced the essence of yum cha culture all along. In eighth grade, I shared my immigrant experience with my best friend while eating tteokbokki. During my high school years, my mom and I dreamed of our future travels while eating bowls of Tonkotsu ramen. Meanwhile, my classmates and I commiserated about college applications over a plate of chicken and waffles. And in college, my friends and I exchanged advice on dealing with family expectations over a shared piece of tres leches cake. Although I will always love 蘿蔔糕 (turnip cake) and 芒果布甸 (mango pudding)), my picturesque yum cha scene was never about the food, it was always about being in the company of supportive family and friends.

Over the years, food, like companionship and mutual support, was one constant in my life that didn’t change despite the questioning of my immigrant identity. I originally ate Cantonese cuisine as a way to retain my identity and heritage but the evolution of my palate also became a metaphor for the evolution of my identity as a Hong Konger American. I craved Southern food alongside with Cantonese cuisine. I learned to speak English fluently and I learned to be proud of mom’s broken English. I made cheese grits and replicated cha chaan teng’s火腿通粉 (macaroni with ham). Friends and mentors taught me to dream big and believe in my own abilities. I drank sweet tea and 港式奶茶 (Hong Kong-style milk tea). Through all this, I learned that there is no right narrative for acculturation. I get to define my own hyphenated identity.