Junk Food Was Our Love Language
C PAM ZHANG
It’s autumn again, the eighth since my father died, and I’m craving chicken nuggets.
When the pandemic began, I craved foods that happened to feel more virtuous. I was a frequent takeout customer at local San Francisco restaurants in economic peril: beef noodle soup from a mom-and-pop on Irving, refried beans from a taqueria on 24th Street, a pork chop from the beloved neighborhood spot on Divisadero. Every action I took was fraught with the concept of doing good. I purchased stacks of books from independent bookstores, researched gardening gloves, donated, downloaded a workout app, started reading “War and Peace.”
And then: depression, Zoom fatigue, a major life milestone passing without the ability to celebrate it, the deaths of public figures, the deaths of frontline workers, the death of a friend’s father, the deaths of migrants detained at the border, the death of a friend’s father, the death of another friend’s father.
Six months later, I was moving 800 miles in an attempt to outrun a suffocating sense of doom, driving across state lines, every stop an exercise in anxiously navigating shared airspace and inconsistent mask policies, and all I wanted was the ease of a drive-through chicken nugget.
My father would have understood.
I don’t remember him saying, “I love you,” which isn’t a common phrase in Mandarin, his preferred language. We always had a bit of a communication issue. But his love language was the simple pleasure of processed food.
I have a photo of the two of us, taken when I was 2, at the gleaming flagship McDonald’s in Beijing. The franchise had just arrived in China, and its “M” at the time was a signal of luxury, a marker of the cosmopolitan upper-middle class that my young parents hoped to break into. In the photo, I’m feeding my father a fry. We both beam. Everywhere the light falls in that faded print, it is as golden as the arches.
My father was the fun parent, the indulgent one. He introduced me to fries, Cool Whip straight from the tub, fizzy drinks. After we emigrated to America, where McDonald’s franchises were ubiquitous rather than luxurious, he drove for an hour on the weekend to deliver us, triumphant, to some generic, all-you-can-eat buffet with actual crab on silver chafing trays.
I sucked down soft serve after soft serve until I threw up. My father never reprimanded me for overindulgence as my mother did. He laughed. It didn’t seem to matter, then, that his English wasn’t fluent, or that my Mandarin was already slipping away.
Our language of junk food evolved into one of secrets. A conspiratorial Happy Meal on our fishing trip alone. Two liters of Coke guzzled together before my mother came home. I felt honored until I began to understand that my father kept secrets from me, too.
In third grade, I came home newly evangelized to the dangers of cigarettes and threw away my father’s packs. He raged, then promised to quit, but I kept smelling smoke in his clothes and car.
My father was not virtuous. He was a man of vices and quick pleasures. Processed foods, nicotine, trashy Chinese science fiction, gambling, adultery. The hit of dopamine, the rush of blood sugar. I didn’t ask why he turned to these — that wasn’t how our family operated, and anyhow, language remained a barrier.
Instead, I began to distance myself. By the time I graduated from my Ivy League university, newly educated in class and its trappings, I knew the person I aimed to be. That person was not reflected in my broken-English, gambling-addict, divorced, blue-collar father. He had become a shameful artifact to me, one I wanted to leave behind. I grew increasingly distant as I focused on my new life with the impersonal callousness of youth.
My father died two years after I graduated. He was 49. I was 22. His death came like a shaft falling from the heavens, marking the central tragedy of my life. I grieved his passing, and then I grieved the fact that I never fully knew him. There were questions I had never thought to ask and nuances I hadn’t been able to articulate in my language or in his.
I can see now that my father’s death was a tragedy but not a surprise. If he hadn’t died in 2012 of probable heart failure, he would have died in another year from diabetes or high cholesterol or Covid-19. I used to blame him for the weakened body that killed him — a product, I thought, of his weakened virtue. There was a kind of solace in the stark language of “good” and “bad.”
But the older I get, the more I see myself compromising, too. I live less perfectly at 30 than I imagined I would when I was 10. The world is hard and unforgiving, to some much more than others.
And so, each autumn, I think: Now I’m the age at which my father had to care for a newborn daughter; now I’m at the age at which he followed his spouse to a country where he didn’t speak the language; now I’m at the age at which he was fired from his job and took a minimum-wage gig; now I’m at the age at which he, low and dreary, found his first online gambling website, as irresistible to him as the dumb games on my phone are to me.
Friends of mine have, as adults, gotten to know their parents as people with whom they swap intimacies and truths. I can’t have that. The only intimacies I have are the years of my life that overlap with the years of my father’s life, and at each intersection, I think: The age I am is far too young for the responsibilities he bore. How can I resent my father for being the product of such a staggeringly unfair world, one that systemically suffocates some people more than others?
And I can imagine, too, the giddy power my father must have felt upon moving to America in the ’90s to discover that McDonald’s was now the stuff of everyday. Cheaper than fish, more accessible than fresh fruit, simpler than a long-distance phone call to Beijing in which he felt compelled to hide his difficulties, his loneliness and alienation.
I can imagine the balm of preternaturally smooth processed meat to a tongue made clumsy by translation; how sugar might soothe an ego bruised by rejection, racism and the need to ask if a store accepts food stamps. I can imagine how, when language for the above is difficult, it might be easier to hand your child a golden nugget — how the gesture is a promise of abundance and pleasure, however short-lived.
Autumn is a time when the skin of the world feels thin, perhaps permeable; it is the season in which my father was born and died. This autumn, we’re eight months into a pandemic that too many public officials, including the current president, have called the “Chinese virus,” a dangerous characterization that shimmers with xenophobia and implied blame. I know a taste of the uncertainty that my father, with his thick accent and expired visa, knew. No number of years lived in this country, no degrees or good deeds, can protect me from the anxiety of having a Chinese face in a year that has seen a surge in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.
Under such conditions, the demand for perfect virtue feels impossible, even cruel. And so I binge bad television when I can’t handle good books. I smoke one cigarette a week. And on occasion, I get the damn chicken nuggets. There are vices we must allow ourselves, even if they theoretically shorten our lives by a day or a week or a year — because first we have to get through this day, this week, this year.
Is it wrong to compare my father to a processed piece of deep-fried food, that unholy creation that is like a chicken translated again and again until it achieves a new form of existence? Because I think of him whenever I bite into one. If that sounds weird — OK. It’s a more faithful representation than the usual metaphors of fathers as safe harbors, rocks or teachers. None of those ring true when it comes to my father. A chicken nugget, then. Some religions, after all, think of Christ in a piece of bread.
The next time the urge strikes, and the air feels particularly thin, I’ll have another nugget or two or four. There will be the rush of additives, the hit of engineered pleasure, and — though I know I can’t comprehend a dead man in all his contradictions, and I admit that to imagine my father’s motivations is not to know them — in that moment, in a communion across a golden crust, I will understand my father completely.