Growing up in Texas meant vast options of fast food, even for my Chinese-American family whose eating habits leaned toward Buddhist vegetarian. As a matter of fact, it always seemed to me that my mother was dragging us to one vegetarian temple or another and it always felt, to me and my brother, like a minor humiliation when we ate at an “American” restaurant.
As it was the mid-90s in Texas, there weren’t a lot of vegetarian options and it was always awkward to have my parents ask what the vegetarian choices on the menu were, especially at a steakhouse. Unlike me, they had no shame or embarrassment (perhaps just glee) watching the waiter cringe or struggle as they asked about chicken broth in the soup or pork in the cooked greens.
This is probably why, to this day, I am overly accommodating to waiters; once, I didn’t even return food when a server knocked and broke a glass over my lunch. This is probably also why, to this day, I have an absolute love affair with Chick-Fil-A, the Southern, fast food chicken chain that is now probably best known for their right-wing values and support of anti-LGBT causes.
But in high school during the early 2000’s, this was unknown to me. All I knew was that it was within walking distance of my Texas high school, a small, conservative, and extremely Episcopalian one. Classes were separated by gender until high school and girls, at the time, were not allowed in the band or sports activities. Yet, where adolescents are, so are high school trivialities.
High school is a rough place and I don’t think I had it any rougher than the next kid. As a matter of fact, I was fortunate to have amazing parents and a natural curiosity in learning and reading. But this often doesn’t translate well into a group of high schoolers. What’s more, being the only Chinese girl in the group doesn’t necessarily make for the easiest high school experience.
Needless to say, small groups ruled the school and one of those groups went to Chick-Fil-A. Many of us commuted from suburbs farther out and would have to arrive early to avoid commuter traffic. I was one of those students who would end up at school long before the school bell rang which gave me the opportunity to be a part of other cliques in school. As we drove into school early to make it to homeroom, there would often be ample time where we’d do homework, catch up, or find the time to get a second breakfast.
A group of girls, including myself, would occasionally traipse over there for the chicken on a biscuit from the breakfast menu. It always felt good to be a part of a group. Who, at sixteen or seventeen, doesn’t want to feel kinship? Because I lived further away, I was rarely invited to go out. Besides, I would’ve most likely been unable to do so with parents who lorded over my social life (in an effort to keep me organized, if plans hadn’t been made by Wednesday, I couldn’t go out on Friday, plus: boys).
I entered this school in the sixth grade, at the height of awkwardness and where most of the students had known each other since kindergarten. This, too, heightened differences and feelings of exclusivity. We often forget, but it has been less than a century that the Chinese Exclusion Act was formally repealed. For decades, the Chinese were excluded from even entering this country.
Being too foreign in the way we dress, the way we worship, the way we think, and, related to this, the way we eat. As the only Chinese girl in the room, I was neither white enough to relate to the other girls yet too “whitewashed” to fit in with the Asian boys in the class. The one time I went to the mall with a girls from my class, we walked by the Abercrombie & Fitch (it was the 90’s), and two boys our age in cowboy hats and boots followed us. I became nervous but the other girls started to smile, in hopes of flirting with them. My instinct was right, they followed us to the food court towards the parking lot, yelling “go back home! Go back to your own country!” Luckily, a friend’s mother appeared to pick us up and they quickly backed off as soon as they saw an adult. As we climbed into the car, one of the girls said “I think they were flirting with us!” but I knew better. Those comments, and the rage that came with it, had been directed at me but those who had never experienced this didn’t know better. Her mother quietly replied “No, they weren’t.” It wasn’t mentioned again.
Feeling included and like I had friends felt so very important to me and, unfortunately, this feeling has followed me. An overwhelming need to feel accepted always looms over me. Perhaps it was simply the normal adolescent angst but I was also always different. Culturally, socially, and ethnically, not to mention my Buddhist vegetarian parents who were always on a quest to find the next spiritual journey didn’t necessarily fit in well with the other Southern Baptist or Evangelical values.
But for that half hour before classes started, I was part of a group of young women who hurriedly finished their homework so they could run to any number of fast food places for a treat. Our school was located on church grounds but situated across from a strip mall (a ubiquitous sight in Houston) where one could grab a Starbucks coffee, a Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse, or a whole other slew of fast food options. Our favorite had to be the Chick-Fil-A that stood less than a block away from the lower school playground.
In hindsight, it’s hilarious to me that you had to walk past a gym to get to this Chick-Fil-A but in that moment, that half –block walk meant being part of a group, chatting with a feeling of camaraderie. Several of the “popular girls” would be there and this half-block walk would provide insight to me into how the other half lived. One had an older boyfriend, already in college, another lived so close to the school, she’d walk over early just for these excursions and they would talk about relationships, dates, the rodeo, so many things that were foreign to me.
Chick-fil-a was my moment of inclusivity while, unbeknownst to me, their business policies were exclusionary to large swaths of minority groups. Chick-fil-a’s mission is to “glorify God”, is also best known for being closed on Sundays, and funds groups that work to block same-sex marriage and practice horrifying policies on the LGBT community. To this day, I know a handful of Christian mothers from my Texas past who bring their children there in full support of their homophobic policies while other friends from my art school past refuse to eat there based on their politics.
But in this particular moment, when I was in high school, a visit to Chick-fil-a was a half-block walk to understanding what it meant to be the teenage girl I saw in all the movies and my subscription to Seventeen magazine. We’d arrive to order the Chicken Biscuit from the breakfast menu, requesting extra honey packets, and wait impatiently, hoping the morning bell didn’t ring before we got back to school. We’d run back to homeroom to eagerly eat while the rest of the class arrived.
It was always the same, we would all unwrap the sandwiches excitedly awaiting the steam to release, pull the top biscuit off, then pour the honey packets over the piece of fried chicken. After piecing it back together, we would all eat quickly, expecting the shrill first period bell that would start our school day. Their crispy chicken on a soft, buttery biscuit that was so soft, in fact, it would stick to the roof of my mouth. Honey dripping down the wrapper and our fingers, enjoying the salty-sticky-sweet. It was my moment of inclusion, excluding those who did not arrive early, and I basked in this fact. Finally, finally, I felt like part of a group.
Decades later, I still have a soft spot for Chick-Fil-A and it makes me wonder if I’m still the same person I was in high school. A girl who felt like she was observing from afar, watching these beautiful girls live their beautiful lives filled with dates, drive cars their parents bought them and eat steaks for dinner.
And now I live in one of the whitest states in the U.S. where being asked where I come from is a common occurrence and I worry about my daughter, who is mixed race. My husband, who is white, always gets double takes when he takes her out alone and I worry that she will feel excluded, different from her peers in some way.
A Chick-Fil-A recently opened in our state, about two hours north of where we live now, in Maine. Luckily, my husband’s family lives even further north and the only redeeming factor of traveling for Thanksgiving meant we would be able to go. I was unnecessarily excited; I was three months pregnant with our second at the time and was finally able to start eating again. I had been unable to eat and was quickly losing weight so it had been recommended to me to start eating anything I wanted instead of worrying about nutrition and Chick-Fil-A was all I wanted.
As we drove to the sparsely populated northern region of Maine, in what is already a relatively rural state, walking into the Chick-Fil-A was like walking back in time. My husband was enthralled; we don’t eat fast food often and the fluorescent lights of this newly opened chain were bright in the dark night. As the only person of color, I was painfully aware of the stares and the feelings they evoke within me, which are the feelings of being markedly different and apprehensive that somebody was going to say something about it. It was a busy night with hoards of teenage boys mulling over what they wanted. It was the week of their grand opening so these boys were probably just as excited as I had been all those years ago. And immediately, all those strange feelings of insecurity washed over me as I ordered us chicken sandwiches. Now, though, these boys simply looked at me, glanced at my husband and daughter and continued with their lives.
It was all as good as I remembered, maybe better, due my recent lack of caloric intake. I ate in the dark car as my husband drove, hoarding those salty waffle fries and sucking down the “fresh-squeezed” lemonade, thinking back on who I was, what that means, and how I will raise my young daughter, who was snoring in the car seat behind me.
She will, at some point, feel excluded or want to be a part of something that may not want her as one inevitably does. And so, she will hear about her mother’s family who, despite being barred from entering this country and assumed to be a peril to the greater society, thrived economically and socially. She will hear how we all, at some point, feel this way, especially in high school. She will hear and hopefully realize that we all have to create and find our own places of inclusion. And all of this will most likely be shared over a Chicken Biscuit.
Alana Dao usually explores the intersections between food, race, and whiteness and has been featured in the Huffington Post, VICE, Dilettante Army, and other various online journals. She is based out of Portland, ME where she freelance writes, waits tables, and mothers two girls.