The Taste of American Dream in Chinese Food

Chasing the taste of China in the streets of Chinatowns in New York, as Chinese share their stories — with their food

Writer’s note:

Over the course of a month, I immersed myself in the distinct Chinese food culture by wandering in the streets of Chinatowns in downtown Manhattan and Flushing, Queens.

The result is amazing: I met wonderful immigrants from China, I was treated hospitably with delicious and genuine cuisine, and I was able to speak in the same language as they do.

From the left: Xiaoxiao Wang, dance instructor at New York Chinese Cultural Center; ABao Zhang, owner of Jin Feng barbershop; Shirley Li, owner of Jia Jia convenience store

My dearest discovery — the single secret ingredient that makes all Chinese food mysteriously tasteful, is the story behind the people who cook them.

For Chinese immigrants living in New York, Chinese food remains one of the strongest bonds they have with their motherland. In every dish they cook, there is a story to tell, a story about their journey to the States, and what an American Dream means to them.

And here are their stories.

The Beef Jerky that Andrew Zimmern Adores

Robert Yee standing in his beef jerky shop
We had lots of celebrities coming in, like Andrew Zimmern and Ang Lee. I have no idea how they heard of us. Well maybe it’s because we’ve been on the New York Times and they’ve done their research.
My favorite beef favor is curry, although I do try out every flavor before they go on sale, just to make sure that everything is right.
My outlook for the future? Complicated. I’ve always loved New York, because it’s where I grew up in. But now time has changed, and I cannot predict if goes to the right direction, or the wrong direction. Anyway, I expect to retire soon. Very soon.

— Robert Yee, 67, owner of New Beef King

The Street Food Every Chinese Student from Columbia University Must Try

A student buying food from Qingyun Healthy Corner. Inside the cart, Qingyun Yang preparing the food

At the intersection of Broadway and 116th Street in Manhattan, just outside of Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University, food carts dominate the sidewalk. At noon every weekday, students stand in queue to buy lunch.

One of the carts, Qingyun Healthy Corner, is owned by 44-year-old Qingyun Yang from Henan, China. She sells lunch boxes with traditional Chinese-style dishes on the side and a bowl of rice at $7 each.

Her three most popular items are sweet and sour spear ribs, braised beef in sauce, scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

Those are our best-selling dishes. We tried swapping them with new dishes before but the kids complained.

By kids, she meant students. Most of her customers are students from Columbia University, who, she said, always make her day less tiring.

I have bad memory when I am tired, but kids are always kind enough to help. Sometimes they remind me, ‘Madam, you forget to take my money.’ I laughed and thanked them in relief.

Yang and her husband immigrated from China seven years ago. Their son, now a 12th grader, followed in 2015 and has been studying here ever since. After working in a Chinese restaurant for three years, Yang decided to open her own business. She rented a food cart from a Greek street vendor and started selling Chinese dishes.

For Yang, choosing America over China was easy. She listed all the reasons: great education system, highly-developed social welfare, and even the fact that there are less mosquitos here than in her hometown.

It’s harder to live there now. Do you know how severe the smog is in Beijing? It’s now expanded to my hometown. People develop lung cancer for that.

Yang was talkative, especially on topic she cared about. Mengyao Yun, an electrical engineering graduate student from Columbia University, has been a loyal customer of Qingyun Corner for the past six months. Yun was familiar with Yang’s talkativeness.

She can talk all day on anything when she’s not busy.

Yang’s critique of home could be harsh, but she did also reveal her mixed feelings on the trend that more Chinese are emigrating to other countries.

Who wants to leave home? But what we are witnessing today, is a silent resistance to our own country. If my country could solve all those problems, I bet more Chinese would be willing to move back.

Though Yang became serious talking about China, a big smile returned to her face when she mentioned her family — how she was satisfied that her son learned how to cook from her husband, and how she liked the cheap organic eggs from supermarkets in Flushing.

What is the biggest different between China and America? Yang said, it’s lifestyle.

Life in America feels simple to me. I never overthink my life, and selling street food is just a helpful job.

Working harder, Yang said, is her key to a more fulfilling life.

In America, everything is simple: as long as you work hard, you get a better life. All those people who work hard here, I am sure, have enough stories to write a book.

The Jianbing that Chinese Immigrants Recognize as the Taste from Home

Talking about street food that has successfully migrated from China and makes its own way into New Yorkers’ hearts… You know you are talking about Jianbing.

Jianbing, a hot crepe with omelet, green onion and fried dough all wrapped inside, has become increasingly popular among Chinese food lovers.

In downtown Flushing where vigorous Chinese food culture vibrates with the taste of freshly made street food, Long, the owner of Express Tea Shop, a small Jianbing shop hidden in Flushing Main Street, Queens, is greeting her customers freshly baked Jianbing every day with a big smile.

We are making very traditional taste, that will remind them of their life in China.
Behind the Scene: recording in Express Tea Shop, as Long’s mother-in-law demonstrates how to make a Jianbing

Finally… How about A Visual Tour in Downtown Flushing?

Even though it’s a rainy day, the streets of Flushing, where Chinese culture vibrates, remain as busy as usual. Bianca He reports from Flushing, Queens.

As long as there are Chinese living in America, cooking cuisine from home, eager to share what they experience in life… The story continues.