Following Broadway to China
Aritcle By Andrea Zhu, Photos By Alex Nguyen | The Homecoming Issue
Walk north on Broadway past the 116th Columbia gates, and you might find yourself stopped short at a wall of people loitering mid-sidewalk. You’ll shuffle around them, mutter something irritable under your breath, and hurry on your way. Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll stop, observe. Get something to eat.
The small crowd is gathered around three food carts manned by older Chinese immigrants—a couple is ladling stews from water coolers over steaming beds of rice, and another two are deftly maneuvering bamboo-handled strainers in various vats of broth. The customers are made up of graduate students from China, Caucasians practicing their Mandarin on the cart-owners, American-born Chinese who can barely speak the language, and even a couple of Brazilian and Italian international students asking around in accented English, “What’s good here?”
The awkward hours between lunchtime and dinnertime are no exception: the crowd persists. The owner of one cart declares, with obvious pride in her voice, “Everyone loves our food. As soon as they taste it, they keep coming back.”
Wang Hui Yin and her partner opened Aunt Wang’s over 2 years ago. They started simply, standing on the sidewalk with a small, open-faced cart, selling one-dollar meat skewers. Then, as demand multiplied, they expanded the menu. “The students all begged me to stay,” Wang tells me on a Thursday afternoon while working the cart. “They told me to keep cooking for them.” And, she adds, “I’ve loved food ever since I was little—eating it, cooking it.”
And cook she has. Everything sold from the cart is fresh and made from scratch; every pork-and-chive filled dumpling is made by hand, even the noodles are hand-pulled on the spot. Charmingly misshapen with a chewy and satisfying bite, the noodles have a simple beef broth ladled over them, chunks of braised beef, and cubes of yellow potato. Another favorite is the ‘Chinese hamburger’: seasoned pork shredded and stuffed with freshly chopped jalapeno and scallions into a warm, almost pita-like bun, for a perfect handheld lunch en route to class (speaking from experience). “Everything we make here,” Wang says, “is food from home.”
“Home” is many miles away in Henan, a central province of China. Wang moved to the US by herself just ten years ago. “Li hai,” I say to her with admiration, an often-used conversational Mandarin phrase that only vaguely translates to ‘badass.’ She laughs it off at first, but when asked if it was difficult starting off in the States she quickly retorts, “Of course it was hard! How could it not be hard? You don’t have family, you don’t even know the language…” And with various setbacks—such as a stolen food vendor license, and competition from the other two Chinese carts on the same block—business has been far from easy. But, as she says with her easygoing and constant smile, “Mei ban fa”—what can you do? “Of course I miss home,” she says. “But you can’t just miss home and not do anything else, right?”
It seems this strip of Broadway draws in many people who miss home. One girl in line behind me, I find out, (in spite of her fluent Mandarin) is another American-born Chinese freshman like me, longing for her mom’s cooking. “I haven’t had real Chinese food in so long,” she laments, approaching Wang’s window with a hopeful look on her face.
‘Real Chinese food’ is without doubt a loaded term. While ‘fake Chinese’ is universally accepted as the sauce-laden fried stuff you get from Panda Express, the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ is ambiguous, undefined. For instance, the owner of Pok Pok By, a Brooklyn Thai restaurant, trained with Thai chefs in Thailand for years. Yet do his race and nationality as a Caucasian American make his Thai food less ‘authentic’? Take Mission Chinese, arguably New York’s most popular Chinese restaurant right now (and owned by a Korean), which reworks Chinese flavors into delicious adaptations such as Chongqing chicken wings. Is that food not ‘real’ Chinese because of its Western influences?
Another customer at Aunt Wang’s, a recent immigrant form China, tells me she eats at Wang’s every time she isn’t cooking for herself. To my surprise, she says, “it’s not much different” from the food back home, “Like, if you worked in Beijing, this is what you’d eat on your lunch break.”
Yet in my experience, the authenticity of Aunt Wang’s doesn’t just lie in the food, or in the nationality of the cooks. Rather, it’s the food in conjunction with the experience of simply ordering and waiting. While I was ordering, the rapid and easy exchange of Mandarin made me feel like I was in China with my relatives. Wang’s yelling “Hi! Hello!” at any non-Asian customer, my own fumbling attempts to speak Chinese, these reminded me of Beijing marketplaces half-filled with non-natives. While I was waiting, the faint sound of a meat cleaver hitting a wooden cutting board and Wang’s distinct pride in her cooking reminded me of my mom; the dough-y and juicy dumplings akin to the ones we used to eat together in brightly-lit Chinatown restaurants in Boston.
The food, while satisfying, isn’t mind-blowing. It consists of simple flavors you would expect from such a limited set of resources, ingredients, and space. But the experience of the cart is one that feels mind-blowing in that it reaches a space larger than that block of Broadway, larger than New York. For me, that largeness is nostalgia, longing just slightly unfulfilled, a taste of home from someplace far away—whatever it was, it was real to me. And in that way, authenticity seems both relative and personal.
In the moments I spent with Aunt Wang and her cooking, I found comfort in the memories of home that filled those moments, in one of many meanings ‘authentic’ takes on for me. For Aunt Wang, home has taken some form right where I found her, between 116th and 117th streets. “Yes, we plan on being here many years,” she says, laughing confidently before she calls up the next customer. I walk back towards the 116th gates holding Aunt Wang’s home in my hands.