Wednesday, June 7th, 2023
By: Sylvia Yang
I spent my first few moments on U.S. soil as a freshman in the Albany Airport, waiting at the baggage pick-up area for my suitcase that never came. I was so stressed that I swore I would never complain again if they found my bag. Luckily, they did end up finding it. And I, too, had no trouble finding homework to complain about as soon as school started.
Anyways, during the tragic separation between me and all my belongings, while very much in need of the essentials after a long and crusty flight, I ventured into a Walmart (or maybe it was a Target) for the very first time. All my travel worries and woes were temporarily alleviated as I stood in awe at a box of Twinkies. Next, I spotted the Hostess Cupcakes and Pop-Tarts too, all in the cakey flesh. Of course, there were other foods along the many aisles that were new to me, but none stood out quite like these YouTube-featured snacks did. I was wowed. Maybe they were sold somewhere back home and I was somehow just blind to it, but this was my first time seeing them physically in the United States. It’s like eating a croissant in France. Hits different.
I eventually tried Girl Scout Cookies in my junior year and decided that Samoas were the best flavor. I even pushed a cart through Trader Joe's and picked up my very own bottle of their Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning. I expected things to be different and was excited to be introduced to new brands. If I was unfamiliar with something, I assumed we either didn’t have it back home or that I must have never paid much attention to it until that moment. I didn’t give too much thought to grocery stores or choosing between brands, especially since we rarely needed to go grocery shopping with our dining hall passes at school. Anything interesting that did come up was quickly consumed by the newness of everything in general.
Being in Saratoga Springs, a primarily white suburban city, provided limited options for Asian food and snacks, but I was occupied with choosing between what was presented in front of me. And so, I continued my little freshman journey by eating dining hall food and having a taste of Asia at the "Global Food" section. I didn’t realize I was missing anything until I walked into my first H-Mart on a club trip to New York City. All the snacks I haven’t seen for months were right there in front of me, and all the fresh foods that I could never pack in my suitcase were happily chilled and stocked in the fridges. I fondly took in all the details of the packaging for snacks, like I was seeing old friends again. This memory is still so warm to me, and even now I struggle to put my finger on why. I was entering this new store in a new city, yet it brought about such a sense of familiarity.
Being able to peruse the store with Asian American friends who are also familiar with these snacks felt like an intimate experience somehow. Perhaps sorting out this feeling will also explain why I felt the need to haul a specific brand of soy milk back to school. Months later, we were sitting in a Pho restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown, and a similar feeling came over me. As weird as it sounds, these moments felt like two worlds colliding in all the best ways and became experiences I never really imagined having. This feeling was also the reason I simply had to visit the Urban Hawker that opened in NYC with friends, never mind that the chicken rice was about 4x the price it would be back in Singapore and that I could buy an entire tin of Milo for the cost of a Milo Dinosaur. So much for hawker food prices. But it only adds to the point that there is definitely a homey comfort in familiar food.
Thinking about my time at college made me realize how much the scope of my own reality is shaped by the people I’ve shared a table and a drink with. They have become very special to me, and even just catching up with friends over a cup of coffee post-grad is something I knew I needed to savor while I could. All the late nights we had in the dining hall, snacking on whatever our energy-depleted brains could handle choosing between, is something I often wish to experience again. I’m now wondering when our next Thanksgiving will be and am looking forward to that day. Meaningful relationships have widened opportunities and animated life for me, and I admire the Asian American Dream’s ability to create a space for fruitful connections to be made with the option to save your own seat at the table.