Welcome to Life in Chains, Eater's essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants—great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, writer and artist Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee on strangeness, familiarity, and all-you-can-eat salad bars.
ur family immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s. We left behind our friends, our family, our language, our customs and everything we knew. We squeezed everything that was important to us into two giant, seventy-kilo bags per person, and still managed to have room to wedge in our hopes and dreams.
I was a small girl, nearly seven. On the day we left, I wore a bright red blazer that my mom had bought me especially for our trip. My brother and sister had new coats too, but I was particularly happy about mine, with its the three shiny brass buttons that I would polish with my fingers until I could see my reflection. In my left pocket, I had the going-away gifts my best friend had given me: a small notebook shaped like an elephant, and a pencil.
There were ten of us leaving Korea: me, my parents, my two siblings, Uncle #7, my aunt, and their three children. We walked through the metal detectors at the airport and I set off the alarm. The uniformed ladies looked at me, puzzled. I was worried that I'd done something wrong. They asked me what was in my pockets and I produced a handful of candy, keeping my prized new possessions out of view in case they wanted to confiscate them. Everyone laughed and let me pass.
We had been preparing for the trip for months, maybe years. Time is fuzzy when you're that young, and the days roll into weeks. But somehow the preparations ended, and the day itself had come. I don't remember when the important announcement was made that we were leaving, but I'm sure it must've been at dinner. Dinner was when my dad made all his important declarations. A decision was made by the adults, and then at dinner, the children were informed. It was a benevolent dictatorship. When we were told that we were moving to America, my siblings and I were excited and confused. We were full of questions, but we were so young, we didn't know which questions to ask.
My dad dreamed of steak dinners every night. My mom dreamed of lace doilies and matching china. We children dreamed of nothing.
My dad dreamed of steak dinners every night. My mom dreamed of lace doilies and matching china. We children dreamed of nothing. We had no idea what to expect.
It was not long after the announcement that we were moving to America that the bed appeared in the front room. None of us had ever slept on a bed before, so my parents bought one so that we could practice sleeping like Americans. We took turns each night, from eldest to youngest. My father went first, my mother next, my sister third, me next, and my little brother last.
The bed experiment did not go so well for me. I was a most active sleeper. I tossed and turned and spun. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night to find myself upside-down, my head where my feet had been, but it had never been a problem when we slept on the floor. Sleeping in the bed, I fell off with a thud. The next morning, my mom found me safe and warm between my siblings on the floor on top of the usual thick blankets. She didn't ask me to sleep on the bed again. It didn't matter, we reasoned, because we would be too poor to buy a bed when we moved to America, anyway.
We also had to practice eating American food. My mom knew someone who knew someone else who was married to an American G.I. stationed in Korea. This friend lived on the army base, and had access to the military commissary. It was from her that my mom got a hold of our first taste of America: a giant rectangular brick that she brought home and placed in the middle of our refrigerator.
I opened the fridge and stood there looking at the brick for a long time. My siblings came over and looked at it with me. It was wrapped in brown paper, four inches square on one end and half a foot long. My brother wondered what it was, but my sister and I did not know how to answer him.
My sister closed the door. I opened the door again and looked at it. When our mom came home, we asked her what it was. She said it was cheezeuh, and unwrapped it from its brown paper packaging.
Inside the paper was another brick, bright yellow-orange and vacuum-sealed in plastic. We had never seen food that color before. We had never eaten anything that perfectly geometric. It sat in our fridge for days, like an unwelcome guest that never said anything. It just sat there without a word of explanation. We had staring contests every day. The cheese always won. I always had to blink.
Eventually, my mom took it out and cut it up. She gave us little pieces.
My siblings and I were not picky eaters. My father would not have picky children. He would give us a bite of food, and not tell us what it was until we were done eating. Then, he would tell us that we had finished eating beef tongue, or pig intestine, or the tiny right wing of a sparrow, or a sea snail, or something without a name that tasted like the bottom of the ocean. And so, without any complaint, we ate the cheezeuh. It had a strange texture and smelled funny, but if this was what Americans ate, we were going to eat it, because we were going to be Americans.
It had a strange texture and smelled funny, but if this was what Americans ate, we were going to eat it, because we were going to be Americans
But no one showed us how. First, my mom cut the cheese into little cubes and put it in our rice. It melted and turned our rice yellow-orange. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good, either. We tried it in fried rice. We wrapped it in kimchi, put it into our gimbap, and tried it every other which way we could.
Soon the time for experimentation ended, and the big day came. On a cold November morning, we boarded a 747 bound for Philadelphia by way of Hawaii. The plane was a double-decker beauty. The first class passengers were on the second floor, with the rest of us beneath them. At one point, the stewardesses brought us little cups of juice, carried on little carts wheeled down the middle of the plane.
After a brief nap, I left my seat to explore the plane on my own. I remember a spiral staircase that lead up to a circular opening on the top level, where there was a bar full of American adults smoking and drinking. They said something to me in English, but I couldn't understand them. Then they laughed, which was worse. They were probably telling me I shouldn't be there, and I should go back down. I ran back to the safety of my family.
The entire time we lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, we never went out to eat once, except for the time my mother went out with our neighbor to have her first ice cream cone. We went to school, played in the snow with our cousins, and went shopping at Sears.
The first time we went to Sears, my mother stood in front of the mugs and started crying. She had thought that America would be full of porcelain flower cups and dainty saucers. But all they had at Sears were ugly, clunky mugs. One small coffee cup from my mom's extensive collection had somehow snuck into our luggage; for her, it was a reminder of everything she had to leave behind — her friends, the familiar landscape, all her beautiful things — so that we could pursue the American dream, a dream of drinking out of ugly mugs.
When we lived in Seoul, my father was an airplane mechanic for Korean Airlines. He was the president of the labor union. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. We had a live-in nanny who took care of us and even slept with us. My mom was the president of my kindergarten class, she took embroidery lessons, played cards and had afternoon coffee with friends. We had a lovely middle class existence.
Years later, we were finally able to have our fancy steak dinner. And that meal was at Sizzler.
Despite our move to America, the steak dinners my father had dreamed of remained distant. There were no jobs for a bunch of Koreans fresh off the plane. My parents tried for eight months, but Reading was not kind. So, we moved to Los Angeles, to Koreatown, in pursuit of work and that elusive dream. My dad got a job as an auto mechanic. He had never fixed a car before, but it couldn't be harder than fixing a plane. My mom got a job doing piecework at a sweatshop downtown. We made friends. Our five-person family moved out of our one-bedroom apartment into one with two bedrooms. Years later, we were finally able to have our fancy steak dinner. And that meal was at Sizzler.
When we walked into the restaurant, I watched the other diners to see how to use a fork and a knife. I was twelve years old, but I never used one before; we had used only spoons and chopsticks our entire lives. We had one, singular fork in our house, which made its way from drawer to drawer, never quite finding a home in any of them.
To us, Sizzler was the epitome of the American meal. We could have big steaks, the likes of which were expensive in Korea, reserved only for special occasions. There were nice cloth napkins you put on your lap. The waitresses were friendly and would refill your drinks for you; the drink glasses were enormous. At restaurants in Korea, we had to refill our own drinks and serve our own tea from a pitcher on the counter. We had to yell to get the waitress to come to our table. The American waitresses came by on their own, and brought us complimentary slices of cheese toast — warm and crisp, salty and buttered, with just the right amount of soft white bread in the middle.
And, of course, there was the salad bar. Like the steaks, it was also the American dream epitomized, in all its shiny brass-and-glass glory. It was all-you-can-eat — you could never go hungry in America. All the vegetables, fruit, and lettuce you could ever possibly eat were here.
We didn't have to share anything, we could eat as much as we wanted, and we never fought
I walked around the entire salad bar before taking anything, my eyes wide with anticipation, watching the other diners to see what they got. And there it was, sitting in a bowl like an old friend: the cheezeuh, little square yellow-orange blocks. So, this was how you ate those little blocks of cheese in America — on the salad you got from the limitless salad bar at Sizzler. After five years in America, we had finally arrived.
It was always a special occasion when we went to Sizzler. We didn't have to share anything, we could eat as much as we wanted, and we never fought. My dad always got some kind of steak with a baked potato. My parents always got Thousand Island dressing on their limitless salad. When we got older, my siblings and I would take our parents to real steakhouses, nice ones. When a waitress would ask what kind of dressing they wanted, they always wanted Thousand Island. If I told them that this particular fancy steak joint didn't offer it, they would murmur to each other. They would complain that this restaurant must not be very good, because they didn't even have Thousand Island dressing. They would say that Sizzler always had Thousand Island dressing.
Our meals at Sizzler were the fanciest we ever had. We would go after church, wearing our Sunday finest, my sister and I in dresses and patent leather shoes, my dad in his pressed suit. My brother wore a his clip-on tie. We would order steaks and fill plate after plate from the salad bar, always heaped high, always knowing we could get up and eat more. More baby corn, more crinkled strips of canned beets, more croutons, more cubes of Jello, even when we were full. We wanted to fill our bellies with America, to swallow every last bite it had to offer. My sister would complain as we walked out, saying, "So full!" as we made our way out through the swinging glass doors. We knew we would come back for more.
Were we living the American dream? I'm not sure. We celebrated special occasions there because it was familiar, affordable, American. We could have all the steak we could fit into our bellies, all the Thousand Island dressing we could want, and endless servings of our friend, little cubes of American cheese. If that isn't living some kind of dream, I don't know what is.
Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee is an author of several books on food and travel, a producer, a photographer, an art director, and a conceptual artist. A James Beard Award nominee, her work has been seen in such places as Google, KLM Airlines, ABC Television, MGM Studios, the Washington Post, Frommer’s, Eating Well, and a variety of other venues and publications.
Editor: Helen Rosner
Header photo: courtesy of Sizzler