When I think of Pizza Hut, I think of my grandmother. She’s 90. She lives in Beijing. I can’t write out her actual name for you — I’ve always just known her as Lǎolao (姥姥), the word for “mother’s mother” — but I can close my eyes and describe the wispy texture of her hair; the way laughter crinkles her face into a cascade of smile lines that my brother and I call hóuzi liǎn (猴子臉), “monkey face”; how every phone call is a barrage of questions: “Did you eat yet? Are you tired? Busy? Is it cold there? Are you sick? Āiyā, get more rest, don’t work yourself to death.”
I can tell you her favorite kind of pizza, too: Hawaiian, from Pizza Hut.
Laolao only ever eats pizza when my family visits, every one or two years. She’s liked the sweet-and-sour tang of Pizza Hut’s Hawaiian pizza — studded with chunks of pineapple and ham, slicked with grease, its pan crust the ideal level of chewiness to rip through with her teeth — ever since she tried it in the U.S. Over the years, eating pizza together in Beijing became a tradition, ritualizing my emigrant family’s brief return to our home country with an offering of the perfect emblem of America: a universally beloved dish that illustrates the vast excess and choice and availability that together define American consumption. Pizza.
We don’t fly the pizza in from the States, of course. That would be truly insane; there are more than 1,600 Pizza Huts in China. There, the chain is called Bìshèng Kè, a nice bit of transliteration-cum-branding that combines the characters 必 (must), 胜 (win), and 客 (guest) for two possible meanings: 1. Pizza Hut is the foreign restaurant (or guest) that must win in China, and 2. Pizza Hut must win over its Chinese guests.
The Pizza Hut closest to Laolao’s apartment is about half a mile away, a block past the Wudaokou Station in Beijing’s Haidian District. I went there for the first time in 2009. It was the year Laolao finally moved back to Beijing for good after spending most of my childhood bouncing back and forth between China and the U.S. — her home country and her adopted one — and my family thought it was a nice gesture to buy her a pizza, a reminder of the life she had had with us in America.
I was grateful for the chance to go outside, a momentary respite from the stuffy gloom of Laolao’s dilapidated apartment, which was filled with decades-old furniture, dust, and Cultural Revolution-era relics. Clothing stores, restaurants, and shopping plazas lined the streets, clustering around the crowded subway station. There were too many people, as is always the case in Beijing, but it felt invigorating after the stillness of the apartment. I could’ve kept walking for miles; too soon, my mother and I arrived at the new Pizza Hut, located in the same plaza as a French-inspired bakery and a KFC.
A staircase led from the lobby to the dining room on the second floor. It took only one glance to spot the major differences between this bright, airy restaurant and the shabby, red-boothed version I knew from my childhood. Pizza Hut, like other Western imports, is a more upscale affair in China, and the clientele — indulgent parents treating their treasured only child; gaggles of junior-high students flush with red-envelope money; 20-something couples who possess the impeccable sartorial sense and the careless ease of the fùèrdài (富二代), the second-generation millennial children of the wealthy — reflected that. Five minutes observing the customers at a Pizza Hut was a textbook in the growing wealth gap that separates the pizza-ful in China from the pizza-less — people like my uncle, who had lived out his youth in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and had never eaten pizza before my mother gave him a slice of Laolao’s just last year.
We chose what would become our regular order, more or less: a medium Hawaiian pizza (that goes for 58 yen, or about $9, today, although its 8-inch size is a reminder that portions in America are comically large) for Laolao, and pizzas and appetizers for my brother and I to share with the rest of the family. As we waited, I watched the servers zoom around with characteristic efficiency. Most of them looked like college students, perhaps from the multiple universities that Wudaokou is famous for. For a brief moment, I fantasized about what it would be like to live in China as an actual Chinese person unbound to family obligations and the jittery unease of being a foreigner — to roam the nearby campuses on my own, to join fellow youths on the outdoor volleyball courts, to idle away hours in a restaurant like Pizza Hut with a group of laughing friends, not my mother.
Then our order was ready, and we were back home before noon, arranging the food on plates with chopsticks at Laolao’s bedside. Perched on the creaky armchair opposite her, I watched her chew each mouthful forcefully, her teeth still strong despite her age. I took a bite from my own cheese pizza, savoring the oily stretch of the hot mozzarella — the same satisfying constant across our two pizzas, our two continents.
“Is it good?” I prodded eagerly in Mandarin, hunting for any sort of validation.
“好吃,” she replied. “Tastes good.”
A reasonable person might ask, “Why would you travel 6,000 miles to China and eat pizza?” It is only with a small amount of shame that I admit that for the longest time my favorite food to eat in China was pizza. I was always a picky eater, perhaps as a result of some weird genetic tic, or because I was coddled so much by my parents, or — as I half-heartedly theorize — possibly something to do with my neuroses and mental hang-ups about growing up as a second-generation Chinese American.
Steaming soup dumplings; bowls of slippery glutinous rice tāngyuán (汤圆) submerged in faintly sweet boiling water; Peking duck roasted to a crisp, bundled alongside spring onions and savory-sweet bean sauce in paper-thin wraps — I crave these kinds of dishes now, but until my late teens, I clung instead to the most American food I could get my hands on whenever my parents dragged me back to the homeland.
In a way, the choice was predetermined: I’m an American born to Chinese immigrants. I dress American, I talk American, and I’ve even been told by both relatives and strangers in China that I carry myself with something of an American manner. The way I ate, I imagined my overseas family members surmising, must also be modeled after Americans.
And so, whenever I returned to China as a child, my relatives bought me pizza. Fries. Chicken wings. In between home-cooked meals and lazy Susan feasts that I picked at clumsily with my chopsticks, aunts, grandparents, and cousins suggested American fast-food chains with a forced congeniality tinged with a quiet strain of desperation: You’ll eat this, won’t you? You don’t eat our food, you need this or you’ll go hungry.
They weren’t totally wrong. I felt joyfully, wonderfully sated whenever I ate those foods in China, but each wave of gratification came paired with resentment — at my relatives, for assuming I would only be satisfied by American food, and at myself for proving them right. Between my reluctance to eat Chinese food and my desire to disprove my relatives’ belief that I only ate American junk, eating in China became a challenge, and so sometimes I just wouldn’t. In a real feat of mental gymnastics, I convinced myself that these trips amounted to free summer weight-loss camps, but it grew impossible to ignore how miserable mealtimes with my family made me. For Chinese families, there’s no greater sign of affection and hospitality than aggressively urging loved ones, eat this, try that, fill your plate more, you haven’t touched this yet, why aren’t you eating?? There was so much of everything — voices, people, food, attention, pressure — that I would often end my few bites of a meal blinking back tears.
Laolao’s home was the blessed exception. It was just her, for starters, not the jumble of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins that make up larger reunions with my dad’s side of the family. Her rotating cast of caretakers cooked simple meals that she ate sitting up in bed. I was free to partake or not — she wanted me to, of course, as any Chinese grandmother would, but she never hounded me or commented on my eating choices. Pizza Hut with her felt remarkably free of the judgment that I was so terrified of in every other corner of China. I trusted that she ate with such relish the pizza we brought her because it was an indulgence she truly liked, not because she pitied her granddaughter who was too American to eat anything else.
The last time I returned to Beijing, in October 2017, I was struck yet again by how different Pizza Hut looked from memory. Now cast in dim mood lighting, I could just make out handles of Bacardi and Baileys over a kitchen counter that resembled a bar. Fast-talking, quick-footed servers wore all black and charcoal-gray aprons emblazoned with “Love to Share,” a slogan that I have never once in my life associated with the chain. Only some errant red rooftop logos betrayed that the restaurant was still Pizza Hut, mutated into a more stylish, vaguely bistro-like setting.
Such is the nature of operating a restaurant in China, which is increasingly saturated with business owners vying to capture the attention and funds of a rising middle class that, after decades of scarcity, has plenty of money to throw around in a hyper-capitalist, constantly shifting market. Even global brands like Yum China’s Pizza Hut and KFC, the original titans of fast food in China, have faced stagnating growth in the face of changing tastes and homegrown competition. Pizza Hut, it appeared, was reinventing itself yet again.
My mother and I flipped through the menu with trepidation. There were escargots, inexplicably. Peking-style duck, spaghetti bolognaise (with the British-Australian spelling), baked rice with goulash, Texan-style steak far removed from the Lone Star State, tiramisu, frozen blue margaritas. A semblance of an entire international tour from the comfort of a Pizza Hut in some random Beijing neighborhood — but where was the chain’s namesake? Where was the fucking pizza?
We turned a few more pages — and there, finally, a Hawaiian pizza. Still available in all its cheesy American glory.
During lunch that day, I ate nothing in an act of rebellion, still pissy from an earlier argument with my mom. Laolao, too, was in a mood of her own, as was becoming more common with each passing year. Muttering about how unhealthy pizza was, followed by grievances about her hired caretaker at the time, she swatted me and my camera away as I snapped a few photos. This time, I didn’t ask if the pizza was good, and she didn’t offer.
Does Laolao even like pizza, really? I’ve found myself wondering; recently, my mom suggested that Laolao doesn’t particularly crave it. People’s taste buds dull as they get older, she explained, and besides, her mother was never one to be picky about what she ate. “It became a tradition just because there weren’t that many other options,” my mom said over the phone. “She doesn’t have a lot of favorite foods. One is pizza.”
So, I had my concerns. I asked my mom to put me on our version of a three-way call with Laolao. “Do you like the Pizza Hut pizza?” I asked my grandmother in Mandarin.
“I like pizza. I wait for you every year to come back and buy me pizza,” Laolao said. “There’s no one else to buy pizza for me.” Then she launched into a barrage of complaints against her caretaker, my uncle, and anyone else who had wronged her. God help anyone who draws the wrath of an old Chinese grandmother.
I interrupted her before she got too deep into the diatribe: “So you eat the pizza because you like it — not just for our sake, because I didn’t like Chinese food when I was younger?” I eat Chinese dishes now, after all; in that sense, maybe the pizza ritual had become pointless.
She sounded genuinely surprised, almost offended: “It’s not for you. You can eat pizza whenever you want in America!”
I couldn’t help but laugh, and prod her one more time: “Do you still want us to buy you pizza next time we go back?”
“Yes, I want it,” Laolao said. “We’ll all eat it together.”
Jenny G. Zhang was Eater’s newsletter editor; now she’s an audience engagement editor at Slate.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter