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In the Food Swamps of LA, McDonald’s Was Our Lifeboat

Fast food helped our family adjust to life in the United States and became our Sunday ritual, until it began taking its toll

The first place we were allowed to go to alone was the McDonald’s around the corner. Our family went so often that my parents eventually allowed us to walk there and back by ourselves. At 13, I carried the $15 my dad handed me while my brother Kenny, then 7, held onto a torn piece of lined paper with our order: eight McChicken sandwiches, six cheeseburgers, and — don’t forget! — a few handfuls of ketchup packets. I could smell it before we even reached the doors: hot oil and well-done meat mixed with ball-pit musk, back when McDonald’s PlayPlace was in its heyday. Before the Burger King across the street became a Chase Bank, the red-and-gold glow of McDonald’s was rivaled only by Burger King’s towering red, yellow, and blue sign. Nothing had been that bright in my family’s district in Saigon. I was so taken by the neon all over Los Angeles, but especially by the neon of McDonald’s. When I see it today, I’m hit at once with nostalgia and remorse.

Situated at one of the busiest intersections in our town of Glendale, California, McDonald’s was sometimes more of a community space than it was a food source. We lived — and still live — in Glendale’s food swamp, where the inundation of fast food was too tempting to pass up. Walk a handful of blocks east and you’ll hit KFC, Jack In The Box, Carl’s Jr., Domino’s, and Pizza Hut. But that McDonald’s was our favorite. Usually filled with old men playing chess or teenagers crowded around Nintendo Game Boys, our McDonald’s was never empty. I learned early on not to be overwhelmed by the menu in all its backlit glory. It unfurled into infinity behind the cashiers, offering McThis and McThat, but I was trained to focus only on the Dollar Menu, where I could find our trusted McChicken sandwiches and cheeseburgers, minus the Extra Value Meal upsells.

“Eight McChicken sandwiches and six cheeseburgers, please,” I said to the cashier as Kenny hovered behind me. He eyed the two of us, a middle-school kid clutching a few $5 bills and her little tag-along with a bowl cut. He put in the order. Kenny and I watched as the workers assembled our meal, layering each ingredient with robotic precision. Moments later, when the cashier returned with a large paper bag, I thanked him and brought it over to a table to count each item. “Make sure they don’t forget any,” my dad’s voice rang in my ears. I counted while Kenny asked for more ketchup packets. Having confirmed the correct number of sandwiches, I placed each one back into the bag and we left. I had the honor of carrying our food home, its warmth spreading over my arms and chest as I hugged it against my body. With Kenny beside me, our leftover change in his pockets, we walked back to our apartment, accompanied by the jingling of coins and the sun setting over Los Angeles.

At home, our family of four gathered around the coffee table as I unpacked the sandwiches one at a time. I went for the McChickens, preferring breaded chicken breast to shrunken beef patty. Peeling apart the damp wrapper revealed a toasted bun, lightly peppered chicken, shredded lettuce, and mayo — a combination that still tugs at my appetite today. My dad’s favorite was the cheeseburger, though he scraped off each pickle slice before taking a bite. By the end of our McDonald’s meals, there was always a small mound of pickles in front of him. My mom and brother were less picky, eating both without complaints. We never ordered sodas at McDonald’s, because according to my parents, why spend more when the 99 Cents Only Store sold 2-liter bottles for less? Plus, McDonald’s didn’t serve our favorite, orange Crush.

The Dollar Menu was a tradition most Sundays, especially when our supply of Vietnamese ingredients was low and we were still planning our next bus trip to Chinatown. We went once a month with our metal cart in tow, and since no one in the family knew how to drive (no one does still), the 20-minute trip turned into an hourlong journey from our corner of the San Fernando Valley toward Downtown Los Angeles, where Chinatown awaited us with more familiar grocery stores and food stands. My family settled in Glendale when I was 4 and Kenny still hadn’t been born, and a part of me has always wondered how our lives might have been different if we had moved to Chinatown after arriving in America.

We came to the country by way of my dad’s oldest sister, the aunt I consider to be our matriarch. In 1974, the year before Saigon fell, she left Vietnam with her husband. She worked over the following years to petition for my grandparents, then, slowly, the rest of her siblings. In 1998, she brought over my dad and another aunt, their youngest sister. Together with their respective families, my dad and his little sister were the last relatives sponsored for immigration to America. We don’t talk about the sister who left Vietnam in 1975 on a boat headed for a refugee camp, never to reappear on the other side. One brother out of the eight siblings remained in Vietnam, where today he takes care of the family’s home, having reincarnated their shoe business as an Internet cafe. Sometimes, I imagine this uncle is proud to hold down the fort; other times, I wonder how lonely it must have been to watch all his brothers and sisters leave one by one, while he continued living his life an ocean away from theirs.

The author and her brother at a fast-food restaurant

Except for an uncle in Louisiana, all of my dad’s family in America resides in or around Glendale. It was expected of us to live nearby, and because my dad relied on his sister to help us with our housing and my schooling, there was never a question about where we would settle. One of my dad’s brothers got him a minimum-wage job at a nearby metalworking factory, where he worked 11-hour shifts from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. My mom stayed home to take care of me and Kenny, sometimes taking on the odd job of babysitting or recycling for pocket money. I used to watch my dad as he biked down our street toward San Fernando Road, growing smaller and smaller until he vanished into a left turn.

But before San Fernando Road and before Kenny was born, back in the first few months after my parents and I arrived in Glendale, my mom and I would walk to McDonald’s after my dad left for work. We lived in my oldest aunt’s guest house at the time, a bit farther from the McDonald’s than the apartment we moved to a few months later, which was just around the corner from the restaurant. In those first moments in America, we felt our way through unfamiliar territory — hand in hand, crossing the wide expanse of railroad tracks, tracing through streets with buildings larger than any I had seen before arriving in California, and always ending up under those golden arches. With a couple of dollars, we could share a meal under bright fluorescent lights, tucked into a booth that swallowed us whole. I didn’t know much English back then, but I knew enough to order a McChicken sandwich and a cheeseburger.

At work, my dad’s friends offered advice on how to navigate our new life. They told him over and over to go to Chinatown. The factory was filled with Vietnamese employees who commuted from other parts of Los Angeles to make money polishing metal parts and electronics. There, my dad picked up on whisperings of where our family could find Vietnamese food and ingredients. With an overlap in Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, Chinatown saw my parents as the confident and clever people they truly were. They could bargain and banter through all of Chinatown’s markets. In Glendale, they were foreigners speaking a language too easily mocked by neighbors and strangers alike. Nhà hết đồ ăn rồi, my mom would tell the family, signaling that we were out of ingredients and would have to make a Chinatown run.

Every time we got off the bus at our usual stop, my parents stood a little straighter, smiled a little wider. I saw this change especially in my mom, who craved to see and speak with people like her. My dad had his Vietnamese coworkers; my mom was more alone in her otherness. A gregarious woman, she wanted to befriend everyone during our first years in America. She still does, though not as passionately since Kenny and I grew up. When we were young, she was the most energetic parent in the crowd despite not knowing much English. She would communicate with other parents in long strings of Vietnamese accompanied by plenty of pantomiming, and she’d receive blank stares or tight-lipped smiles in response. In Chinatown, Vietnamese people knew her by the sound of her laugh, never hesitating to toss jokes back at her. Their elegant volleying left me in awe every time.

Even on our Chinatown days, we would sometimes find ourselves back at McDonald’s on the way home, having returned to Glendale too late for my mom to put dinner together. So we would roll our cart filled with Asian groceries from the bus stop to the McDonald’s by our apartment, and sit together with our eight McChickens and six cheeseburgers. It felt so normal at the time, but now I wonder how we must have looked to passersby: this Vietnamese family gathered around a McDonald’s table, tearing into a pile of burgers and chicken sandwiches. Parked next to them, a metal cart carrying a 50-pound bag of Buddha-brand white rice, with plastic bags full of fish sauce and fried bean curds hanging from its handle.

The author’s mother and brother at McDonald’s

Later, when I was in high school, we were able to map out the public transit directions to Little Saigon in Orange County, Southern California’s largest Vietnamese community. We set out on the four-hour trip twice a year to restock ingredients we couldn’t find in Chinatown. It was a rare pleasure to be surrounded by Vietnamese people, signage, and food. When we went grocery shopping in Glendale, my parents spoke through me or my brother, trying to understand produce that was foreign to them. Blueberries? Raspberries? “Who would eat those little things for $5.99 a box?” my mom would ask, shaking her head, wishing she could instead get her hands on some rambutan or dragon fruit. Major chain stores nearby carried little that my parents knew how to cook. Asparagus was a mystery to them; it took some convincing before they were willing to try cauliflower in certain recipes.

Before Southeast Asian cuisines entered the mainstream American palate, we couldn’t find basics like bean sprouts, tofu, or rice wrappers at local supermarkets. Even though we gradually came to understand that we weren’t the only Asians in town — there were also Korean families, Filipinx communities, even other Vietnamese people — we mostly kept to the nearby blocks. Before smartphones were widely used, and long before we could even think about saving up for one, we were shy with public transit, never breaking from the one route we took to Chinatown and back.

In Glendale, the street a family called home was an indicator of their wealth — or lack thereof. It was apparent on my walk home from school. Which friends broke away to walk toward Kenneth Road, or Bel Aire Drive, where the homes grew more expansive and opulent as streets inched closer to the mountains. Who kept walking straight, to eventually turn downhill toward Glenoaks Boulevard, then farther down, to San Fernando Road? The Los Angeles of Kenneth Road and Bel Aire was the Los Angeles my family imagined when we were in Vietnam, hearing stories from Việt kiều, those who left and came back to boast about their new American lives.

When we arrived, we were amazed that it was real, that it existed, even if it was beyond our grasp. Instead, the Los Angeles of San Fernando Road became our home, enveloping us in its dust. There, the apartment complexes outnumbered the houses and there were more cracked sidewalks than trees. Unlike segregated communities where black, Latinx, and other residents of color live in recognized food deserts, Glendale is dotted with grocery store chains. But when affluent families live elbow-to-elbow with low-income households, prices skew toward those who can afford to pay more, and eating healthy becomes a luxury. Glendale was a personal food desert to my immigrant family with no car and little money.

Glendale is also home to a large Armenian population, and although Armenian markets were affordable and abundant, they were little help in my parents’ search for Vietnamese ingredients. The differences were found in the spices and sauces, pantry staples they needed to cook the dishes they knew best. They sought hoisin and fish sauce but found instead tahini or za’atar. Whereas my brother and I grew up with Armenian friends and ate Armenian food, my parents were more siloed, already feeling strange in America, and even more strange in an Armenian community in America. For them, there was as much loneliness as there was camaraderie.

Living too far away from food we knew and feeling too foreign to eat the food nearby left a void that McDonald’s easily filled. There was nothing Vietnamese about it, but being able to fill our stomachs with a few dollars felt like owning a piece of the hillside homes we so often admired. Over time, we developed a relationship with every chain in the area, with Jack In The Box’s Jumbo Jack Cheeseburger briefly challenging my dad’s loyalty to McDonald’s. More than the lack of affordable supermarkets within walking distance, we experienced food insecurity in our neighborhood’s abundance of liquor stores and dollar stores. We were regulars at the 99 Cents Only Store long before it began stocking a small selection of fruits and vegetables. No other brand can pull off blue, green, and fuchsia the way the 99 Cents Only Store can. I loved walking through its aisles, where everything was really, truly, only 99 cents. I didn’t care that the floors were always covered in mysterious stains, or that the smell of urine and cleaning solution constantly fought for my attention. It was the McDonald’s of grocery stores for my family, a place where we could buy canned sardines in tomato sauce or canned Vienna sausages in chicken broth. Put either of the two on rice and we had a meal.

McChicken sandwiches tasted nothing like the Vietnamese food we knew, but they achieved something magical by being at once warm, filling, and cheap. There was a thrill in feeling so full after spending so little. What began as a means of survival became a ritual that brought us together on Sundays, comforting us with the sense that we would never truly be hungry. That in itself became a dependency. We welcomed it into our bodies at the time, but now I see its effects in my parents’ medications — bottles with convoluted labels and names no one in the family can pronounce. A quick Google search surfaces words that sink to the bottom of my stomach: hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes. It started in high school one morning as my mom walked me to the bus stop — she always walked me to the bus stop, up until my last day of senior year — and as we crossed an alleyway, she put her hand in mine. “My fingers have been feeling numb,” she said. They were rough against my palm, dried and cracked from years of handwashing laundry. I had taken enough life science courses by then to know that tingling fingertips can be a telltale sign of diabetes. I thought about the same hands joyfully unwrapping a burger and lifting off the top bun to smear on extra ketchup.

Our relationship with McDonald’s shackled us as much as it comforted us, and I feel it even in my own moments of desperation, when I’m waiting for a long-delayed flight at the airport or catching a few minutes of quiet between work and evening classes. These are times when I wander past the nearest McDonald’s, pause to sniff the familiar smells of hot oil and meat, and inevitably sit down with a box of chicken nuggets.

An Uong is a writer living in New England and Los Angeles. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Catapult, Boston Globe Magazine, Roads and Kingdoms, Winter Tangerine, and elsewhere. She can’t say no to a bowl of bún bò Huế.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter


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