I hate the smell of orange chicken. The scent of the sour vinegar and the sticky sugar that floods the air, pushed by the breeze of the creaky portable fan in the kitchen. The artificial, brownish-yellow light fixture that warms the hours-old food heats me to an uncomfortable warmth even from my distance away. All I want to do is walk far away from this disgrace to my culture that is the mall food court Panda Express.
Sadly, I don’t have this option as I drag my beat up converse along the ugly tiled floor to the lengthy line, scanning for a familiar face. There, amidst the sea of middle-aged moms in tracksuits and pre-teens who just got out of school, I spot who I was looking for. Now, if I didn’t know any better I would have assumed that my best friend, Thea Liang-Lewis, was one of those middle schoolers herself. Thea has that sort of look where you can’t quite tell what age she is. Her complexion is not penetrated by the residual marks of acne most people our age are still recovering from. Instead, her cheeks are rosy and round similar to that of a cherub. Her height is not a help either. At her full size, she reaches nowhere near the top of the display case and has to go on her tiptoes as the worker in the bright red polo hands her the styrofoam container of food.
“You’re Asian. You shouldn’t like this,” I scold Thea as I make my way next to her by the cashier. Never have I felt that Panda Express was true authentic Chinese food. Where’s the jook, the dim sum, the xiaolongbao? Panda Express has erased the Asian identity to the Western public and replaced it with a caricature.
“What are you talking about? It’s so good. I love Beijing Beef and Honey Walnut Shrimp…” she says, practically drooling. “Besides, Junie, you’re the one who says I need to eat more Chinese food.”
“Next!” the cashier shouts shrilly even though we are right next to her at the counter.
“This isn’t even authentic. It’s Panda Express. In a mall food court. In the middle of Arizona,” I punctuate each sentence.
“Yeah, well, I heard Panda Express was created by an actual Asian family. Isn’t that right…” Thea glances at the cashier’s name tag, “Gloria.”
Gloria, a muscly woman who looks like she’d rather be powerlifting at the gym, rang up our order and started bagging it.
“That can’t be right.” I shake my head at her and pull out my phone.
To my dismay, I find a 2016 Business Insider article stating, “Andrew Cherng and his father, Master Chef Ming-Tsai Cherng, opened the first Panda Inn in Pasadena, California in 1973.. At the time, Chinese food in America was still an exoticized curiosity in much of the country.”
“How’s that for authentic?” Thea remarks with a Chesire smile.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” I quickly glance at the display name cards. “I mean, can you tell me where crispy almond chicken breast is from?”
“It’s Asian inspired,” Thea states matter-of-factly, folding her small arms.
“Are you ladies done? Cus’ y’all are holding up the line?” Gloria grunts and we sheepishly apologize. “Now, would y’all like some fortune cookies?”
“Oh, fortune cookies! See, that’s exactly my point. They’re not even known in China. They are a product of corporate America-” I begin to rant when Thea swiftly cuts me off, “She’ll take one.”
“Junie, at least eat the fortune cookie,” Thea looks at me as I pout at every other food choice like a picky child.
“You know I wouldn’t be this upset if you would just admit that Panda Express and fortune cookies aren’t real Chinese food,” I slouch in my chair at the food court. If I were to admit that, it would mean abandoning all the hard work of people coming from Asia for the American dream. We begin to lose touch with our roots.
“I don’t know. Maybe you should try being like me and just accept that this is how our culture is seen in America. I’m probably a lot happier than you are,” Thea states as she reaches to grab her own cookie.
“Please. If anything, you would feel so much more fulfilled being me,” I snipe back. Reaching into the bag, I grab my cookie and begin to gesture at it like it’s a trophy being showcased.
“Then you would have the fortune of having the knowledge of our culture.”
Thea narrows her eyes at me. “Just eat the cookie.”
“Fine.” I bemoan and as we each snap our cookies with a quick crack, a bright white light flashes in front of both of our faces.
“Ugh, what was that?” I blink rapidly trying to readjust my eyesight.
Nothing feels any different. We are still sitting in the same rickety metal chairs in the mall food court. Everybody around us doesn’t seem to be dazed by the flashbang we just experienced. The suburban moms are still milling about and the pre-teens have moved on to getting Frappuccinos at Starbucks.
The only indication that what I just felt wasn’t imaginary or a stroke is Thea hunched over the other side of the table, her dark hair shielding her face with her palms over her eyes. “Thea, you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so,” she groans and I can feel the wince in her words. She begins to lift her head up. “That was strange, I wonder what that- oh my gosh!” Thea shouts and I rapidly turn to meet her eyes. But it wasn’t her eyes I met. They are mine.
My dark chocolate, almond eyes are facing me where I expect to see Thea’s slightly larger and amber colored ones. Where I expect to meet brown hair with golden highlights, there is only a dark, midnight black. Where I expect to see rosy, cherub cheeks, I am met with sharp, pointy cheekbones. Somehow, Thea was me.
Both of us are shocked, stunned, flabbergasted, another word of shocked. In summary, neither of us know what to do.
“Oh, this is just like that movie from Disney. With the mom and the daughter and the fortune cookie!” Thea exclaims.
“No. No. No. This is not another Freaky Friday. I do not want or need a Freaky Friday!” I yell back as I feel myself beginning to slide down a mental spiral.
“Wait, that’s it. Need!” Thea stops and I can practically see the lightbulb going off over her head. Although, it must not have shone enough light because I was still left in the dark.
“Huh?” I question her.
“We do need a Freaky Friday Junie, just like the mother and daughter. We need to solve our differences and then, yay happy ending we get our bodies back,” she says as if it is simple.
“Okay, like what?” I question hesitantly. Thea and I have practically been best friends since elementary school. A friendship that long can’t last if we didn’t already have similar opinions and interests.
“Uh, how about you just admit you like this stuff?” Thea, well in my body, gestures wildly at the table.
“What? No, it can’t be as simple as going ‘uh I think Panda Express and fortune cookies are real Asian food.’ That’s so stupid,” I say mockingly. If something as complicated as body switching can happen, there’s absolutely no way there is an easy answer out. Also never would I agree with that. Frustrated, Thea blows a strand of her/my hair out of her/my face.
“Well, I don’t have any ideas other than that. Maybe whoever gave us the cookies would know?” That’s it. Whoever gave us these fortune cookies probably knows what to do.
“Gloria!” We both shout to each other and whip our heads over to the Panda Express counter.
But where we expect to find the burly woman taking orders, we find a stick thin teenage boy in her place. You can very much tell that the boy is new as he slowly types in the cash register people’s orders, one finger at a time, and still messes them up. He constantly flips his head to the side as customer after customer keeps telling him he gave them the wrong change. Half the time he doesn’t even give fortune cookies, and when he remembers he needs to, the teenager practically throws them up in the air and the hailstorm of cookies rain down.
“We’re doomed,” I sighed miserably.
“Maybe we can just wait until Gloria comes back on her shift?” Thea tries to interject meekly.
“And when will that be? For all we know that could be days away and we need to change back now!” I moan.
“Well, he has to know something,” Thea bites her/my lip as she thinks. “I’m going to talk to him.”
“Thea! Thea!” I shout and begrudgingly hurry after her.
“Hi. I’m really sorry if I messed up your order. Please, it’s my first day on the job and I don’t want to get fired. I can get you a discount if you want,” the pasty teen already pleads to Thea as I squeeze my way by her side.
“No. No, it’s not that. We were just wondering if you knew anything about when the cashier before you is coming back?” Thea comforts him.
“Oh, you mean Gloria. Nah, she’s done for the day, but I’m sure I can still help you. Anything to be away from this piece of junk,” he replies as he bangs the cash register.
“Okay…” I glance down at his name tag, “Kyle, have you heard anything weird about these fortune cookies?”
“Um. I’m not sure I follow, but I was told that any questions about our fortune cookies are directed to the company that provides them. Here’s their number,” Kyle says as he hands me a business card.
“Cool. Thanks!” I shout over my shoulder as me and Thea scurry off back to our table where she hands me my phone.
“Call the fortune cookie company. Go straight to the source. Okay, that could work. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that,” I remark as I type the number into my phone. “It’s ringing. Still ringing. Ringing and… I’m on hold.” As I put the phone on speaker it begins to play, in a monotone voice, information regarding the company and fortune cookies. “Here at Wonton Food we are dedicated to making every bite of our crispy cookies special. As our founder states, ‘We see it as our mission to spread Chinese culture and philosophy around the world.’”
“Oh, give me a break,” I mutter.
“While we had American success, we unfortunately had to close our factory in China ‘after a few years when the cookies failed to pick up steam in the country.’”
“See!” I turn to Thea. Fortune cookies are a staple of the United States, not China. There is no emotional story to our culture and they understand that.
“Why would they include that, that seems like bad marketing?” Thea questions.
“However, that did not deter us as it was ‘the Chinese people who really explored the potential of the fortune cookie.’”
“See!” Thea yells back.
We keep bickering back and forth so much that the audio eventually shifts into background noise.
“You know, we wouldn’t be in this mess if you would just admit it. Panda Express is Chinese food,” Thea mutters to me.
“Oh my gosh. Panda Express! Fortune cookies! Not Chinese!” I yell at her. “If you really feel that way, maybe you’re just a fake Asian!”
Thea gasps. “I’m in the Asian friend group!”
“You were born in Alabama. You are one yeehaw away from joining the rodeo!” I retaliated.
“For the last time, that’s Texas!”
We are so absorbed in our shouting match that we don’t even realize the audio infomercial stops.
“Hello? Hello? I swear if this is Kevin again, I already told you that a fortune cookie pizza fusion will not sell well at Pizza Hut,” a man calls out from the phone.
“Yes. Yes. I’m here, and no, this is not Kevin,” I hastily answer.
“Well then, how can I help you, young lady?” the man responds, already sounding much cheerier.
“Hi, so, about your fortune cookies. They are great by the way, super iconic. One little thing, what do we do about them causing body switching?” Thea interjects.
There’s a brief pause from the other side and we hear a muffled, “Ah jeez, not again, Kevin.” Returning to his normal voice, the man asks, “Look girls, have you ever seen the movie Freaky Friday?”
Thea goes, “Yes, sir, we have,” at the same time as I go, “Unfortunately.”
“Well, the women only switch back when they see and understand the perspective of the other. When you girls can finally do that, then your bodies will switch back. Now have a good day,” the man says before hanging up.
“You know you have to do it,” Thea quips, looking at me. “Like, I get where you’re coming from with all the names and the ridiculous fortunes with the meaningless lucky numbers. I always understood that. But you have to realize that this in a weird way can seem like a small aspect of our culture as well.”
Slowly, I think over what Thea and the little infomercial said. Going over the story of Panda Express and fortune cookies made me realize that these were people of my ethnicity trying to achieve the American Dream. Perhaps in a way they were normalizing to the masses, in order to gain universal acceptance not only for themselves, but for others as well. While it may seem commercialized, the roots of the food and its morals are still present. It may not be all the way to what our culture should be shared as, but it’s a first step. So maybe, they are right.
Realizing what I have to do, I take a deep breath and grumble, “Panda Express and fortune cookies are American-Chinese food.”
“I’ll take it!” Thea replies, and a bright white bang goes off in our face.
“Hey! You guys are still here? It’s been like two hours,” Kyle says as he approaches our table.
“Yeah. Just settling a debate with each other,” I reply as I smile at Thea, who had an equally pleased grin.
“Well, if you guys are done, can I join you? I’d give anything for a break right now,” Kyle replies, already pulling over another metal chair.
“Please. It can’t be that hard to work in a mall food court,” I retorted back.
“Nope, you don’t understand the struggle of working in the food industry and there’s no way you can handle it,” he says as he casually tips the chair back and leans on its hind legs. “Anyway, mind if I eat some of your fortune cookie. I’m starving,” Kyle states as he already starts breaking the cookie.
“Wait no-,” Thea and I both shout as a bright white bang goes off in our face.
Visual Credit: Sophie Vansomphone