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Father of AHHHS – Mac & Cheese – Please!

When I was a kid I can remember other children raving about this thing called Macaroni and Cheese, specifically Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Some kids said they ate it all the time, my friends talked about it like it was pure magic and that they could eat it every day. I recall seeing it on a TV commercial when visiting a friend’s home. You see, I grew up without TV in our home. In fact pretty much everything about my childhood home was “different.”  Our home was full of fixtures and ornamental statues from China, hand carved Chinese chests and furniture, tall vases with dragons or a phoenix painted in bright colors.  There were also many figurines of beautifully adorned women in traditional Chinese attire everywhere. We had Chinese checkers and mahjong for games, but not many American toys to be found in my home.

Food was even more unique, and pretty sparse in our home since we lived above my father’s Chinese restaurant .  We mostly ate there, or I would bring food up from the restaurant if I wanted to eat at home (Chinese takeout). The rice cooker on the counter was always full of fresh rice so I could basically help myself whenever I wanted. And I did, I ate rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for dinner, because I wanted to.

Still our home environment was not what I experienced on the rare opportunities I had to visit other friend’s homes outside of the Chinese community. Their worlds were so interesting, attractive and appealing to me. It was just like the Macaroni and Cheese I had heard so much about and always wanted to try. I was sure that everything I knew or had eaten would pale in comparison.

I remember one day I told my father straight up, “I want Macaroni and Cheese, all my friends eat it.”  My father said okay, later that night he sat me down and put a casserole dish in front of me. “This is macaroni and cheese,” he said. And in fact he had made macaroni and cheese from scratch with milk, eggs, real cheese, butter and fresh macaroni noodles. “You know the Chinese were the first to make noodles,” he said. I ate it and it was good, but thought to myself, really is this it? Is this what all the fuss was about? I was sure this did not look like what I had seen on TV.  I later learned it was not, so then I said; “Dad I want the Macaroni and Cheese that comes in a box.” A huge look of disapproval came across my father’s face (I knew this look well). “No you don’t! That stuff is garbage; it’s not good for you, it’s not real food.” He truly believed that, in fact growing up we never ate anything that came in a can, a box, was frozen or in any kind of a package.  My father simply did not trust processed food.

So I grew up without watching TV and without ever trying Macaroni and Cheese from a box. It’s interesting the things that we obsess about as children and how these small things can somehow play such an important part in our lives and our memories. I would often find myself comparing my unusual childhood and lifestyle to other children around me, who I was sure were leading very normal lives. As a kid when I asked for Macaroni and Cheese, what I was really asking for was to be normal. This leads to questions like, am I normal?  What is normal?  Would I be happier if I had what they had? To be honest I think these questions stayed with me my whole life. There were situations and opportunities that came my way from early on that found me in unusual places and having the most intriguing experiences.  It was like different was attracted to me and I couldn’t shake it. There is a line in the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line that has always rang true for me, I resonated with it the first time I heard it and it has stayed with me to this day. “Different is nice, but it sure isn’t pretty, pretty is what it’s about, I never met anyone who was different who couldn’t figure that out.”

Today 50 years later, I’ve come to terms with the differences, I have even learned to celebrate them with pride. I am finding our communities and the world is more conscious of diversity and celebrating our differences at long last. In fact, as I write this, Marriage Equality celebrates its one year anniversary in the United States. Then something as tragic as Orlando happens and I am instantly shaken to my core with the realization that there are those in the world who would still kill us for our differences. We seem to make progress, then suddenly we get reminded that because you are black or brown, gay or trans, Jewish or Muslim, have down syndrome or autism, that there is cruelty out there that desperately does not want to include us.

I look at my son every day and I pray that he may never know this kind of cruelty, this hatred towards humanity, the injustice and prejudice. How do you even prepare them for this? How do you tell them it exists? How do you make them resilient and strong, proud and fearless, when there is so much to be fearful of? As a parent this pains me so much, it literally causes my heart to ache. How do you tell an innocent child who is full of love and acceptance that people are killed for the color of their skin or mistreated because of who they are?  How do you tell them that people are treated differently because of their faith or because of their circumstance or ability? How do you tell a child about the Holocaust, slavery, civil rights, Stonewall or 9/11? How do I explain these horrid truths to him?  Is it enough for him to know love first hand and trust that this love will carry him past the pain and ugliness the world has in store?

My first year in college I finally had Macaroni and Cheese from a box and it was disgusting, such a major let down. I thought to myself, ‘This is what I had been obsessing about all these years?’ This is the thing that would have made me feel normal as a child?  This is what would have made me feel like I fit in?   It was very disappointing. Today I prefer to make Macaroni and Cheese just like my father made it, with pure natural ingredients and pride. Today I pray that my son will embrace our differences and that he will know that everything we do for him, we do with love.  Most importantly, I hope that in the end he will know that love is love is love is love and that it comes from our hearts and our actions and not from a box that you see on TV.

– Dean Wong

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