Party food

A tale of two Fourth of July celebrations: American-born Chinese hold back while expats in Hong Kong party

For some Chinese families in America, fireworks were the only holiday tradition

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 July, 2015, 6:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 July, 2015, 10:51am

American Independence Day can be a double-edged sword. While Americans living in Hong Kong pull out all the stops to remind themselves of home, for Asian immigrants to America celebrations are fraught with questions of identity, assimilation and belonging.

Tiffany Chang works in Washington as a statistician. Her parents met in Hong Kong before moving to the US in the 1970s. Recalling how she celebrated the day as a child growing up in Houston, she would "try to wear something red, white, and blue since most people at school would as well".

As a family, she says "fireworks were the only tradition". More often than not she would go to friends' parties and "hang out with their families … we would probably pick up something American like a hamburger or fried chicken."

Melinda Wong is also an American-born Chinese; she works as a real estate broker in California. Wong's family emigrated to America in the 1920s from what was then Canton. These days she celebrates the day with her family with a potluck barbecue before watching the fireworks.

But growing up, she remembers her grandparents didn't like to barbecue: there was no room in their apartment in San Francisco's Chinatown and, anyway, "they preferred Chinese food".

"However, they did like to watch the fireworks," she says, acknowledging the major similarity between Chinese and American celebrations.

Wong sees her family's evolving Fourth of July menu as a reflection of their growing assimilation. "In the beginning we just had hot dogs," she says. "Later the barbecues got more elaborate: hamburgers, marinated steaks, marinated chicken, skewers of vegetables … later as we got more accustomed to American food, sausages were added as well as green salads - we weren't used to eating raw vegetables."

Chang, too, sees her childhood Fourth of July celebrations, or lack thereof, symbolic of something deeper. "I think because we didn't all-out celebrate it, that my parents may not have felt part of the American experience, or maybe just didn't know how to celebrate it."

Celebrating the Fourth of July can be strange in Hong Kong, too. Concepts such as identity and patriotism have a way of becoming very slippery, and the British are in profusion, quick with a snide comment, giving the whole affair a distasteful tongue-in-cheek quality.

Something about being in another country makes you really patriotic
Sarah Martin, US expat

At least these days the practicalities of hosting a proper American bash have become less troublesome. With American groceries such as A&M US Groceries and the Gateway Supermarket it's easy to buy the right ingredients.

There is a lot to buy. Just ask America transplant Sarah Martin who was in the middle of planning her Fourth of July party when we spoke: "For starters, we're supplying some American booze. Blue and red Jell-O shots for the frat party feel, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and a watermelon filled with rum punch. There will be mini corn dogs … strawberry rhubarb pie, apple pie and pecan pie … Doritos. Cheetos. Everything that's American."

Martin says the shopping so far has been a breeze: "I'm going to hit up the A&M Grocery store to look for baked beans and Jiffy peanut butter."

"I feel like Fourth of July foods are easy to get here because they're classic American heart attack foods," she says, then as an afterthought, "I'll also get some frozen pizzas to grill."

Meanwhile, she is busy decorating her rooftop with American flags, putting together an Uncle Sam costume, and arranging an American themed playlist with her husband and friends. Still, she admits that there is something different about celebrating the day in Hong Kong.

"It's weird, though, because I've never been this into the Fourth of July. Something about being in another country makes you really patriotic."