Happy Birthday America. Let’s celebrate with my KCA (Korean-Chinese-American) finger-licking ribs

Independence Day… what do those words conjure up in your mind? A whoop ass Hollywood movie? Or a day to celebrate the signing of the Declaration that pronounced freedom, opportunity and equality for all? 

While Will Smith certainly has his charms, it’s all about the latter for me. America has been very good to our family, providing us with a new country to call our own, opportunities to do well in business, the chance to bring the family over and see to their success.  But how did this come about?

Over 40 years ago, my dad, a 30-something with little money, but with brains, ambition and a hunger to discover the new, landed in San Francisco. He brought my mother, then his fiancé, along and soon they were settled as new immigrants. He worked very hard as he realized one asset he didn’t have was mastery of the English language. So what was there to do? He decided his one chance at a positive future was to open a restaurant. But San Francisco was hardly the place to open yet another Chinese restaurant… So after scouting around the country, we arrived in Chicago where Dad worked for a friend as he was figuring out his next steps. He met a lovely couple who became our friends and ultimately, like family. Where else but in America would an older Jewish couple take a young Chinese family under their wings with the ease that the Cohens did?

Through my new surrogate grandparents, Auntie Frances, their daughter, came unto the scene. A harpist with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, she encouraged Dad to open a restaurant in her town, assuring him that there was no competition whatsoever. And thus, my family’s restaurant dynasty began, thanks to a persistent (and Chinese food-craving) musician…

Well, dynasty might be pushing it, but we do have numerous restaurants in the family. Look, we worked for everything we have. In fact, the older generation worked damn hard, fingers-to-the-bone hard!  But had we been in another, less open, less welcoming country, things could have turned out quite differently. I haven’t lived in the States for a looooong while, which is one of the few things that irks my dad. “I move so far to the US to give you a better life and you move away?!” He’s more or less ok with it now–he has to be, I guess! I think he even understands the need for me to find my own feet. After all, he did the same. But despite my long absence from America, part of me will always be American. And proud to be so.

Times are a bit different now compared to when my parents first arrived in the States. Economically, politically, socially, America is a lot more complicated. But I’d like to think that the sense of freedom and openness still exist. That the new can still feel welcome and be embraced. That opportunities are still out there for the taking (hello Facebook!). That the population is made up of some of the friendliest people around. The enthusiasm and the “can-do” attitude that’s absolutely infectious. Yes, we can be cocky, but we’ve got spirit. The 4th of July–Independence Day–epitomises that spirit and the freedom we have as a country. The food, like the people, is hearty and generous, and an American barbecue is a great example of this casual, welcoming outlook on this special day.




About Vivian Pei

Vivian Pei is a food writer, editor, stylist and cooking instructor who authored “Awakening the Appetite”, a cookbook by Parkway Cancer Centre with recipes especially for cancer patients and their caregivers. She speaks 5 languages, has run her own restaurant, a catering business, apprenticed in Michelin star restaurants, done the bartending thing, and now sharpens her pencils as well as her knives.