If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tang


Half of my receipts from Xi'an Famous Foods and my old, old laptop.

I've become a regular at the St. Marks location of Xi'an Famous Foods since its opening two weeks ago. My dad is from Xi'an, and I was always begging for lamb growing up even though my mom, the cook in the family, hated the smell of it.

I was one of the pilgrims who trekked to Flushing regularly just to get a fix of lamb noodles down in Golden Mall's stuffy basement cafeteria. Liang Pi, the proprietor, was always there - bossy, sweaty, genial. After Anthony Bourdain featured Xi'an Famous on his Outer Boroughs episode of No Reservations, I could be heard loudly bitching about the descending hordes of white foodies, but secretly, I was so proud to see a Chinese immigrant restaurateur make it big.

And I sure as hell was happy to hear they were coming to the East Village. I announced to all my friends that there was pretty much no point in me eating anywhere else, and as you can see from the receipts above, I wasn't kidding.

The first night I went, they were selling an unidentified orange drink in those plastic boba cups sealed with little anime characters. People kept asking what it was, and General Manager Jason Wang, Liang Pi's son, kept saying in this gently exasperated tone, "I don't know, it's something my dad made." I bought one, thinking it was probably some weird/tasty Chinese beverage.

It was Tang.

No doubt about it. The same Tang of those obnoxious orangutan commercials you saw during after-school commercials, Tang of the sweet and chemical tang. I thought I'd been hosed like a roundeye until Gaby sent me this essay by novelist Yiyun Li. She writes,
The year I turned 16, a new product caught my eye. Fruit Treasure, as Tang was named for the Chinese market, instantly won everyone's heart. Imagine real oranges condensed into a fine powder! Equally seductive was the TV commercial, which gave us a glimpse of a life that most families, including mine, could hardly afford...Even though Tang was the most expensive fruit drink available, its sales soared. A simple bottle cost 17 yuan, a month's worth of lunch money. A boxed set of two became a status hostess gift. Even the sturdy glass containers that the powder came in were coveted. People used them as tea mugs, the orange label still on, a sign that you could afford the modern American drink. Even my mother had an empty Tang bottle with a snug orange nylon net over it, a present from one of her fellow schoolteachers. She carried it from the office to the classroom and back again as if our family had also consumed a full bottle.
Yiyun Li was born in 1972, making her younger than Liang Pi, but I want to make this exotic Tang narrative fit. I want it to fit because it's the kind of American Dream story I'm still sentimental for (even though my progressive education says I'm not supposed to be). I picture Liang Pi carefully mixing Tang and sealing each cup, preparing to open his shiny new East Village restaurant over Fourth of July weekend. His son Jason, 22, college-educated, and bilingual like me, is not in the picture. Kids like us don't associate Tang with a better life, we associate it with surfing orangutans.
The truth was, our family had never tasted Tang. Just think of how many oranges we could buy with the money spent on a bottle, my father reasoned. His resistance sent me into a long adolescent melancholy. I was ashamed by our lack of style and our life, with its taste of orange-peel water. I could not wait until I grew up and could have my own Tang-filled life.
The Tangy scenario I've imagined feels like the time I watched my dad lug home a case of red wine from a community center wine-tasting class. "Can you taste the butter?" he asked, frowning and sipping, "They said it tastes a little bit like butter, can you taste it?" Children are selfish when it comes to our parents - I don't think we allow them to have fully realized identities, they're just our parents! But this was a rare moment when I saw Dad's life in context: the Cabernet was an achievement, a hard journey ending in a wine-filled, middle-class, American life. And it killed me that he couldn't taste the fucking butter notes.
I had not thought about the boy much until I moved to America 10 years later and discovered Tang in a grocery store. It was just how I remembered it - fine powder in a sturdy bottle - but its glamour had lost its gloss because, alas, it was neither expensive nor trendy. To think that all the dreams of my youth were once contained in this commercial drink!
I hope Liang Pi never realized Tang was just another cheap powdered beverage occupying shelf space between Country Time and Kool-Aid. I hope when he decided to sell Tang, he thought he was giving his customers the best America had to offer.

There was no Tang in the minifridge when I went to Xi'an Famous tonight.
"Did you guys stop selling Tang?" I asked Jason.
"Yeah, it was just something random my Dad did. Why? Did you like it?"
"Yeah, I did. I really did."
"Well, you're definitely the only one. But I'll tell him you liked it."
"Good."

I have a Pepsi with my lamb face salad.