As COVID-19 ravages throughout the world, instant noodles are becoming everyone's pantry staples. This week, Editorial Director Justin Wu recalls his personal story with instant noodles and how they serve as a reminder of his averted identity. 

My parents and I went on a trip to San Francisco. This was three years ago, and, one night, we had dinner at a seafood restaurant in Little Italy. When we got back to the hotel that night, my dad pulled out a pack of instant noodles from his suitcase. Fifteen minutes later, he was slurping the noodles. Under his glasses fogged by the hot steam, he smiled after each inhale.

“Do you want any?” he asked. He looked at me expectantly, as if he thought I’d share his hunger for instant noodles.

Swallowing my saliva, I stared at the bowl for a few seconds, indecisive. The smell of the broth travelled across the room and attempted to draw me closer.

“No, I’m okay,” I hesitated for a minute or two before I forced myself to turn away.

The words “actually, can I…” went up all the way to the top of my throat, nearly escaping, but I pushed them back down. I suppressed my appetite for those instant noodles, a hunger inextricable from my Chinese heritage.

When I was a kid, I remember watching an episode of Happy Camp, a popular Chinese variety show, in which the hosts rummaged through the suitcases of celebrities to see what they like to bring with them when travelling. They found instant noodles in one suitcase, and the lead host exclaimed:

“Oh my god! This is everyone’s travelling essential.”

His revelation isn’t entirely unique to him. I’ve noticed that instant noodles function as a nostalgic treat for Chinese in the diaspora who may struggle to adjust their palate to Western cuisine. They are a quiet marvel of a dish: The noodles soak up all the flavors of the broth, whether it is stew beef or pickled mustard, and the smell alone will make you reach out to your chopsticks. For some eaters, the main point of appeal is the broth. Some people chug the broth after finishing their noodles because that is where the essence (or food additives as some may see it) is. Instant noodles aren’t exactly healthful foods: They’re low in protein and fiber and high in fat and sodium. Still, they function as a convenient way for Chinese people living abroad to experience the feeling of being back home.

Born and raised in China for 12 years, I loved eating instant noodles. I had no problem of devouring down two bowls of them no matter how full I already was. After I immigrated to Vancouver at the age of 12, instant noodles became a distant memory. Sure, my access to them was more limited, but Vancouver is not lacking in H-Marts and other Asian grocery stores. Nonetheless, I found myself tended more toward places like Safeway, Superstore, and Costco, which didn’t have many Asian instant noodles for sale. When I left China, I left behind all my memories associated with instant noodles, along with my refusal to speak Chinese, my reluctance to drink bubble tea, and my unwillingness to reconnect with my Chinese friends back home.

For a very long time after moving away from China, I sat by myself and ate frozen lasagna that my mom packed for me during lunch break at school because I was too scared to talk to the cashier at the school cafeteria. After school, I liked to go with my mom to grocery stores, but I always stayed close to her because I had this fear of someone coming up to me and saying things I don’t understand. Those experiences made me decide to change, change to become one of them.

I left Vancouver when I was 17 and moved to New York City for college. I’m 20 years old now. Last summer, I visited the H-Mart in New York City. I caught sight of shelves filled with instant noodles with various flavors.

“Check this one out,” my friend said, grabbing a pack from the shelf. “It’s super famous. You should try it.”

Before I had the chance to react, she had already put it in my cart. I looked down and saw the notorious Korean Samyang Extremely Spicy Chicken Flavor Ramen, so fiery that it brought many to tears.

When I got back to my dorm room that day, I opened up the black-and-red-colored package decorated with blazing fire and screaming speech balloons, foreshadowing its thrashing jolt, and cooked it with boiled water from an electric kettle borrowed from a friend. Seeing the noodles gradually softened by the broth, I sniffed the scent that’s been long lost to me, though it was a little more pungent than I remembered. I grabbed the fork, a utensil I've become more used to than chopsticks since moving abroad, and twisted the noodles before putting them in my mouth. The noodles were a little crunchy; the water was not hot enough. But they absorbed the taste of the broth, making the textural imperfection somewhat irrelevant.

As I shovelled down the noodles, I recalled the times I would only eat them for dinner at home in China. Instead of grilled steak or salmon, my mom came out of the kitchen with a plastic bowl, hot steam rising from the top. Placing a book on top to trap the heat inside, she told me to wait for 20 minutes. Watching her walking back to the kitchen, I peeled the cover and dug my chopsticks in, a mistake I made often. The noodles tasted raw and bland, and I had to lay back with frustration before I waited for them to return to a more softened, flavored form.

That day in my dorm room, I came to the realization that acceptance of the new means abdication of the old, and instant noodles were, unfairly, the collateral damage. However, as the sweat trickled down my nose and the heat numbed my tongue, I was taken back to the Chinese home I'd known for so long, reminding me that I am Chinese.