"Welcome to McDonald's. Can I take your order?" My mother ignored the request coming from the drive-through lane intercom and continued to the pickup window. For her, communicating in English would be an exercise in futility. Face to face with the employee manning the window, my mother gestured her order. She raised her index finger to signal quantity. That same finger then pointed at me in the back seat. "One Happy Meal," she conveyed in pantomime.
I slunk into my seat. I dreaded going to the McDonald's close to our home. The fluorescent glow of the golden arches cast a haunting ocher shade on the characters who frequented this location, especially at this late hour. Teenage boys smoked strange-smelling cigarettes inside their parked cars. Neighborhood drifters convened in the parking lot to commiserate, argue, or talk to themselves, their conversations often loud and full of swear words.
Why couldn't we have gone to the nicer McDonald's? I would wonder. The one at the edge of the city, where the suburbs began?
My mother carefully tallied up a sum of dimes, nickels, and quarters before rolling down her window. The server handed her a single Happy Meal box, and she passed it back to me. I knew the routine. I would carefully split the cheeseburger in half – neither of us would receive a single crumb more. My younger brother was in charge of divvying up the fries.
My mom had excuses as to why we always ordered a single Happy Meal for two growing boys, aged 7 and 8.
"It's not healthy for you."
"You're getting a little round on the sides."
Korean mothers can be brutally honest. But even at that tender age, I was painfully aware of the constraints that shaped our diets. We would at least be hungry together. There exists no greater sense of equity than the one between two hungry siblings.
The box felt light. My brother and I protested in a chorus of complaints. "Where is our toy? McDonald's forgot our toy! We have to go back!" My mother assured us the hard-working folks at McDonald's had made no mistake. Rather, she was holding onto our prize for safekeeping.
The next morning, it was business as usual. My brother and I swapped outfits from the day before, hoping no one at school would notice our wardrobe trick. We quickly downed our breakfast of cold tap water and plain white rice. My brother raced out the door, but before I could give chase, my mother pulled me aside. She looked through the open door — making sure my brother was out of sight — with a nervousness that suggested she was about to commit a crime. She placed a small Hamburglar figurine into my hand: the Happy Meal toy from the night before.
"Show and tell," she said with the angular inflection that betrayed her origins.
After school, I picked up my brother from his homeroom and we started our walk back home. My brother was upset. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"We had show and tell in class today, but I had nothing to show and tell," he answered.
The fall weather chilled my hands, and I sought to protect them from the wind in the front pouch of my hoodie. I could feel the Hamburglar inside, where I had buried him earlier. He'd had a shameful showing against the Game Boys and Upper Deck sports cards my classmates had brought. I remembered the snickers and jeers I received and the audacity I had summoned to inwardly curse my mother's decision.
And then I thought about my mother. I could still feel her gaze through the open door as I tried to catch up with my brother. Was she simply watching us run off to school? Or was she reflecting on the decision she had just made: to choose one child over the other.
Daniel Youngwon Lee is a recent graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the editor in chief of the Asian American Policy Review. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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