When I was growing up, my immigrant family never participated in the traditional eggs Benedict or chicken and waffles kind of brunch—the delights of which I didn’t discover until college. Instead, my ethnic Chinese family did dim sum (點心) for brunch, which literally translates to “a little bit of heart,” or “to fill your heart.” Amid the busyness of life, dim sum is a time to slow down and enjoy tea with small shared plates of treats with family and friends. It’s a time to replenish.
For my family, who immigrated to Phoenix in the early 1990s (and worked seven days a week at our own Chinese takeout restaurant), carving out time for dim sum on weekends was even more special. Our regular brunch pilgrimage led us to an unassuming strip mall, home of Great Wall Cuisine. Here, we felt closest to being in Asia again. The restaurant was always packed with people that looked like us; the rest of the week at school or work, we were forever a minority. The scent of pork and shrimp dumplings, salt and pepper squid, pan-fried turnip cakes, and thousand-year egg congee awakened our senses—and memory. Orders shouted urgently but amicably in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English for “Roast duck! Egg tarts! Chow mein!” over the din of happy diners beckoned us into this wonderfully chaotic world. For my parents in particular, the moment they set foot inside, they were transported.
"Amid the busyness of life, dim sum is a time to slow down and enjoy tea with small shared plates of treats with family and friends."
I could see the magic work on my parents. At Great Wall, my father came alive. He acted like he was the king, greeting the boss like an old friend, joking with the staff, and ensuring we'd be served the freshest fish, and the finest cut of meat as he ordered beyond the dim sum carts. The feast would soon cover all available tabletop: classic dim sum offerings and family favorites like fresh bamboo rolled in tofu skins (me), the spareribs in black bean sauce (my brother), the sesame ball desserts filled with sweet red bean paste (my mother), and stir-fried clams (my father).
Beyond the food and the bustling atmosphere, Great Wall was and still is a joyful gathering place for the Phoenix Chinese community. Each time we’d visit the restaurant, we would run into this auntie or that uncle. No matter who was not talking to whom, or what political strife was dominating the headlines about Taiwan, the Mainland, and Hong Kong, all disputes would be temporarily put aside for a delicious truce over juicy morsels of har gow and siu mai.
I have not lived in Phoenix for more than two decades. This means the Great Wall is now my go-to nostalgic reunion spot each time I return. For me, the dim sum absolutely measures up to the best eateries in Seattle and other cities where I’ve lived over the years. And my family continues to make cherished memories there—my father’s look of unbridled joy as he helped my then toddler son try his first chicken feet, my new nephew smiling sweetly up at me with his chubby cheeks while wiggling impatiently in his high chair, and my sister-in-law introducing all of us to the beloved coconut dessert of her youth. No matter where my family and friends have scattered across the state, we come together at this unassuming restaurant for the food that tastes just like it always did, maybe even better because of the memories.
When my family immigrated, we left much of our personal history behind. The landmarks like my old elementary school, the corner store, and the apartment building where we lived, no longer feel like ours. But across the Pacific Ocean, we claimed new landmarks. The Great Wall of Phoenix is part of our family history now. Three generations of my family have congregated there time and time again over 30 years to mark all occasions big and small—each meal beginning with a spot of tea and a little bit of heart.