I have been absolutely inundated, in a good way, with responses to the Chronicle article, which has mushroomed into links from other sites, people's blogs, &c. Thank you everyone! It's really nice to get so much enthusiasm emailed to me!
Here are some people's earliest Chinese restaurant memories....
Lori: I think I was about eight or nine years old. I was a girl scout and our troop was on a field trip to Chinatown in San Francisco. I don't remember which restaurant, but I have a feeling that it was the Golden Dragon. I liked the crispy fried stuff, but I cried when I was given a giant prawn with a long, red vein.
Leon Sun: My first encounter with a Chinese restaurant in America was in Grand Rapids, MI. It was the only one (or one of two) in the city at the time, i.e., 1966, when I saw it. It horrified me. It was a dark, gloomy place with grease and dust on the windows and walls. It was one storefront among a row of them on this one block. The corners of the block were anchored by a Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors on one end and a Chicken Delight on the other. The dining room was divided into booths. An old man - looking about as old as the restaurant came out with a toothy grin and pulled the string to turn on the ceiling light over my booth. The rest of the place remained dark till another (rarely) customer came in.
I ordered chop suey, as I had always heard about it but never knew what it was. I also ordered chow mein, which was horror #2: crispy fried things that looked like dried up packing material (shaved wood, in the old days). If you've ever eaten "Chungking" "Chinese" food from a can, you'd know what I had - a lot of bean sprouts and celery and corn starch gravy. The soy sauce looked like cockroach piss - a dark brown ooze, tasting of nothing in particular.
Josh Raub: I was about 8 or 9. My family was at a Chinese restaurant in Burnsville, MN. I hated cream cheese at that time, but we ordered cream cheese puffs. I didn't know what was in them, all i knew was that i loved them and couldn't stop eating them. My mom kept asking, "Do you know what's in those?" I immediatelly realized that it would be something that I didn't like, so I told her not to tell me. She told me anyway. I couldn't eat them anymore. It took me almost ten years before I could eat them again. Needless to say, I love them now.
The same night my brother was with us. He was about three at that time. Before the waiter came to our table he said something to another waiter in Chinese. When he arrived at our table and asked us if we were ready to order, my brother turned to him and said, "Hong, Chau, Pyang" or something like that. He was just immitating what the waiter had said to the other waiter, maybe he thought he was speaking Chinese. Everyone was embarrassed, my parents, me and the waiter.
Jim: my family and relatives ate Thanksgiving dinner in a chinese restaruant in Kalamazoo, MI in 1977 when i was about 12. they served regular-style US turkey dinner that day. i remember i asked for a second glass of milk, but the waitress lady made me finish completely the first glass i had, and she took that glass back and refilled it. i found that stressful.