For the past two years -- as an adult in my early thirties -- I have celebrated my birthday at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Yes, the the hybrid entertainment and restaurant chain featuring an anthropomorphic pizza-loving mouse. “Do you get adults coming to celebrate their birthday here?” I asked the cashier as she rang me for a BBQ chicken pizza on my most recent visit. “It’s very rare,” she said, grinning. But for me, it’s a reminder of how I formed my American identity.
Between the ages of 5 and 15, nothing whipped me into all out frenzy more than getting a birthday invitation to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Sure, the restaurant was tinged with the musk of burnt cheese and overly energetic children who bounced from one end of the carpeted room to the other. They were loaded up on soda and the ill-fated assumption that the wads of tickets in their sticky hands extracted from arcade games would amount to something significant -- and I wanted to be just like them.
Chuck E. Cheese’s tagline was “Where a kid can be a kid.” Growing up in an immigrant household where the lines of culture and identity were deeply defined between home and the streets, it was where I went to be an American.
Its appeal extended to virtually any child coming of age in the '80s and '90s during the heyday of indoor entertainment venues, but the dizzying neon lights and the clinking of gold tokens embossed with Chuck E. Cheese’s profile as they poured out of the dispenser became the soundtrack to which I picked up Western idiosyncrasies that did not exist in any other part of my life. It was a place where first generation kids and immigrant children were inducted into American culture, thrown head first into the ball pit of birthday cake-coated consumerism.
With no processed or pre-packaged foods allowed at home, my mom focused her energy into cooking hearty, elaborate Middle Eastern meals daily, while working a full-time job. This had ripple effect into adulthood -- to this day, there are many major American fast food chains I still have never tried.
But Chuck E. Cheese’s was my secret club where I went to indulge in all American junk food my system could handle -- greasy pepperoni pizza that burned my tongue, high fructose-laden soda I gulped down by the cup full and dense chocolate cake with frosting in colors I never even knew existed. My tastebuds remained in overdrive for hours. I often used tickets to buy Airheads and Ring Pops instead of toys and revelled in my rapidly developing sweet tooth.
I traded parent-mandated hobbies like piano lessons meant to develop an appreciation for classical music and Armenian hymns for games played purely for fun -- not learning. I was especially charmed by Skee Ball and Whack-a-Mole. Music from “Munch’s Make-Believe Band,” the animatronic band featuring various wide-eyed and often frightening Chuck E. Cheese's characters replaced sounds of The Gypsy Kings and Yanni permeating through my house.
Chuck E. Cheese’s was the ultimate tangible force that informed my sense of American identity -- an experience shared among children of working class immigrant parents, who were re-assembling their lives in a new country and often could not afford lavish backyard birthday parties or bank breaking trips to Disneyland.
Instead there was Chuck E. Cheese’s, a portal tapping into the desires of their American born or rapidly assimilating immigrant children, who saw the restaurant as a way to dip into and learn about how “true” American children behaved as they straddled multiple identities.
Born in Iran, Ghazal Rahmanpanah was one of those kids. She grew up in Washington DC, as an only child, isolated from cousins who remained overseas, and attended spent her weekends at Farsi language school. Chuck E. Cheese’s was a rare opportunity for socialization into mainstream culture.
“My parents were quite protective of me, but I could run free at the Cheese,” she says. “Everything American was a no-go back then, but the only exception was when I’d go to Chuck E. [Cheese's]. I could just be a kid honestly -- and it was freeing.”