Chinese' Food and the Model Minority study in ethnic cuisine and culture, marginalization and commercialization, and the paradox of exoticism.
The anthropological theme studied for this work was that of the ethnic compromises and paradoxes inherent in creating a "Chinese" restaurant in America, for Americans. In every English speaking country from England to Canada, Chinese food is a huge business. For many immigrants it is one of the only businesses ready and willing to take them in. Most Chinese restaurants strive to present themselves as cultural representations where the American connoisseur can have a legitimate cross-cultural experience. The more I researched the actual traditions of Chinese and Asian cuisine and the way in which Western prejudices and expectations shape the presentation of this experience, the more it became apparent that --like so many other cultural phenomena-- the cultural relevance of the Chinese-food experience is far from untainted. Repeated immersion at several Chinese restaurant locations gave a wide range of perspective on the reality of this cultural phenomena. Research provided a basis for critique and awareness. Discussions with patrons and workers of several ethnicities further clarified the image. Finally, a day's journey from restaurant to restaurant with a single roll of film provided startling visual evidence of the cultural paradox and juxtapositions inherent in this business. The following is an exploration in three parts into the world of the Chinese restaurant.
Menu 1: Observation and Research.
The research began in a most pleasant fashion before I was even aware that I was doing research. On the day I began the project, my coterie of friends and I went out to a relatively inexpensive Chinese place for dinner. As we were eating, I began to notice little details about the place that struck me as somewhat odd. For example, in league with the restaurant's attempt to be architecturally exotic, the wall-paper was a standard release "Asian" print I had seen previously in a catalogue at Home Depot. The print was by no means a traditional Asian one, rather it appeared to appeal to the same Western flair for cultural appropriation that has Pier One selling faux African ritual masks. I also noticed a very prominent Pepsi ad hanging on the wall next to a dragon calendar. With newly opened eyes, I began looking for other signs of faux culture and of the Westernization of the venue. They were not hard to find.
The disposable chopsticks wrappers were made by a U.S. based company, and yet the English grammar on them seemed artificially strange. I began to wonder if maybe that just added to the mystique. There was a Buddha statue displayed prominently in a dark corner of the restaurant, and yet about a quarter of the menu consisted of beef products. At one point in the night I overheard one of the waitresses lose her accent for a moment. No one who was with me seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary, and at that point the research began.
The cultural concessions of the Chinese food industry, and the strange love-hate relationship between mainstream America and Asian minorities are relatively well documented, if often only in passing. In a lengthy essay regarding 'Racist love' (that is, the way in which exoticism and positive stereotypes can hurt a minority), Tiffany Loui suggests that America has a long history of romanticizing Asian cultures to their detriment. She records the way in which all Asians are lumped together in the modern American parlance, despite the fact that the differences between regions is in many cases more pronounced than those among European cultures. (For example, the gastronomical, social, linguistic, religious, and economic differences between mainland China and Japan are far greater than those between France and England, and that says nothing of the many provinces within China alone) This is something that can be noticed also in Chinese foods: almost all relatively affordable Chinese restaurants, especially those which do take-out, have extremely similar menus. In fact, of the five restaurants in which I did research, three had menus that differed by only one or two items. This is despite the fact that mainland China has hundreds of regions each characterized by its own cooking style. "Chinese food is especially diverse due to the country's numerous regional traditions and clans. With economic development, openness, and reform, this has become even more apparent." (Hung-Youn) Only one or two are practiced in America, and even then these are frequently bastardized.
Loui also speaks extensively of exoticism -- the way in which a majority culture forces its eternal outsiders into certain positive but constricting molds. She speaks of Chinese food as symptomatic of limiting options of new immigrants while perpetuating an image of successful Asian immigrants.
Take for example the invention of the fortune cookie by white American businessmen aiming to capitalize on the interest in Asian culture. The fortune cookie was a product conceived to further the exotic image of Chinese restaurants. The shape was designed to be radically and fundamentally different from anything American, just like the "perpetually foreign people" that the cookie was to be designed for. Even the fortune inside of the cookie is a product of Orientalism in that it attempts to mimic Confucian ideas and "Asian" proverbs." (Loui)
Many people of various Asian origins have spoken out about the way in which their families have been forced into these molds. One brilliant Japanese-American independent screen writer says:
My parents were Japanese-American... because they lived in a primarily white, racist community, they found that the best way and the only way they knew to make a living was to open a restaurant and they found that by serving the Americanized 1950's style fake Chinese food they could make a pretty good living. They didn't really pretend to be Chinese but they didn't deny it when people thought that they were. (Mariye)
Others speak of the way in which the food presented is foreign to true Chinese (or Asian) eating habits and recipes. Specific examples of invented "Chinese food" include chicken balls, the ubiquitous fortune cookies, and chop suey. One young Asian writes, "the ritual of drenching rice with soy sauce is also a Western custom. In China, plain rice is eaten alongside the main dishes in order to absorb the sauces and flavors present in the meal. Soy sauce is considered an ingredient, not a topping." (Yu)
Menu 2: Discussions and Debates
Of the many interviews performed, several points stick in my mind. One of the saddest was the short interview I had with a woman working at the Chinese buffet. That day I attended with a strictly vegetarian friend, who had to call over a worker to inquire as to the meat-content of every dish. The woman working the buffet grew strangely excited. "You are vegetarian? Do not eat meat?" she asked. Over the course of the following few minutes, she began to tell us about how she was herself Buddhist and a vegetarian. She spoke of how upsetting it was to have to make all her dishes with beef for the people who came, because they all wanted meat. She herself would not eat meat. She explained that in her native country she would never have cooked with meat, and no one ate meat, but here everyone wanted her to put beef in the food. "They all want meat food. I don't know why." Some study of meat-eating and traditional Chinese cuisine shows that for religious or economic reasons, most traditional meals do not use a lot of meat. Those that do seldom use beef. Yet cow products constituted a huge percentage of the menus at all four of the restaurants I visited.
Another interview point that stuck in my mind came from an interview with an Asian-seeming punk-alternative young customer named Dor at one of the sit-down restaurants. I ended up at dinner with him and a female friend he called Raintalyn (apparently an adopted screen name). The two were as talkative as they were unique. Dor was, as it turned out, Scottish-Japanese, and Raintalyn was an "educated American mongrel." Once we got on to the topic of Chinese restaurants, cultural appropriation and compromise, Dor had a lot of opinions. One of his biggest concerns was the fact that this particular restaurant never had chopsticks unless one specifically asked for them, and then they were the "splintery disposable kind." He explained that rather than catering to those who understood the food and the culture, and rather than trying to educate people about the culture through food and experience, most of the time restaurants just try to do whatever it takes to make America happy. He complained about common American "mistakes" in eating, such as the problem with silverware and disposable chopsticks. "Chopsticks are the most artistic utensils. They're meant to be weighted right, and re-used. These aren't weighted at all, and forks! No Asian food tastes right eaten with a fork. The fork flavor interferes. It's noodles with fork." (Dor, it…