Sanguinity (sanguinity) wrote in debunkingwhite,

How "Foreign" to the U.S. is Chinese-American Food?

Excellent post on Racialicious this morning (repost from Restructure!) about "Chinese" food in the U.S.: White American Culture is General Tso's Chicken and Chop Suey.

The core of the post is this TED video by Jennifer 8. Lee about Chinese-American food, which addresses how Chinese those dishes are or are not. (Fair warning: the video includes examples of exclusion-era racism.)


To me, one thing that was particularly worth noting in the video is that while many of the particulars of Chinese-American food are direct artifacts of Chinese-American and Japanese-American history, that history is completely detached from white experience of "Chinese" food. Similarly, the Chinese history that is supposedly attached to Chinese-American food is absent in actual practice: how many white eaters of "Chinese" food know who General Tso was? Or ever bother to go home and find out? (Personal disclosure: I always wondered while sitting in the restaurant, but have never remembered long enough to find out when I got home.)

I'm doing some reading about Chinese-exclusion-era U.S. history, and one of the major themes (which persists still today) is the white perception that Chinese immigrants to the U.S. were inherently, perpetually "foreign" and would never assimilate into American culture, a perception that was perceived to justify white racism against Chinese immigrants. The assumption that assimilation is the worthy and obvious obligation of all immigrants is itself messed up, but there's also a perniciously self-fulfilling prophecy in that expectation of perpetual foreignness. From this video, it's clear that while Chinese-American food is a example of Chinese-Americans intensively interacting with white Americans to create an inherently American standard menu, that menu is still labeled as "foreign" by white American culture. Since that menu was devised by "foreigners who will never assimilate" (the so-called "logic" runs), it is labeled as "foreign" forever after, even though it's not actually foreign.

Perpetual "foreignness" is a racialized phenomenon. American foods that are traceable to European immigrant groups -- like beer, for example -- are not perceived as "foreign." Instead, those foods are commonly understood to be Americanized offshoots that have become uniquely different from their European counterparts: what American beer-drinker out there believes that contemporary Germans would recognize Budweiser as having much of anything to do with German beer, despite the American beer industry being conspicuously German in origin (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Pabst, Schlitz)?

(Aside: and that is one of the reasons Irish ancestry in the U.S. isn't the equivalent of racialized ancestries: white immigrants and their descendants can lose the label of "foreign" in a way that racialized immigrants and their descendants can't. Irish-Americans in the U.S. don't get habitually asked where they are "from"; Asian-Americans do. The first-generation Ukrainian immigrants living in my neighborhood are perceived as exotically and suspiciously foreign right now, yes, but their children and grandchildren won't be, and those children and grandchildren won't ever be told to "go back where you came from.")

The Racialicious post concludes with a bulleted debunking of white American culture, which is worth checking out. (I'm not copying it here because that feels like plagiarizing someone else's work.) Stats-geek that I am, I especially like the note about selection bias: the "random" data you have stumbled across in your life is not random, because the patterns and habits of your life induced a bias in that sample.
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