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Tue, Jan. 6th, 2009, 11:10 am
sanguinity: 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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Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 01:05 am (UTC)

Having lived in a place with a fairly high number of recent Serbian immigrants I would say that it is pretty easy to pick out recent immigrants or non-americans, especially when there is a decent sized community. They have a common cultural heritage and act and dress as such.

Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 12:30 am (UTC)

There's an interesting scene in Garden State where the main (white) character is waiting on a group of customers (also white) at a Korean restaurant, and they ask for bread- which the restaurant does not serve. On the one hand, the white customers are demanding that the menu change to suit their tastes (as you outline in your post), and then the wait staff isn't Korean. The customers seemed to be questioning the authenticity of the food because they're not getting the full "Korean experience."

A few days ago, a couple of friends of mine were speculating that a nearby Chinese food place was purposefully putting "Engrish" on their sign in order to attract attention, since everyone who works there speaks English without heavy accents or grammatical problems. I can't vouch for the authenticity of this story, since it's speculation and I've never been to the restaurant, but it's at least plausible.

I think the idea of a "dining experience" also contributes to the perpetual foreignness of food, because it encourages diners to expect the trappings of another culture along with the food. While the children of Italian immigrants to the US don't experience the same sort of othering as the children of Asian immigrants do, pizza parlors in America are still associated with Italian-ness despite the differences between the typical American pizza and the typical Italian pizza. I'd say that a lot of this "dining experience" junk contributes to keeping food associated with its (perceived) place of origin long after the dishes have changed to reflect local tastes.

Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 08:05 am (UTC)

Um, it's a Vietnamese restaurant, in Garden State, not Korean. I only saw the movie once, so I could be mistaken, but that's how I remember it.

Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 10:36 pm (UTC)

Oops, yeah. While double-cecking that, I found this interesting goof on imdb:

"In the restaurant scene near the beginning, when the snotty customer asks for bread, Andrew Largeman replies they have none and explains this is because it is a Vietnamese restaurant. In fact, because of the French colonization of Vietnam in the mid 19th Century, French baguettes are a common staple in Vietnamese cuisine and any good Vietnamese restaurant would most likely have them in their kitchen."

Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 11:06 pm (UTC)

Yeah, that's why I remembered it-- except maybe for strictly-Pho places, I don't think I have never been to a Vietnamese restaurant that doesn't at least have some kind of roll. It would be nice to think that Zach Braff was aware of this and actually layering another kind of irony, but probably not.

Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 11:13 pm (UTC)

Purposeful mistake or no, there's this neat contrast between the customers, who insist on experiencing only the familiar, and the idea represented by Braff's character that things ought to remain "authentic" by conforming to an idealized form of Vietnamese culture, regardless of who owns or works at the restaurant.

Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 01:53 am (UTC)

Thankyou for posting this. I got inspired and wrote a huge rant about it on my lj :)

Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 12:15 pm (UTC)

Well, in speaking to the Beer which I know the most about, I do see a lot of similarities. They're sticking to German names to fit with a German stereotype of good/pure beer. (Did you know Anheuser-Busch actually sued/fought for the rights to the name Budweiser with the German city and won?) The same way we call them French fries, or associate what is basically American food with Chinese food. The main difference is advertising.

Obviously the selection bias you mentioned plays in here, but I've never really thought of Chinese food as foreign. I've always put it on the same level as pizza, or McDonalds. I don't hear people talking about getting foreign food, and then going to a chinese(-american) restaurant. But then, we don't really call it Chinese-American, we just call it Chinese, and I'm probably biased in that I do have many legitimate 'foreign' places to eat, as opposed to a more rural setting where Chinese food might stand out a little more.

Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)

I never put Chinese food on the level you did, because there just wasn't much of it in my small home town. Or at least my parents avoided it. My dad out of habit, but I know for a fact my mother viewed it (and still does, I think), as "foreign." They finally put a Chinese buffet in at the strip mall near her house, and she speaks of it in hushed tones, as if it will come out and bite her with its foreignness as she drives past. I'm sure she could find a way to rationalize this video.

I hope I've grown past this sort of automatic shunning of all culture difference, but I know that there's lots of it hidden somewhere.

Wed, Jan. 7th, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC)

And with that last sentence, I didn't mean that the Americanized Chinese food was the cultural difference, more the bias I grew up with.