I’m going to talk about one of my favorite things in the world because I need to today: Chinese food.
As a 2nd generation Asian American, food has always been synonymous with culture for me. At every event I would consider cultural, food has always had a big presence. When I want to escape the oppressive White world, I can think of no better activity than going to a restaurant that serves my culture’s food, where I can be surrounded by people from my culture.
This is particularly important as a 2nd generation Chinese American. For children of East Asian immigrants, language is a barrier to connecting with and communicating with our parents. Growing up in North America, we have no choice but to make English our primary language. I grew up speaking Cantonese, but I can only speak Cantonese with a limited circle of individuals. English on the other hand, I can speak with practically everybody in this country.
As East Asian immigrants lose connection with the language of their parents, there is a certain level of shame. There’s a sense that we aren’t “Asian enough” and have lost connection with our culture. For those of us with grandparents who immigrated, many of them speak little English. Communicating with our elders is difficult and laborious. Many of us wonder about how much of our parents’ native tongue our children will be able to speak. After all, if we speak so little, how much can we really teach our children? Moreover, who are we if we can’t speak the language of our ancestors?
This is further complicated by the fact that East Asians are also stereotyped as perpetual foreigners in America. Many Americans approach us as though we just recently immigrated to the country, even if we have lived here our whole lives. This doesn’t exactly help with our identity formation. Once again, if we can’t speak the language of our ancestors well, and Americans also treat us as not one of them, who are we?
All of these processes highlight how important of an experience it is for East Asians to be eating authentic cultural foods. Meals are what bring different generations of Chinese individuals together. It is an experience I can share with my grandmother. Given that she speaks virtually no English, opportunities for shared experiences are hard to come by. It is the one place where I can feel at home and feel connected with my culture; it has been critical to forming my identity as a 2nd generation Asian American man.
Sadly, despite the fact that Chinese restaurants are everywhere in America, finding the authentic Chinese restaurants, where I can feel at home, is very difficult. This happens because Chinese restaurants which serve authentic food struggle in places without large East Asian populations. To appeal to White Americans, an essential task for locations with few East Asians, Chinese restaurants are forced to bastardize their food. Food gets covered in sauce and things become deep fried. It’s gross and unhealthy. Every Chinese person I have met can immediately spot the difference between Americanized Chinese food and the real deal.
What hurts the most is that what White Americans choose in terms of their Chinese food also affects me. I really hate that White Americans are not willing to try authentic Chinese food because it makes it harder for me to find authentic Chinese food. I’ll give you an example. One of my favorite Chinese restaurants is only doing take-out this summer because they need the Chinese international students from the university to sustain their business. When I see Panda Express thriving during the summer while serving oversalted terrible Chinese food, I get angry.
So many White Americans don’t understand our food. So many refuse to be patrons of authentic Chinese restaurants. They would much rather eat Asian food in restaurants where they don’t feel like a minority. This highlights how strong White privilege is. I have to hunt far and wide to find the few restaurants where I can feel at home. For White Americans, that’s the default.
I’ve heard White Americans say to me that they don’t like Chinese food. I’m always taken aback by this because there are so many different types of Chinese food. They usually follow up by telling me that Chinese food is too salty, which I can’t help but laugh at. These individuals obviously think Chinese food is too salty because they have been eating “Chinese food” at establishments like Panda Express their whole life.
After my initial bout of laughter at their ignorance and naïveté, I feel sad. I feel sad that this is how so many White Americans understand my culture’s food. I feel sad that most Americans have no idea what my culture’s food actually tastes like. This to me is what cultural appropriation feels like: it is the power of the privileged to redefine what your culture really is.