Chinese Takeout: A Look into Cultural Superiority in American Food Culture

“I can’t believe people really eat the stuff! To me, it’s awful. I can’t get past the texture.”

“I hate it! Basically ice cream wrapped in raw dough (gag emoji).”

“It’s just weird. Like a giant booger. Yuck.”

Bleary eyed and worn out from a day of writing papers, I blinked and read the comments again just to make sure they weren’t a figment of my sleep deprivation. But the comments were, much to my disbelief, real. Directed towards a video going behind the scenes of a 117-year-old mochi shop in California, the commenters attacked the traditional Japanese dessert as if it was something unnatural and alien-like. I felt distraught and upset—not just because people were bashing on something I personally grew up eating and enjoying, but also because they were blatantly ignoring the cultural significance of the food and the process behind it. These random comments from some seemingly harmless internet trolls are just a snippet of the much bigger issue of cultural ignorance and discrimination in the American food culture, with Chinese cuisine being one of its many victims.

Dim Sum Jocelyn Hsu / Spoon There is a gross misunderstanding of Asian food as a whole among Americans, who mostly rely on Panda Express and all-you-can-eat sushi buffets for their understanding of Asian food. Don’t get me wrong. I personally enjoy eating California rolls and vegetable lo mein, but using dishes like this to push out stereotypes adds a bitter taste. Ever since the first Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. and opened the first Chinese takeout restaurants, many Asian restaurants changed their menu and tastes in order to cater to American taste buds (which have been dulled and shaped by heavily processed and manufactured food items). Dishes like General Tso’s Chicken do allude to certain aspects of Chinese cuisine, but if you were to ask a native Chinese if they had a plate of chop suey or moo goo gai pan, they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about.

While it has gotten better in recent years, Chinese food in the U.S. has been distorted and misconstrued in order to keep the customers happy by fulfilling their expectations for oil-laden stir frys or overly sweet fried pieces of meat. As a result, the stereotype of Chinese food being unhealthy and “greasy” places it in a weird spot where it is both enjoyed and seen with disdain. Turning a blind eye on centuries-old traditions of making recipes with various ingredients, the American food culture places Chinese cuisine in a lesser position as a food category that does not have as much integrity as Western cuisines like Italian or French food. It has been so much so that nutritionist Arielle Haspel (who is a white woman) felt the need to open a restaurant of her own, selling what she claimed to be “clean” Chinese food that would make customers not feel “bloated and icky the next day." While Haspel has since closed the restaurant, it was a rude awakening of sorts to the fact that many Americans were transforming a symbol of comfort and cultural validation into an emblem of their superiority.

Megan Reusche

So, why exactly am I getting so worked up over food? Isn’t Chinese food just food in the end? As cheesy as it may sound, food plays a big role in my identity. Growing up as an Asian American, eating my mom’s cooking and going to Asian restaurants with my friends are not only happy memories, but they are also a reminder of the fact that my culture is relevant and an important reason of who I am today. Even though I’m not a fan of every single Asian dish, all the dishes have their significance to different people. Stinky tofu may just be, well, stinky, but it does bring me back to memories of walking through the night markets in Taiwan with my family. Chicken feet may seem weird, but for some, it brings them back to family lunches at dim sum restaurants and sitting around the lazy susan while spending time with family. So instead of just seeing unfamiliar foods as food only worthy for the trash can, try to understand that these dishes all have their significant meanings towards certain people.

You don’t have to like everything you taste, but you also don’t have to contribute to negative stereotypes about people who’ve already had to deal with enough appropriation.

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