American Chinese food is a culinary classic. No getting around it. It could be cheap, crappy, and saturated with all the the things currently destroying US residents, but it’s a classic nonetheless.
Before reading these stories I had this idea in my head that American Chinese food catered towards white people; songs like LFO’s Summer Girl, and an old show on Nickelodeon that used to go over small snippets of history (like the origin of potato chips or chop suey) made it seem like a Chinese-to-white/Jewish thing. It occurred to me that that seemed like an odd choice as most US inhabitants, and perhaps just most people, in general are just a touch too xenophobic to just adopt something like that with the tiny bit of exposure they would have had when the food became popularized. However, I just kind of let it go; I had a lot of Jewish friends growing up and it eventually became normalized that white people had adopted Cantonese/Fujianese cuisine (the one most often served in take-out places) first, and even if they hadn’t, they certainly had now, and with vigor.
I read Jennifer 8 Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, and even that book, intriguing, smart, and funny though it was, focused mainly on white customers; go to Hollywood near the Chinese Theater and the stories are all about the rich, wealthy, white actors, producers, and other crew chowing down on styrofoam containers with forks between takes.
I don’t use this word often, but I think what I’m seeing is a pattern of erasure.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
-Emma Lazarus (inscribed on the Statue of Liberty)
And give them some pork fried rice, honey, because it’s not easy being a minority.
In the 70s and 80s, when Chinese food take-out spots were booming, redlining and mortgage discrimination were still prevalent and accepted practices; this meant a lot of minorities were stuck together, whether they liked it or not. Mix that with socioeconomic issues and not a little bit of tribalism. Some of the product is good. The more ideas there are, the better ideas can exist; more people with different needs drives economy, drove the creation of the American Chinese food we all know and love today. Positive exposure has always proven generally good for countering racism, there’s a veritable plethora of awesome food fusion, and color begets colorfulness and the neighborhoods are more lively for it.
On the other hand, being shoved together with people who have about the same chance of getting out of there as you? With the amount of oppression that exists in heaps and piles to this day? Disastrous, and the streets’ honor system is a brutal one. Immigrants don’t all come from the same place, so a misunderstanding can spell out a beating or worse. Being poor can turn into desperation, can turn into violence. And we all know what happens when a bunch of high-energy teenagers and impressionable kids aren’t kept busy.
I don’t hear about it much myself, except when the 80-20 Initiative covers it and sends me an e-mail with a petition that begs a judge to actually punish someone who’s killed a Chinese deliveryman for once. I guess in everyone’s eyes, it’s the hood. It happens, like in a war.
Do we keep this stuff out of the regular light-hearted discussion about American Chinese food because we’re afraid? Is it because we don’t care?
“There’s an undercurrent to these brutal attacks on immigrant workers, because they are sometimes not considered to be real people by the perpetrators.”
The discussion I think has finally started to turn around. There can be no more pretending certain people don’t matter and don’t exist, because erasing them from our minds doesn’t erase them from their bodies.