Chinese vs. Chinese American Cuisine

When I first began my project, I asked 30 people the same question: what three dishes come immediately to mind when I say the words “Chinese Food” ? Without any further context, my friends provided me with a wide range of answers. These were the results:

While this set of answers is interesting, this next graph, which breaks down the same answers into 3 different categories of sources, encapsulates my grievances of how non-Chinese Americans perceive Chinese food:

As the graph shows, my non-Chinese American friends responded to my question with a very limited number of answers. The dishes which they did list (Lo Mein, Fried Rice, General Tso’s Chicken, Meet and Broccoli, Spring Rolls, Dumplings, Orange Chicken, Sesame Fried chicken, Steamed Buns, Rice) were also reminiscent of dishes found in Chinese American fast food restaurants. Meanwhile, my first generation Asian American friends, who are all ethnically Chinese, gave me a wider range of answers, with a few repetitive answers from the sample group. Unlike my non-Chinese friends however, my first generation friends were more inclined to list main course staples in Chinese cuisine rather than dishes sold at fast food restaurants (Dumplings, Noodle Soups, Rice, Porridge). Finally, my Chinese immigrant friends who spent all or a majority of their upbringings in Chinese communities of East and Southeast Asia (Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, China) provided me with only 4 repeated answers out of the 25 different dishes listed by this demographic. These 25 dishes are generally very specific in nature, and come from the distinct traditional styles of Chinese cuisine.

Below is an additional visualization of the data I collected from my friends:

Admittedly, I was frustrated but also relieved by the differences between the answers of my non-Chinese American friends versus my first generation and immigrant friends, since the data collected satisfied my hypothesis that American perception of Chinese food is incomplete, and for the most part, is limited to their experiences with Chinese American cuisine. So why did this happen?

I decided to visit Brooklyn’s Museum of Food and Drink (MoFAD)’s current exhibit Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant which explores the history of Chinese American food. During my educational visit, I began to get a better grasp of what Chinese American food was. 

MoFAD’s Chow (on show through March 2019 – I highly recommend a visit) explains in detail how Chinese American cuisine, invented in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1849, was never intended to be Chinese cuisine. Rather, early Chinese immigrants merely made dishes inspired by Chinese cuisine which made use of ingredients that were available in the U.S. to replace those found only in China; they also were tweaked to make them more familiar to American palates. Unlike my mother’s use of seasonal farmers’ market vegetables however, these early Chinese immigrants had little access to healthy (and expensive) ingredients. Chow is adamant in stressing the fact that these immigrants came from very little, with hopes of achieving the American Dream through the Gold Rush, and constantly faced racial discrimination from both American people and the American government. In fact, the highly popularized Chinese American dish fried rice was considered to be food made and eaten by lower class people in China who could not afford fresh rice paired with multiple dishes for a meal.

Chow also reminds its audience that a majority of the Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s came to California from a single province in China (Guangdong). Following this massive Guandong emigration, the United States government began implementing a string of laws banning further Chinese immigration. This string of structurally racist initiatives became known as the “Chinese Exclusion Act” which lasted for 61 years from 1882 until 1943. Without further Chinese immigration from other provinces, the development of Chinese American food was thus limited to the cultures and traditions found in Guangdong cuisine. Considering the vastness of Chinese culinary tradition as highlighted in my dissection of the Eight Great Traditions, it can be assumed that Chinese American food represents a very narrow idea of Chinese cuisine. Furthermore, since racist attitudes towards Chinese Americans expanded to oppression and discrimination of this demographic who had already settled down in the U.S. prior to Chinese Exclusion Act, financial resources became very limited for Chinese American restaurant workers. Thus, the ingredients used for Chinese American dishes were generally lower-cost items, resulting in the American stereotypes of Chinese being cheap and unhealthy.

Beyond these stereotypes, non-Chinese Americans also lack the knowledge and understanding of the vastness of the Chinese diaspora, since United States education requires very little to no curriculum on Chinese history. The following page provides a quick explanation of the Chinese diaspora.

September 25, 2018