The Refined

Recently, I sat down to crisp linen table cloths and polite conversation in the well-lit room of San Francisco’s City View Restaurant for weekend dim sum. A large mural of green rolling hills and rice paddies presented pastel perfection on the largest wall. Waitresses brought around trays of petite egg-custard tarts and glistening Chinese broccoli while I listened to my mother selecting our meal, the Cantonese names for the steamed dishes rolling off her tongue. After feasting on lightly wrapped shrimp dumplings and sipping Jasmine tea, even the smallest smear of oyster sauce or drip of chili oil on the table seemed out of place.

The Rugged

Maggie Gallagher

Within the same week, I stood outside of Berkeley’s Chinese Gourmet Express where condensation fogged up the windows, and the hot metal tureens created a sesame oil-scented sauna. The menu, simple in appearance, only stated the different combinations one can order; it was remarkably cheap for the mountains of food they pile into the plastic to-go containers. The dishes that line their point-and-choose a la carte bar have no labels—it’s almost a gamble when ordering—all part of the fun. 

I recognize some of the dishes like the sweet and sour pork that is laden with unnaturally bright red sauce, or the spring rolls with fried wrapper too thick for its own good. I am fully aware as well, however, that combining classic American-Chinese carb options like chow-mein and fried rice with soupy curried chicken or broccoli beef can make for a lunchtime pleasure—sure to be followed by a stomachache from overeating that afternoon.

The Rivalry

Maggie Gallagher

These two dining experiences tell of the two sides of Chinese food in America, the two sides that I am torn between favoring. I know the politically correct thing to do is to stay loyal to tradition, to associate only the truly authentic cuisine with Chinese cooking. However, I still find the same pleasure in a bamboo steamer filled with hand folded xiao long bao and a plate of deep-fried orange chicken. And why is that? With each bite of the latter, I can practically feel the sugar coating my teeth, just as the guilt sticks to me for ordering—dare I say enjoying—a “white-washed” version of my culture’s food.

The guilt makes sense too, as Chinese food has fought tooth and nail to establish recognition and ground in America. Food reflects a culture, and sadly the depiction of Chinese culture is poorly painted by the food that claims to be “Chinese” today. After countless generations of Chinese cuisine’s presence in America, what is left is mainly chains like Panda Express and white and red fold up to-go boxes of flavorless rice and fusion fixes like cream-cheese wontons. This misrepresentation of Chinese culture does not come close to showing the diverse range of food that China produces. With each province comes a wide array of flavors, spices, tastes, and textures. One area may house Islamic mutton soup and the next a spicy fish-flavored shredded pork.

Maggie Gallagher

When Chinese food today is mainly known by egg fried rice or egg rolls, the multiplicity of Chinese identity decreases. While many different food cultures can be known by signature dishes, Chinese culture is largely affected by this issue as the dishes that are popularized in American Chinese cuisine were constructed for the mainstream, white American audience. Having to change food, something so crucial to Chinese identity, so that the majority can understand, or even stomach it, takes away from the very core of a culture. “Americanizing” Chinese food so that the cuisine can survive in this country’s culture is a form of assimilation, having to adapt to the country’s idea of what it is to be Chinese.

The Resolution

All the past generations of Chinese assimilation via food lies in the cartoon chef logo of a quick American Chinese canteen, or in a single deep-fried morsel covered in sweet sauce. With all this guilt, it is hard to admit that sometimes, all I want is sticky brightly colored pieces of chicken. Greasy noodles so salty it makes me reach for water. Fried rice so buttery I know I’ll be guilty for reasons other than helping to reinforce cultural misrepresentation.

Perhaps the recognition of American Chinese cuisine as its own genre of food is necessary for reconciliation between the two sides of Chinese food today. However, that recognition must be of both sides. Chinese culture must not be denied its level of variety, its depth and range; it should not be left to be identified by what it has become in American popular culture. There is so much complexity that lies within one culture, one country alone. By diversifying awareness of food intake, by recognizing that one culture is not reduced to one staple food item, the multiplicity and truth of a culture will be preserved for the better. After all, we are what we eat.