White American culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey.

Finally, somebody summarized the myths that non-Chinese Americans have about Chinese food. Most of what White Americans consider “Chinese food” is mostly eaten by white people, and would be more accurately described as “American food” (and perhaps even “white people food”).

Jennifer 8. Lee has a great video on TED Talks titled, Who was General Tso? and other mysteries of American Chinese food.

Here are some important points from the video:

  • Fortune cookies are almost ubiquitous in “Chinese” American restaurants, but they are of Japanese origin. Most people in China have never seen fortune cookies. Fortune cookies were “invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, and ultimately consumed by Americans.” Fortune cookies are more American than anything else.
  • General Tso’s chicken is unrecognizable to people in China. It is the quintessential American dish, because it is sweet, it is fried, and it is chicken.
  • Beef with broccoli is of American origin. Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable; it is of Italian origin.
  • Chop suey was introduced at the turn of the 20th century (1900). It took thirty years for non-Chinese Americans to figure out that chop suey is not known in China. “Back then”, non-Chinese Americans showed that they were sophisticated and cosmopolitan by eating chop suey.
  • “Chinese” take-out containers are American.
  • There is Chinese French food (salt-and-pepper frog legs), Chinese Italian food (fried gelato), Chinese British food (crispy shredded beef), Chinese West Indian food, Chinese Jamaican food, Chinese Middle Eastern food, Chinese Indian food, Chinese Korean food, Chinese Japanese food, Chinese Peruvian food, Chinese Mexican food (which look like fajitas), Chinese Brazilian food, etc.
  • If McDonald’s is Microsoft, then Chinese food is Linux.

These myths that most White Americans have about “Chinese food” are not trivial. Generally, false assumptions beget false conclusions and distorted worldviews. When most White Americans believe that American foods like chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies are “foreign” and “Chinese”, some effects include:

  • Most White Americans think that there is no such thing as “American food”, and that Americans are cosmopolitan and worldly, because they are exposed to foreign foods. For many White Americans, an example of “foreign food” is chop suey. This is ironic, because it actually reveals American insularity.
  • When White Americans think of “Chinese culture” (and assume that all Chinese Americans have retained their ancestral culture), most White Americans think of “Chinese” American food like chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies. However, chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies are actually examples of how Chinese culture has been lost and replaced by commercialism.
  • Many White Americans think that they are knowledgeable about Chinese culture (and not racist) because they eat at “Chinese” restaurants and order dishes like General Tso’s chicken. What many White Americans think as racial knowledge is actually racial ignorance.
  • In American movies and TV, Chinese identity is often represented by chop suey. For example, in Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s Flower Drum Song (1961), which is arguably the only major Hollywood film with a predominantly Asian American cast as protagonists, the Asian American actors sang a celebratory song called “Chop Suey”. According to Arthur Dong, “Songs like ‘Chop Suey’ became an embarrassment for politicized Asian Americans. It didn’t matter that Flower Drum Song was based on a book written by a Chinese American; it was, in the end, a white man’s concoction.”
  • In American movies and TV, Chinese culture is often represented by fortune cookies. Sometimes non-Chinese Americans infer from the nonsensical messages in fortune cookies that Chinese thinking is nonsensical, mystical, and inscrutable. (That’s racist!) However, fortune cookie messages are manufactured in the United States for commercial purposes, to entertain mostly non-Chinese recipients. The messages are not ancient Chinese proverbs.
  • It is not uncommon for a White American to meet a Chinese American for the first time, and attempt to “relate” with her by informing her that he loves chop suey. This is offensive for multiple reasons. White Americans think of Chinese people as a stereotype (“Chinese” food), the stereotype is based on White American experiences rather than Chinese American experiences, the stereotype is not even accurate, the White American thinks that the Chinese person identifies with the racial stereotype, the White American thinks that Chinese ethnicity is represented by an American racial stereotype, etc.
  • LFO had a song called Summer Girls with a chorus that includes the lines, “New Kids On The Block had a bunch of hits. Chinese food makes me sick.” Many White Americans conclude that they “don’t like Chinese food” after eating one type of dish, and that dish probably did not originate in China. Whatever negative associations that White Americans have about Chinese food should actually be blamed on American culture (and American preferences for deep-fried food), not foreign Chinese culture.
  • Some White Americans use “Chinese food” as an example of Chinese people being unassimilable and not adapting to American culture. (Some White Americans even believe that the popularity of “Chinese food” in the United States shows how Americans accommodate and embrace minority cultures.) The reality is that “Chinese” American food is an example of how Chinese immigrants bend over backwards to create dishes customized for White American tastes.

Jennifer 8. Lee’s Italian friend was surprised to learn that fried gelato did not originate in China, and remarked, “It’s not? But they serve it at all the Chinese restaurants in Italy!” This incident illustrates the limitations of anecdotal experience as a source of knowledge. Even if the sample size is very large, anecdotal experience does not take into account selection bias. In this case, a biased sample lead to false conclusions about an ethnic minority group’s “culture”.

This incident also reveals that when the national culture is so pervasive, the cultural aspect of a practice that comes from the national culture is invisible to the ethnic majority. For example, White Italians do not see the Italian influence of fried gelato, only the perceived Chinese aspect of it. To Americans, however, the Italian influence of fried gelato is apparent, while fried gelato’s Chinese influence is not.

Similarly, Americans generally do not see the American influence of General Tso’s Chicken, only the perceived Chinese aspect of it. To non-Americans and observant Americans, however, the American influence of General Tso’s chicken is apparent, since it is sweet, (deep-) fried, and chicken. The dish known in the United States as “General Tso’s Chicken” is 100% American.

Perhaps the dish is also 1% Chinese, since the dish’s name was transliterated into English from the name of a Chinese person, and the people who serve it tend to be Chinese Americans.

However, fond memories of eating General Tso’s Chicken is a culture that is shared among more White Americans than Chinese Americans.

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50 Responses to “White American culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey.”

  1. theboxman Says:

    On a tangent, it always amuses Japanese people I know when they learn how densely populated with sushi restaurants Toronto is, even more so than most major Japanese cities.

  2. Restructure! Says:

    One time I was forced to eat at a Chinese American restaurant in the United States with other Canadians. The food and sanitation was crappy compared to Chinese (Canadian?) restaurants in Toronto.

    A White Canadian was disappointed that we didn’t get fortune cookies, and said something to the effect of “Chinese food isn’t complete without fortune cookies.” I looked at the other Chinese Canadians’ faces to see their reactions, and they were looking at me to see my reaction.

    I suppose it was a look of resignation. It’s not like I could come up with the content of this whole post on the spot and explain it to him in one paragraph, so I said nothing. Actually telling somebody this in real life would take several hours and previous preparation.

    Chinese people suspect that fortune cookies are not Chinese, but the vast majority of us don’t know where they come from, until we do some research. We also don’t know for sure that they are not Chinese until we find out where they originated, since Chinese people are not experts on Chinese culture.

  3. theboxman Says:

    Quote: Chinese people are not experts on Chinese culture

    Indeed. It goes to what you’ve been arguing in connection with the “white people have no culture” fantasy in the sense that it presupposes this Orientalist projection that POC have transparent and uncontested access to some monolithic essential national or ethnic culture.

    I can’t quite name a reference off the top of my head, but I do vaguely recall reading somewhere about how food — as a kind of allegorical assimilation into the body of fetishized cultural objects — is a very common trope in both Orientalist travelogues (both historical and contemporary) but also a site of contestation/negotiation in Asian-American literature. I wouldn’t know if the same extends to Asian-Canadian literature necessarily (and unfortunately, much of the scholarship tends to conflate the two) though.

  4. Restructure! Says:

    Yeah.

    Also, from what you said earlier, I’m wondering now if Torontonians eat more raw fish per capita than Tokyo people.

  5. Kathy Says:

    The Peking Duck House on Mott Street has had a lot of controversy surrounding the service of Asians and discrimination, apparently, Asians are always seated in the basement, out of site of white tourists. We haven’t eaten there, but I think about trying it just to see.

  6. Restructure! Says:

    @Kathy: What would you do if they treat you well because you’re white?

  7. Lxy Says:

    “Beef with broccoli is of American origin. Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable; it is of Italian origin.”

    Beef with broccoli is American? Say it isn’t so! I’ve been eating this dish since I was a kid and thought it was Chinese. Damn you General Tso. Damn you for misleading me on my own heritage!

    Seriously though, these examples really demonstrate the power of America and the West essentially to appropriate somebody else’s culture (in this case cuisine) and then remake and redefine it such that much of the world mistakes it for the original/real.

    The cultural equivalent would be if some Eastern country appropriated elements of American dishes like say macaroni and cheese, jelly donuts, and Philly cheese steaks and then arbitrarily combined them together to form a whole new cuisine–which then is defined as quintessentially American and commonly accepted by many people as such.

    When White Americans think of “Chinese culture” (and assume that all Chinese Americans have retained their ancestral culture), most White Americans think of “Chinese” American food like chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies. However, chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies are actually examples of how Chinese culture has been lost and replaced by commercialism.

    Imagine if General Tso somehow became representative of Chinese cuisine and Taco Bell became representative of Mexican cuisine–and were accepted by people around the world as such. That would be a dystopian culinary nightmare.

    Welcome to the age of Capitalist globalization and McFood!

  8. Kathy Says:

    Restructure!, the only restaurant that i have eaten in is across the street, in the basement, i didn’t even know they had an upstairs, the door to the basement is street level.

    Maybe I should ask if we can eat in the basement, I don’t know. Got any good suggestions?

  9. Restructure! Says:

    Damn you for misleading me on my own heritage!

    When I was younger (not that young, though), I wondered why my family didn’t eat “real Chinese food” like the ones shown on American TV, which come in white take-out containers and with fortune cookies.

    Seriously though, these examples really demonstrate the power of America and the West essentially to appropriate somebody else’s culture (in this case cuisine) and then remake and redefine it such that much of the world mistakes it for the original/real.

    I think Chinese Americans are responsible for this (as a Japanese American is responsible for California Rolls), since for most people, the sole purpose of opening up a restaurant is to make money. After all, General Tso’s chicken, beef with broccoli, fortune cookies, etc. are standard across Chinese American restaurants as if they were chain restaurants, but they are not. Or maybe it’s just the free market giving the majority what they want and expect.

    The cultural equivalent would be if some Eastern country appropriated elements of American dishes like say macaroni and cheese, jelly donuts, and Philly cheese steaks and then arbitrarily combined them together to form a whole new cuisine–which then is defined as quintessentially American and commonly accepted by many people as such.

    I thought a cultural equivalent would be if an Asian country took locally available Asian ingredients and then made something up that looked different from the mainstream food. After all, broccoli is a locally available vegetable in the United States. The Philadelphia cream cheese in some (deep-) fried wonton is an American ingredient. Deep fryers are probably more common in the United States than in any other country.

    Imagine if General Tso somehow became representative of Chinese cuisine and Taco Bell became representative of Mexican cuisine–and were accepted by people around the world as such. That would be a dystopian culinary nightmare.

    Welcome to the age of Capitalist globalization and McFood!

    I believe most Canadians think that Taco Bell is representative of Mexican food. In Canada, General Tso’s Chicken is known as General Tao’s Chicken.

    In Toronto, we have a chain of sushi take-out places in shopping malls called “MacSushi” (no joke). Usually, there are multiple MacSushis in the same mall. Outside of malls, there are many sushi restaurants.

  10. Restructure! Says:

    Maybe I should ask if we can eat in the basement, I don’t know. Got any good suggestions?

    I don’t really know. I wouldn’t eat there, myself.

    Unless you have a solid plan with hidden cameras and such, it’s hard to prove racial discrimination.

  11. Kathy Says:

    Well, that is a very touristy area, if I did eat there, I would probably just write about it.

  12. Kathy Says:

    In Puerto Rico, and probably New York City, there are foods called Chino-Latino, for example, a fried honey banana with mango sauce and ice cream. I haven’t been able to find much about it, but I heard that Chinese helped build the roads in Puerto Rico, I know there are Chinese in Cuba, that I can find on-line.
    In Hong Kong, I ate US steak flavored with local spices, also, I asked for an English muffin from a breakfast menu, and I got a real muffin, not the English muffin I was thinking of.

    I have no idea how to tell what’s authentic. And I think that local ingredients also play into it.

    And as already mentioned, it’s partly filling a demand to make money, even the discrimination at the Peking Duck probably has to do with trying to maintain a clientele of white people to make money in a tourist area. The best Peking Duck we ate was in mid-town, that place had no white people in it :).

  13. Restructure! Says:

    I have no idea how to tell what’s authentic.

    I think there’s no such thing as “authentic”, unless it’s McDonald’s or some chain restaurant in which the dishes are standardized and are all cooked the same way. (Ha, irony.) That’s why I prefer to use the terms “representative” and “not representative”.

  14. theboxman Says:

    Lxy: which then is defined as quintessentially American and commonly accepted by many people as such.

    I think this is the crucial issue more so than the appropriation itself. I can think of analogous examples of what are functionally Japanese dishes that are trafficked under the label of other countries’ dishes — Chinese (the Japanese version of buns cited in the video), Italian (odd pasta concoctions), etc. But these labels don’t have the force of American cultural hegemony, that is, no one outside of Japan (and if I’m not mistaken, not even people in Japan themselves) recognize these as anything but local dishes. There’s nothing “traditional” about tonkatsu — a deep fried breaded pork dish that was originally meant to represent “Western food” — for instance, but nonetheless, it’s recognized as a Japanese dish through and through.

  15. theboxman Says:

    Quote: Welcome to the age of Capitalist globalization and McFood!

    Indeed. And here, it seems, aside from the material aspects of food production, there is a concurrent commodification of national labels for the accumulation of cultural capital — the production of the image of cosmopolitanism that Restructure notes is one facet of this, certainly. But also, greater cultural capital attaches to the claim of “authenticity,” indicating that the problem here, ultimately, is not that chop suey is not “real” Chinese food (whatever the hell that might mean) per se, but the unevenness in the relations of power to name what gets classed as “Chinese food.”

  16. Kathy Says:

    thanks Restructure!, that’s a much more precise term,

    “I think there’s no such thing as “authentic”, unless it’s McDonald’s or some chain restaurant in which the dishes are standardized and are all cooked the same way. (Ha, irony.) That’s why I prefer to use the terms “representative” and “not representative”.

    TheBoxMan, the unevenness is really an interesting point, the other thing is who gets to decide what type of meat to eat, too.

  17. Restructure! Says:

    Indeed. And here, it seems, aside from the material aspects of food production, there is a concurrent commodification of national labels for the accumulation of cultural capital — the production of the image of cosmopolitanism that Restructure notes is one facet of this, certainly. But also, greater cultural capital attaches to the claim of “authenticity,” indicating that the problem here, ultimately, is not that chop suey is not “real” Chinese food (whatever the hell that might mean) per se, but the unevenness in the relations of power to name what gets classed as “Chinese food.”

    Indeed. The term “authentic” in reference to food is mostly used by white people to impress other white people. Christian Lander at Google Talks commented that white people of this generation compete for status like previous generations, but instead of status being determined by wealth, status is determined by “authenticity”.

    The idea that home-cooked food can be “authentic” doesn’t make sense. It’s not like brand name clothing that you can check the authenticity of by looking inside for the label. The (Stuff White People Like kind of) white people seem to mistake nationalities and ethnicities for brand labels, and hence (wrongly) search for markers of “authenticity”.

    When white people compete for status via authenticity, they are clearly competing against other white people in who is the better “expert” on non-white cultures; non-white people are not even in the running. Non-white people are seen as “authentic”, but not as equals; instead, they are seen as an “authentic” resource a white person can use to enhance his/her own authenticity. (Hey, this reminds me of Stuff White People Do.)

  18. theboxman Says:

    Now, isn’t that the anthropolologist-native informant dynamic right there?

  19. Kathy Says:

    See that, I used the word authentic, it proves my whiteness, just kidding.

    theboxman, could you elaborate on the informant dynamic, that sounds interesting.

  20. White American Culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture Says:

    [...] by Guest Contributor Restructure, originally published at Restructure! [...]

  21. ChineseCanuck Says:

    Well, beef with broccoli is more or less the westernized version of gai laan (Chinese/Asian mustard greens) and beef or choy sum and beef (which I LOVED growing up. My family also made it with spinach (which I also loved. I was a strange child, you know).) A lot of the so-called “Americanized” Chinese dishes are spin-offs (if you can call it that) of foods that are actually found in Chinese communities in Asia. Even the egg roll. Egg rolls are basically gigantic spring rolls (which, according to my mom, didn’t exist in dim sum restaurants when she was a kid. Spring rolls were street foods) with a thicker pastry.

  22. White American culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey. « expulsions of musings. Says:

    [...] (courtesy of Racialicious and Restructure) [...]

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Jennifer 8. Lee reveals her own ignorance with the comment about “Mexican” Chinese food being made to look like fajitas. The food pictured is clearly a shrimp based dish. Fajitas are a specific cut of beef (skirt steak in English) in Mexican cuisine. The idea that shrimp served over sizzling vegetables on a cast iron skillet constitutes fajitas in the mind of Jennifer 8. Lee reveals that she is as subject to cultural colloquialism as anyone else. Cultural ignorance is certainly not reserved for “White Americans” or even “Non-Chinese Americans” and Jennifer 8. Lee’s ironic “fajita” statement should be a sobering reminder of this fact.

  24. jordan Says:

    I have a question…which, I suspect reveals some serious racial biases on my part…but this article has made me curious about the usual almost 100% Asian staff at most Asian places. In some cases, it may be a family business, but only until really recently did I even have a glimmer of realization that such places might hire an Asian staff purely for the pleasure of white patrons. Does anyone have insights or knowledge of this aspect of the food service industry and/or non-Asian people’s perceptions of it?

  25. eliz. Says:

    “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (1961), which is arguably the only major Hollywood film with a predominantly Asian American cast as protagonists”

    Um, what about “The Joy Luck Club”? Agreed, it is disappointing that these are the only two Hollywood “hits” that come to mind with large Asian-American casts, but let’s not discount Wayne Wang’s film. I’m going to re-watch my DVD of “Saving Face” now… =)

    /I’ve never had chop suey.

  26. AnhuiMama Says:

    If it’s any consolation, I had beef and broc in Beijing. so maybe it’s not “authentic Chinese”, but it’s eaten in China now. Of course, so is McDonalds, Pizza HUt, KFC and Starbucks.

    Cultures are seeping into each other all over the world.

  27. andrea Says:

    What a great post. The same happens in Spain and other European countries. A funny thing I noticed related to how Asian food is adapted to the country’s tastes is that in Spain when people go to a Chinese restaurant they order several dishes to share and end up tasting a little bit of lots of different things, much like when they go out to tapas bar. However, when I lived in Germany I saw that they usually order one very big dish, in the same fashion as their own German dishes.

  28. “Chinese food” in the U.S. is not foreign, but foreignness is not “authenticity”. « Restructure! Says:

    [...] White American culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey. [...]

  29. dayes Says:

    ohmigawd! someone else calls it “white people food.” =) everyone around me always chastizes me for saying “white people food.”

    i saw Jennifer Lee’s TED talk too. it was pretty good, but when i brought up some points with my mom, she adamantly disagreed and said that Jennifer Lee was wrong. i dunno… China’s such a big country with a lot of culinary diversity. maybe Jennifer’s not right on all accounts, but it was a good talk nonetheless.

  30. Restructure! Says:

    I’ve eaten General Tao’s Chicken, because I wanted to know what it was, since white people kept raving about it. Back then, I didn’t know that it was white people food, and I thought it was another case of white people knowing more than me about Chinese culture. Anyway, that explains the strange look the waitress gave me when I ordered.

  31. links for 2009-01-14 « The Mustard Seed Says:

    [...] White American culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey. « Restructure! A fascinating and important post on American food, white culture, and racism. (tags: blog northamerica race) [...]

  32. joan Says:

    The link to the wiki on Chop Suey states ‘Chop suey is widely believed to have been invented in America by Chinese immigrants, but in fact it appears to originate in Taishan, a district of Guangdong Province which was the home of most of the early Chinese immigrants; the Hong Kong doctor Li Shu-fan reported that he knew it in Taishan in the 1890′s.’

  33. Restructure! Says:

    @joan: Is it possible to verify that with a non-Wikipedia source? I suspect that it might true, but I don’t want to override Lee’s research with information from Wikipedia, which may be corrupted. For example, it says that a Hong Kong doctor knew of it when he when he was in Taishan, but that’s just one person’s testimony and he’s not even from Taishan, and it would be more convincing if it was verified by people from Taishan and/or it was a direct quote from the doctor. Also, it probably wasn’t called “chop suey” because that is an English term, so it must be a translation/interpretation of the term.

    In any case, chop suey in the United States would not be representative of food in Taishan.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses, but I’ve done some editing on Wikipedia before, and the information in it is not always reliable.

  34. joan Says:

    heh, I was just noting that you linked your post to the chop suey wiki page, and it stated the opposite of what you posted.

    I have no clue what chop suey is otherwise (this, american version at the American Chinese restaurants). O_o

  35. Restructure! Says:

    @joan:

    That’s true. I guess what I should do is stop linking to Wikipedia if there are better alternatives.

  36. Zee Says:

    The line form that LFO song line is a reference to MSG, not a bad chinese dish.

  37. Zee Says:

    from*

  38. Restructure! Says:

    @Zee: I interpreted that LFO line very literally, that from his personal experiences, eating Chinese food literally made him sick. I assumed that it was because of unhealthy ingredients, not because of taste.

  39. Zee Says:

    It was a reference to the effects that MSG has on some people.

  40. Mindqila » Blog Archive » Red Hat Chifas Says:

    [...] Restructure! If McDonald’s is Microsoft, then Chinese food is [...]

  41. jake stephens Says:

    General Tso’s is NOT supposed to be sweet!!! Anyone who makes it with sweet and sour sauce is wrong!!

  42. Restructure! Says:

    I’ve eaten it only once, and I don’t remember how it tasted, except that I thought it was over-hyped. Wikipedia says that it’s mildly sweet.

  43. Eclectic Says:

    I found this post shocking. Mainly because I didn’t think anyone actually believed that “Chinese” food was actually the same thing as what people in China eat.

    Upon reflection however, I remember an occasion when I was in my early teens when I went to a popular Chinese restaurant with a Chinese friend and her Mom. She asked the server something in a language I do not speak and we were given an entirely different menu, written in a language I cannot read. I was informed by my friend that this was the real menu. This tipped me off that “Chinese” food was not Chinese.

    Funny how we forget these things.

  44. Restructure! Says:

    There was some guy I knew online only, and he bragged that he loved Chinese food, but gave the examples of chicken teriyaki, tempura, etc.

    He is normally very intelligent on other topics.

  45. Opposite Issue Says:

    I had the near opposite issue once. A caucasian friend of mine was shocked when I brought chopsticks to work because, afterall, there’s fake chinese food, fake chinese cookies, why not think that chopsticks were something that were made up too? The logic was solid. I found it hilarious.

  46. Restructure! Says:

    Awesome.

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