“Chinese food” in the U.S. is not foreign, but foreignness is not “authenticity”.

My post White American culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey has been linked to from various websites. Below I address a common criticism of the post, and I also link to two interesting analyses about the topic.

It’s not about “authenticity” or “appropriation”.

One common misconception was that I was complaining about cultural appropriation, and complaining that Chinese American food was “inauthentic”. This is not true. I posted this comment on Racialicious, but the comment thread is long, so I will repost my comment here for better visibility:

I am not against food appropriation or food “hybridity” (whatever that means). The concept of “authenticity” is flawed, because it assumes that certain cultures remain static and frozen in time, instead of being dynamic and fluid.

Tomatoes were not originally native to Italy; they were first imported from the Americas. Chili peppers were not originally native to India; they were first imported from the Americas. Potatoes were not originally native to Ireland; they were first imported from the Americas.

What I have a problem with is what I outlined in the post. The presumption that I am a food purist and cultural purist (whatever that means) probably comes from the stereotype that people who have beef with misconceptions of food origins are really complaining about “authenticity”. Maybe other people do that, but if you CTRL+F for “authenticity” and “appropriation”, you will find them absent from the actual post.

This topic is also discussed in the inauthenticy of experience (and the food of the diaspora) and What on earth is General Tso’s chicken?

Many white people lament their own perceived lack of culture.

wicked anomie: sociology run amok has a post that articulates well what I evidently did not. In Is “Chinese” the Quintessential American Food?, Anomie writes:

What a lot of those outcomes Restructure!’s list demonstrates is White solipsism, the tendency for many White people to lament their own perceived lack of race or culture. Any time you hear someone refer to a clothing style or food genre as “ethnic,” what they really mean is “non-White.” By using “ethnic” to describe non-White cultural products, we are stating an implicit assumption that the dominant White culture is NOT ethnic; that White Americans have no unifying ethnicity, race, or culture. Another way you can see evidence of this is in people who complain about their Whiteness as “boring” and “plain.” You know, not like those “exotic” others.

In reality, we don’t see our own culture because, as the majority, White culture is so pervasive. And sure, there’s variation by social class, region, etc. But there’s also variation in Chinese culture, and even in Chinese-American culture, yet we refer to things like “Chinese food” and “Chinese culture.” It’s easier to homogenize and otherize groups to which we do not belong. Even now, I’m using the term “we” when in many of those instances, I mean other people like me – White, non-immigrant Americans. Even though there is quite likely people in my audience who don’t fit this description.

“Chinese” American food is affected by the perpetual foreigner syndrome.

At debunkingwhite, sanguinity has some interesting commentary on how the perception that Chinese people are perpetually foreign influences the perception of Chinese American food. In How “Foreign” to the U.S. is Chinese-American Food?, sanguinity writes:

I’m doing some reading about Chinese-exclusion-era U.S. history, and one of the major themes (which persists still today) is the white perception that Chinese immigrants to the U.S. were inherently, perpetually “foreign” and would never assimilate into American culture, a perception that was perceived to justify white racism against Chinese immigrants. The assumption that assimilation is the worthy and obvious obligation of all immigrants is itself messed up, but there’s also a perniciously self-fulfilling prophecy in that expectation of perpetual foreignness. From this video, it’s clear that while Chinese-American food is a example of Chinese-Americans intensively interacting with white Americans to create an inherently American standard menu, that menu is still labeled as “foreign” by white American culture. Since that menu was devised by “foreigners who will never assimilate” (the so-called “logic” runs), it is labeled as “foreign” forever after, even though it’s not actually foreign.

Perpetual “foreignness” is a racialized phenomenon. American foods that are traceable to European immigrant groups — like beer, for example — are not perceived as “foreign.” Instead, those foods are commonly understood to be Americanized offshoots that have become uniquely different from their European counterparts: what American beer-drinker out there believes that contemporary Germans would recognize Budweiser as having much of anything to do with German beer, despite the American beer industry being conspicuously German in origin (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Pabst, Schlitz)?

(Aside: and that is one of the reasons Irish ancestry in the U.S. isn’t the equivalent of racialized ancestries: white immigrants and their descendants can lose the label of “foreign” in a way that racialized immigrants and their descendants can’t. Irish-Americans in the U.S. don’t get habitually asked where they are “from”; Asian-Americans do. The first-generation Ukrainian immigrants living in my neighborhood are perceived as exotically and suspiciously foreign right now, yes, but their children and grandchildren won’t be, and those children and grandchildren won’t ever be told to “go back where you came from.”)

(Emphasis mine.)

Honestly, I was (unconsciously) bothered about this relationship between the perpetual foreigner syndrome and “Chinese” American food when I wrote the post, but this point did not materialize in my post, and sanguinity articulated explicitly what I was thinking at the back of my head. “Chinese” American food being perceived as “Chinese” is not because Chinese culture is more resilient than European culture, but because the food is racialized, and racialized as perpetually foreign.

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5 Responses to ““Chinese food” in the U.S. is not foreign, but foreignness is not “authenticity”.”

  1. jwbe Says:

    because it is related I post it here

    Tuscan city criticized for banning foreign eateries

    ROME (Reuters) – The Italian city of Lucca faced accusations of “culinary racism” on Tuesday after it banned new foreign eateries from opening in its historic center. The city council recently voted to deny new licenses to any bar or restaurant whose style of cooking was non-Italian within the Renaissance-era walls encircling the city center.

    Tuscany’s center-left regional government criticized the ban as discriminatory and warned against measures “introducing hidden forms of ‘gastronomic or culinary’ racism.”

    “The defense of quality is one thing, discrimination is another,” Paolo Cocchi, the regional councilor for commerce, said on the region’s website.

    A spokesman for Lucca’s town hall defended the new rules, saying they were meant to safeguard the city’s traditional and cultural identity and that it also applied to sex shops, fast food restaurants and take-away pizza parlors.

    “The ban targets McDonald’s as much as kebab restaurants,” he said.

    The town council is also urging foreign restaurants to include on their menus at least one course typical of Lucca, prepared exclusively with local ingredients.

    “It’s an invitation, not an order,” the town hall spokesman said.

    Italy, which prides itself on its rich culinary tradition, has fewer foreign restaurants than other European countries. But their number has risen in recent years as increasing immigration has brought new culinary influences.

    Lucca’s spokesman said the four kebab shops already in the city center would be allowed to continue operating as normal.

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  5. Janis Tsai Says:

    That is so true. I am tired of everybody asking me where I’m from and being dissappointed when I say, “Michigan.” Because then they say…”No, I mean where are you FROM.” Their special emphasis on “from” makes me frustrated because I know white/black Americans will never see me for my personality, but for the Chinese stereotypes MTV or Disney Channel decides to air that week.

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