Thanksgiving, the pinnacle of any American holiday, is when my family gathers not to eat a whole oven-roasted turkey with cranberry sauce or mashed potatoes with rich gravy, but rather to feast upon a ten course “Chinese Thanksgiving” meal. This includes a juicy roast duck with its head still on instead of turkey, a steaming pile of freshly-made rice infused with coconut milk in place of mashed potatoes, a bok-choy and garlic sauté because my family never had a taste for creamed spinach, fried rice made with honey baked ham, and of course to end it all, pumpkin pie with vanilla ice cream, along with other exotic ice cream flavors like durian or taro. My sister and I always joked that we never got to experience a real “American Thanksgiving Dinner” like the rest of the kids at our elementary school who would chatter about savory stuffing and buttery bread rolls when our teacher asked what we had for Thanksgiving the next day. I honestly did not even know what cornbread was until I stumbled upon a Rachel Ray cooking show. I mean, why would you put corn in bread? However, I now consider my hybridized Thanksgiving experience as a part of my ethnic identity.
I am first and foremost a second-generation Chinese college student living and breathing in an American culture. I grew up in an Asian household, embracing the pungent smell of garlic that my grandma fried every evening, but was also exposed to the American lifestyle, taking in the scents of the local greasy burger joint a mile away from my house. My life in all aspects has culminated to the push and pull of American and Chinese cultures, but the cuisine I have eaten in my life has been the largest qualifier of my ethnic identity. Furthermore, growing up, I was surrounded by an emerging group of other second generation Chinese Americans constantly learning to integrate into American culture, and this made me question their effect on society, and more specifically, effect on cuisine. Impelled by my own personal experience, I believe Chinese assimilation into American culture has spurred a new societal group of Chinese Americans to emerge, who straddle between being purely Chinese and inherently American, provoking the Americanization of Chinese cuisine.
Firstly, Chinese immigrants have assimilated into American society, and the product of this conformity is Chinese Americans, embodying the blending cultures. In essence, assimilation is the changing of a culture to resemble another culture (O’flannery). However, the changing culture still “retain[s] distinct structural characteristics differing from other sectors of the society,” and keeps some aspects of its inherent culture, as long as it does “not put too great a burden upon the institutional framework,” of the dominant culture (O’flannery 198). For people immigrating to America, assimilation was necessary to simply survive. This concept was an integral part of the melting pot theory, a popular concept in the 1800s when a large influx of immigrants moved to the United States (McDonald 1). The theory demanded immigrants from other countries to “melt” into American culture, giving up aspects of their own culture in order to be accepted (McDonald 1). More pertinently, American society simply “did not allow for such separation. One was either automatically assimilated or was immediately ostracized,” (McDonald 3). Thus, Chinese immigrants assimilated into US culture in order to be accepted.
More specifically, Chinese Americans were pressured to assimilate because of the racial tension present during the earliest periods of immigration. The prejudice that dictated the US mindset was manifested in immigration laws enacted during the 1800s. However, before immigration laws were even enforced, Chinese Americans faced discrimination during the Gold Rush as they predominantly worked as laborers, and locals believed they were taking away their rightful jobs (Angel Island). Acts of discrimination were also ingrained in society as workers went out of their way to humiliate Chinese immigrants. For example, US immigration officials stripped immigrants in public, claiming it was necessary to medically examine them on the docks they arrived in (Angel Island). They were additionally tediously and aggressively interrogated about their background to try to find a discrepancy between their interview answers and their papers as an excuse to send them back to China. Because it was extremely difficult to pass these cross-examinations, Chinese forged certificates to increase their chances of earning entrance in the United States, and these people became known as “paper sons” (Angel Island).
Although early immigration laws excluded certain classified groups based on their race, gender, and age, the Chinese Exclusion Act specifically focused on discriminating against Chinese prostitutes and laborers (Angel Island). Ultimately, discrimination against Chinese immigrants has been prevalent since they arrived to the United States, and thus, this racist mindset has lingered into the present (Ying). This past history of discrimination has influenced current Chinese American perceptions of themselves and their reflections of their identity.
Moreover, Chinese immigrants’ discrimination affected their coherence, or the understanding of their identity. These immigrants lost a base comprehension of themselves because they moved away from their homeland and locals’ meanwhile constantly affirmed that they did not belong in their new residence (Ying). Hence, they were in a middle ground that teetered between being Chinese and American, not fitting into either social category and not being able to ground their role in society. Further, Chinese Americans were even more afflicted by discrimination than new immigrants “because they believe they are a part of the American culture, they are more hurt that it is denying them,” (Ying 430). Their mindset that they are essentially American and the harsh discrimination they face highlights their incompatibility with American society and thus, impels them to become more “American”, as the bigotry reminds them that they are not “American” enough. Because Chinese Americans were treated unjustly and yearned to belong in American culture, they molded to American society, focusing on being more American and downplaying their Chinese background.
Furthermore, Asian Americans are "arguably the fastest growing segment of their age cohort,” (Chen). Although Hispanics were previously the leading immigrating ethnic group, in the past two years “net immigration by Asians topped that of Hispanics,” (Overberg). Likewise, the Census Bureau revealed “total Asian-American population in the U.S. at 19.4 million, reflecting a growth rate of 2.9% between 2012 and 2013.That's faster than Hispanics (2.1%), African Americans (1.2%) and Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders (2.3%),” (NBC News). Moreover, the term “Chinese American” emerged, defined as foreign or native born Chinese that have relatives in their native country, illustrating their dominance in society, as a term needed to be created to define the significant group (Lee).
Additionally, Asian American children often intuitively take over the culture they mature in and do not “inherit the cultural complexes of their parents,” (Chen). They do not completely follow their parents’ cultural background and are incredibly American, not reverting back to their roots until later on in life when they come to a realization that they are disconnected from their Asian identity (Chen). Often, they are caught between two cultures and must negotiate between the culture of their familial background and the culture they grew up in (Chen). Furthermore, Asian Americans are composed of a distinctive group, creating their own culture and ethnic identity (Lee). Although first generation Asians are “more likely to identify with their national origins… for the second generations, ethnicities based on national origins will recede under the pressure of assimilation,” (Lee). However, assimilation does not ultimately correlate with a dilution of culture, and instead, creates a “heightened sense of nonwhiteness or a pan- minority identity,” (Lee). Ultimately, Chinese Americans are paving their way in society and creating their own culture, diverging from their original Chinese background and leaning towards a more American identity.
Like how Chinese Americans assimilated into American society, external pressures from surrounding communities caused the Americanization of Chinese cuisine. Firstly, Americanizing refers to “acquiring or conforming to American characteristics,” (Merriam-Webster). The of the first tangible examples of this wave of Americanization was demonstrated in Chinese restaurants’ responses to the circumstances after the 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco. Chinese Americans wanted to attract non-Chinese customers and tourists to build a solid reputation as well as attract regular customers in Chinatown to increase their profit (Jayasanker). Both the overall racism towards Chinese and their desire to sell to more non-Chinese consumers propelled restaurateurs to make food more preferable for their target customers, thus altering their food to match Americans’ tastes (Jayasanker). Additionally, during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, “Chop Suey” shops emerged, where Chinese restaurants served stable American dishes as well as Chinese dishes (Peters). These restaurants rose in number because Chinese immigrants hoped to combat white aggression and discrimination by serving them food, giving them a reason to not discriminate against them because they now had a role in society (Peters).
On an individual level, food conformity is promoted by food shame. Food shame involves one group’s unfamiliarity of another group’s food due to varying cultures, propelling the humiliation of the differing cuisine (Dusselier). Dusselier explains food shame in Chinese American children’s lives, referring to the embarrassment they have when they bring “strange” ethnic food to their American school for lunch. I personally faced food shame as a child when I brought chicken feet, a Chinese delicacy, and my Caucasian friends questioned and berated me about how I could eat chicken talons. I was humiliated by my lunches and slowly asked my parents to make me PB and J sandwiches, meals like my other peers ate, because I was too ashamed to face their judgmental stares. In a broader context, a desire to depart from authentic cuisine into a more acceptable, palatable form of food promotes the modification of food to meet Americans’ expectations.
The immense distance away from China also contributed to the Americanization of food. Chinese were unable to cook authentic dishes because of the lack of fresh ingredients, or ingredients in general, at all. Supermarkets could not supply all the fresh and wide varieties of vegetables readily available in China. This prompted for a more streamlined approach to cooking, such as consistently incorporating American vegetables like broccoli and lettuce into Chinese dishes, rather than the vegetables the recipe called for (Jayasanker). Restaurants also had little incentive to serve authentic Chinese vegetables because they were more expensive and were more likely to discourage customer acceptance of the food (Lu). Likewise, although there were many distinct regional dishes in Chinese culture, the lack of diverse ingredients made it impossible to create these dishes, and chefs instead combined all these flavors, making the dishes less authentic (Jayasanker). Thus, the inherent essence and foundation of the dishes, the ingredients, were hybridized, and were adjusted to conform to the encompassing American environment.
It was also essential for Chinese restaurateurs to financially support themselves, needing a solid base of returning customers in order to make profit. This meant that they had to serve the local clientele; however, they would need to adjust their food to suit the surrounding community. Chinese restaurants were also forced to compete with other restaurants; thus, they had to appeal to customers to sell. They could not wait for customers to change their own tastes and to accept Chinese culture, and instead, altered their own food to match the community’s tastes (Lu). For example, David Leong, the first Chinese restaurateur in Springfield, Missouri, first faced racist protestors when he cooked authentic Chinese food but then, “removed the bones from chicken, deep-fried it, and covered it in a brown gravy sauce. Cashew Chicken was born. The dish “took off like wildfire,” says Leong, despite there being virtually no Chinese people in the area,” (Stern).
Indubitably one of the most synonymous dishes of Chinese American cuisine and one that is a clear bastardization of authentic Chinese cuisine, is General Tso’s chicken. Chef Peng Chang-kuei, a gifted chef who fled Mao’s China for the Nationalist Government in Taiwan, created this dish for the Nationalist Government army and officials (Stern). The creation of this dish arose when “Chiang Kai-shek asked Peng to prepare a dinner for him. Peng tried to make something unique, incorporating the sour and hot combo from his Hunan province, and decided to name the dish after General Tso, the famous Hunanese general who never lost a battle,” (Stern). However, despite the authenticity of this dish, “over the years, the dish has acclimated to American taste buds, and become sweeter. Accents, like broccoli and scallions, have been added as well,” (Stern). Chef Peng admited his despondency towards the homogeneity of the dish, “This doesn’t resemble General Tso’s Chicken… It’s the name but it’s not the dish. The real General Tso’s Chicken, this old man created it,’ he says, pointing to himself and smiling,” (Stern).
Lastly, competition from successful fast food restaurants made it difficult for Chinese restaurants to produce authentic food. Like the McDonalds and Burger King chains that focused on efficiency and mass production, “The key to getting the [Chinese] restaurants to succeed was taking out the distinctiveness…mechanizing and standardizing the process,” (Jayasanker 311). The fast food industry’s popularity in the United States motivated Chinese to create Chinese fast food as well, and thus, Chinese fast food places began to open, further drawing out genuine characteristics of Chinese cuisine (Jayasanker). For instance, restaurants cut vegetables at a main location then distributed these pre-cut vegetables to other chains to improve efficiency (Jaysanker).
Because of these influential pressures from the outside community, the development of two types of Chinese restaurants, consumer-oriented and connoisseur-oriented, gained significance in American society. Consumer- oriented restaurants were essentially Chinese fast food joints, where food was efficient, cheap, and informal and was made very quickly through streamlined processes to ensure efficiency (Lu). Connoisseur- oriented restaurants, on the other hand, were more sophisticated and featured more complex Chinese dishes (Lu). Although these were two different types of restaurants, they both essentially molded to Americans’ tastes. Chinese fast food places simplified their cooking methods in order to compete with fast food corporations, while fancier restaurants adapted their dishes to be more American tasting. For example, one of the most popular Chinese chains in the United States, PF Chang’s, was started by Andrew Cherng (Jaysanker). Cherng’s father was a renounced chef in China and attempted to bring authentic Chinese cuisine to America, but received many criticisms from the community and had to adapt to Americans’ tastes (Jayasanker). For instance, his original orange chicken recipe was criticized, but then changed the recipe to include more sugar, which pleased American consumers, and because of this, kept the altered recipe as it proved to be more suitable to Americans, although not authentic (Jayasanker).
Yet, how is the Americanization of Chinese cuisine related to the assimilation of Chinese Americans? Food is an extremely significant aspect of any culture, and the development of Chinese Americans’ new culture parallels the Americanization of Chinese food. Studying this emerging cuisine is essentially deeply focusing on the Chinese community and how they are affected by their external American influences. American pressures are piercing into pure Asian cultural essence, forcing them to mold into American culture and is creating a new food culture in the process. Likewise, the emergence of this new food culture demonstrates that the assimilation of Chinese Americans does not include sacrificing either of these cultures and is instead the assertion of a new culture. Americanized Chinese cuisine is neither authentic Chinese nor American food, and is its own separate entity, like Chinese Americans. The Americanization of Chinese cuisine ultimately reflects the new culture developing for Chinese Americans. The food produced by Chinese Americans is merely a microcosm for the changing Chinese Americans themselves. These rapid advances in the Americanization of Chinese food are indicative of the emerging Chinese American population.
Essentially, food is a medium to remember past history. Food is an often overlooked, but nonetheless considerable, aspect of history, which “embodied memories constructed through food,” (Holtzman 364). Because cuisine tracks historical changes in this manner, it is a “socially charged marker of epochal shifts,” (Holtzman 364). Thus, Holtzman prompts that food is a historical attribute to the present and is a marker to the distant past. More importantly, “Cuisines reveal and shape social relations and connect the past with present concerns and future possibilities,” (Dusselier 334). Furthermore, food is connected to personal identity, and is about understanding oneself and connecting those understandings to the overarching community (Dusselier). For Chinese Americans, food is a medium in which they can express their identity, especially in Chinese food that is suited for American palates as well. These middle-ground foods, which dig deep into Chinese culture, but are widely accepted by American tastes, help Asian Americans connect their background to the present (Dusselier). These foods are originally meant to adhere to its authentic recipe, yet Americans’ reject these foods, forcing the homogeneity towards a more Americanized cuisine. Thus, Americanized ethnic cuisine simultaneously verges on cultural authenticity as well as cultural expectations, illustrating Asian Americans’ struggle to keep their cultural identity while also assimilating into American culture.
My life has always been a collision of cultures: in one hand, a fork, and the other, a pair of chopsticks. And this is the way I satisfy my hunger for the understanding of myself, not identifying completely with my Chinese background, but not classifying myself as an American either. I did not understand the gravity of the food I ate, the infusion of American and Chinese cuisine, until I looked deeply at the understanding of myself, and it was then I comprehended what it meant to bring rice and chicken nuggets to school and to ultimately, be Chinese American. My upbringing has helped me grasp onto my Chinese roots, but my community has prompted me to be more American. However, I know that I am neither of those cultures, and I am creating my own culture with other Chinese Americans, understanding we are emerging as a new entity, and we are a force to be reckoned with. My Chinese background is not deteriorating, yet my American identity is not overpowering either. I understand myself as a Chinese American, being a part of an empowered, resolute group that is significantly paving their way in society. Being Chinese American means being Chinese and American, but not one in spite of another; it means being both and combining aspects of these cultures to create a new culture. If the common saying, “you are what you eat” is true, then I am Peking duck with a side of creamy mashed potatoes.
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