From Chop Suey to “No MSG”: How Assimilation Efforts by Chinese Restaurants are Futile in Escaping the Perpetual Foreigner Narrative
Chinese restaurants are seen as a staple of the American diet. From chop suey, crab rangoons, to pork fried rice, Chinese takeout has long offered Americans a feeling of comfort from inside a styrofoam box. Chinese restaurants and food have managed to transcend the boundaries of geography and class and provide a quick, cheap and tasty meal to the masses. A plastic bag full of steaming rice and chicken has been America’s gateway to the exotic, a foreign cuisine accessible in a local strip mall. However, for Chinese and Chinese Americans, this sole opportunity at representation in America isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of Chinese cuisine and culture. Cheap and greasy food made in a stingy and inharmonious restaurant environment is far from an accurate depiction of the lives of real Chinese and Chinese American people. Nevertheless, this food and restaurant environment is the product of culture and economic assimilation that immigrants use to survive in a diaspora. Unfortunately, these attempts to adjust to palates and cultural expectations set on Chinese people in America are futile in the fight for true acceptance. As Chinese people and food have long been racialized as suspicious, there is a big difference between eating Chinese food and accepting Chinese as people. Though Chinese restaurants have made great attempts at assimilating and joining American food culture, the racialization of MSG and the continued lack of humanity given to Chinese restaurant workers show that Chinese people continue to exist within the alien and perpetual foreigner narrative.
Chop suey has long been the most obvious and frequently mentioned effort by Chinese restaurants to adapt flavors and ingredients to appease the American palette. Translating into “miscellaneous fragments” or “broken-up odds and ends” chop suey was initially created to meet Americans’ need for a savory yet exotic meal. As noted by the translation, this is far from a meticulously crafted authentic Chinese dish. However, this was one of the few opportunities for Chinese culture to meet white Americans’ need to indulge themselves in a foreignness. By creating a meal that met the “different degrees of apprehensive curiosity of many or most white people” Chinese restaurants managed to escape quips on dog and cat meat (Mendelson, 2016) being secretly substituted under layers of sweet and sour sauce. Eventually, Americans were comfortable adding chop suey to their list of acceptable and roughly familiar meals. Nevertheless, these efforts to increase palatability only pandered to a false sense of racial tolerance.
While the accessibility of ethnic food provided a gateway to unfamiliar cultures, by no means did it result in the acceptance of unfamiliar people. Such efforts in lowering the level of authenticity by changing ingredients and cooking techniques only neutralized important cultural differences, thereby “mask[ing] the unsavory and messy aspects of culture to present a safe, palatable version of ‘Others’” (Padoongpatt, 2017). In essence, Americans were only expected to accept ethnic diversity when pre-packaged in unthreatening and self-validating form. While this is a noble cause and effort, it works only to satisfy white Americans’ shallow desire to be seen as racially tolerant. In reality, actions to accommodate and please white Americans do not leave space to express and partake in authentic culture in the present. Instead, Chinese and Chinese Americans are forced to put on a show and present only a shell of their true culture and reality.
The false reality of racial tolerance by white Americans is easily exemplified in the racialization of MSG in food. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a food additive that is nearly universally identified as a component in takeout Chinese food. The food additive continues to carry the disproven myth of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” or the everchanging myriad of supposed side effects that result from the consumption of MSG. At one point, the New England Journal of Medicine even validated these findings, providing legitimacy to the notion that MSG in Chinese food was insidious. However, MSG was in a variety of other food products but never seemed to produce the side effects it did when it was a component of Chinese food. It was later determined that all instances of MSG being the source of such side effects were entirely fabricated. As one writer asked, if MSG was such a problem “why don’t all Chinese people have headaches?” It was easy for Americans to vilify unfamiliar, especially given the U.S.’s long history of viewing the “exotic” cuisine of Asia as dangerous or dirty (Ku, 2014). The exoticization and mistrust of Chinese people and food allowed for the racialization of MSG, in that it only presented a danger when in Chinese food. Americans were so willing to accept this negative perception of another culture’s food, so the racialized distrust of MSG was able to stir so much public fear. The disturbing and underlying racism that blamed Chinese food, and by proxy Chinese people, shows that even with food, assimilation is far from an easy goal.
While efforts to be accepted by white Americans through food have lacked authentic success, the lack of racial tolerance has a far worse implication with the dehumanization of Chinese restaurants workers. As Chinese immigrants saw restaurant work as a pathway for economic mobility, they were soon exploited as a source of cheap labor to put Chinese food on customers’ tables. Waiters and cooks worked in grueling conditions of intensely hot stoves or understaffed dining rooms, often seven days a week. No one paid attention to the restaurant workers’ needs, as they operated invisibly. The dehumanization of restaurant workers is particularly noticeable in their disposable nature and lack of identity.
Their purpose is simply to feed Americans: frying, delivering, waiting tables, stirring, bussing, chopping. They may be fathers, daughters, cousins, uncles, brothers. But when in front of most Americans, they simply become an anonymous, all-purpose Chinese restaurant worker. (Lee, 2008)
Restaurant workers are treated like farm animals or machines and existed only to meet the needed of hungry Americans. They faced poor conditions and low pay, but American labor unions refused to come to their aid. Instead, AFL founder Samuel Gompers labeled Chinese immigrants as parasites and claimed that to defend white males the “Chinese Must Go!” (Lee, 2008). From this sentiment, Chinese people are dehumanized to the point of being seen as insidious insects. This attitude becomes apparent again when Lee lists the five New York City Chinese deliverymen that were killed between 1998 and 2003. Each terrifying example details how perpetrators, often young teens, murder Chinese deliverymen for some free food and the modest amount of cash they carry. In these examples, we see how the bodies of Chinese people, are again deprived of humanity, as their lives are seen as disposable. Dead or alive, Chinese restaurant workers are often many white Americans only representative of an unfamiliar culture, but reduced to an obstacle to fried rice and tip money.
As efforts towards multiculturalism and racial tolerance have grown over the years, questions remain as to the authenticity of representations of culture, as well as the motivations behind these efforts. Chinese Americans have long attempted to assimilate by modifying their culture to accommodate the level of tolerance Americans have for the unfamiliar. While such efforts by Chinese and Chinese Americans are well-meaning, white Americans’ racialization of MSG and dehumanization of Chinese restaurant workers show that true assimilation has yet to be realized.
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Ku, R. J.-S. (2014). Dubious gastronomy: The cultural politics of eating Asian in the USA. University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Lee, J. 8. (2008). The fortune cookie chronicles: Adventures in the world of Chinese food (1st ed). Twelve.
Mendelson, A. (2016). Chow chop suey: Food and the Chinese American journey. Columbia University Press.
Padoongpatt, M. (2017). Flavors of empire: Food and the making of Thai America. University of California Press.