The term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was coined in the 1960s based on the belief that eating Chinese food seasoned with monosodium glutamate (MSG) would lead to illness. MSG has since been scientifically proven to be safe, but the misconception persists, and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is not the only example of Asian cuisine being associated with disease in the U.S. Photo by Owen Berg.

The cost of anti-Asian racism

Many Asian-owned businesses struggle with discrimination during COVID — and much of this hatred has to do with deep-seated stereotypes about how Asian people eat.

Owen Berg
Oxford Stories
Published in
9 min readMay 12, 2021

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By Owen Berg

Miami University journalism student

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, discrimination against Asian and Asian American people has significantly increased.

From March 2020 to March 2021, the non-profit Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate has received more than 6,600 self-reported discrimination incidents from Asian people across the United States. Since the shootings at three Atlanta spas on March 16th that left eight dead, including six Asian women, these incidents have received more widespread attention.

Of the incidents reported by Stop AAPI Hate, over 30% occurred at businesses.

Yvonne Low, a Malaysian immigrant, owns Tea ‘n’ Bowl, a Chinese restaurant in Clifton, Cincinnati. She says that over the past month her restaurant has been inundated with prank calls. These callers make take-out orders for food, often saying they plan on paying in cash when they arrive, but then never show up, meaning it all goes to waste.

In just one week, Low received four of these orders, ranging from $70 to $200 in cost. One of these calls happened on the evening of Friday, April 2nd.

“This person called in an order, and then she asked a lot of questions… and then we placed an order,” Low said. “Because when somebody shows you that much interest, it shouldn’t be a problem that I should flag.”

Yvonne Low’s post on Tea ’n’ Bowl’s Facebook page, detailing the prank calls made to her restaurant.

When the caller didn’t show after 40 minutes, Low gave a courtesy call to the number they gave her. She was led to someone who said they didn’t place an order, and that Low had the wrong number. When Low checked the phone’s caller ID, she found a different number, but that led her to a different person who also said they never placed an order. Low grew anxious, because at this point in the week she had already received two similar prank calls.

“It got me nervous in a way, because that week we’d already had the orders going like that,” Low said.

After Low called the number back multiple times, someone picked up but insisted they hadn’t ordered. Low said the caller became angry with her, and began to say expletives and racist insults.

“It’s the way you treat me, and you show that it’s okay for the children. I don’t want them to think it’s okay.” — Yvonne Low, Owner of Tea n’ Bowl, Cincinnati, OH.

“She said, ‘How many times do I need to tell you, I live in Kentucky, we don’t eat your kind of food…we don’t even eat dogs here’,” Low said. “I was, like, quite offended because I do not eat dogs. I have my own dogs, too.”

Low debated staying silent about the incident, but decided to post about it on her Facebook page, where she interacts with other restaurant owners, to warn them about this sort of prank call and to express her pain and disappointment. She was especially upset about this most recent incident because she could hear that the caller had children with her.

“The lady was talking and cursing me and using the F word, and I heard children in the back laughing,” Low said. “It’s the way you treat me, and you show that it’s okay for the children. I don’t want them to think it’s okay.”

Yvonne Low of Cincinnati’s Tea ‘n’ Bowl, Yvonne Lin of Oxford’s Phan Shin, and Joey Yang of Oxford’s Asian Market, Poplar Asian Cuisine, and Happy Kitchen talk about how their businesses have fared during COVID.

These calls are not the only instances of Low’s business being targeted with vitriol. She also recalled a man repeatedly kicking down a sign outside of her business, and attempting to spit on customers when they were trying to leave the building.

“It’s already hard enough because we are in the college area and the college is not fully in-person yet,” Low said. “I was just not understanding.”

These comments, especially those about “eating dogs” are rooted in an American skepticism and disgust with Asian (specifically Chinese) food, which has fueled racism throughout history.

Anti-Asian Racism Fueled by Food

When Chinese immigrants first arrived in the U.S. in the 1840s, their food was often seen as dirty, foul, and often associated with disease.

According to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, early western missionaries in China would often write that they thought Chinese people ate “strange and dangerous” animals, with many trying to insinuate that Chinese people’s eating habits were dangerous and could lead to new diseases. In the 1910s, a health department report covering bubonic plague cases in San Francisco referred to the disease as “typically oriental,” specifically pointing out that dead rats had recently been found in multiple Chinese restaurants.

This association with Chinese cuisine and disease grew during the 20th century. The concept of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” — the belief that Chinese food would cause illness and fatigue due to the use of the additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) — became a reason for many to avoid Chinese restaurants.

The entrance to Portland, Oregon’s, Chinatown, the second oldest Chinatown in the U.S. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

MSG is frequently used as an umami flavor enhancer in Asian food, and is a staple on the shelves of many Asian grocery stores. Glutamate, the ionic form of glutamic acid, is the basic element of MSG and can be found in most living things. It naturally occurs in many foods, such as tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and even breastmilk.

Numerous scientific studies have debunked the myth that MSG causes illness. But as Americans became more conscious of chemical food additives in the 1950s, MSG became suddenly demonized, and its common use in Asian cuisine gave a xenophobic edge to its stigma.

Culinary xenophobia against Chinese people has most recently shown up in discourse surrounding the origin of COVID-19. Much of the discussion over the coronavirus’s initial detection in China revolved around American misconceptions and stereotypes about how Chinese people eat.

Source: Google Trends data. Infographic by Owen Berg.

In the early days of the pandemic, videos of Asian people eating animals such as bats and mice (many of which did not take place in China, and were filmed years before the detection of COVID-19) circulated online as support for the argument that China’s culinary culture was to blame for the pandemic, a stance supported by many online commenters and even some politicians.

Source: Google Trends data. Infographic by Owen Berg.

Even though early reports traced the virus back to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, the exact source of the virus remains undetermined. The CDC reports that the virus likely originated in bats, but that does not necessarily mean those bats were eaten, nor does it mean that diseased livestock were being sold in the Wuhan market.

More recent studies have shown that no animal samples at the market proved to be contaminated, suggesting that human-to-human contact was the likely culprit for the initial virus cases traced back to the market. Thirteen of the first 41 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Wuhan had no contact with the market.

Source: Business Insider, distancecalculator.net. Infographic by Owen Berg.
Source: @peta on Twitter. Infographic by Owen Berg.

Despite this data, the connection between Chinese food and COVID-19 has persisted, affecting communities of Asian and Asian American people in the U.S., regardless of whether or not they are Chinese. This racism often creates an additional set of struggles for many Asian business owners like Low to deal with as they also try to cope with the economic challenges that the pandemic threw at them.

COVID’s Impact in Oxford

In Oxford, some Asian business owners say they have not faced much racial discrimination from the surrounding community; however, they are still feeling many of the pandemic’s effects. It’s been over a year since lockdown restrictions forced many restaurants to close and limit their services for extended periods of time.

The COVID pandemic has also affected sales in Asian owned businesses in another way.

Joey Yang, the owner/founder of Asia Market, says the pandemic has made it harder to stay in business. Many of Yang’s customers are international students, a number of whom have not been in Oxford since classes were moved online. Photo by Owen Berg.

Joey Yang, owner of Chinese restaurants Happy Kitchen and Poplar Asian Cuisine, and Asian grocery store Asia Market, says the pandemic has been particularly difficult due to a decrease in the amount of international Miami University students in town.

“One of the main challenges was the campus was shut off,” said Yang. “[Miami] started to provide the online courses, and the students went back home and studied online.”

Since Miami provided the option to take classes remotely, many international students began taking classes from their home countries. As of the Fall 2020 semester, around 45% of international students were taking classes fully online.

“This is the time of year when I usually get a lot more business, but this is not the year you think about profit.” — Yvonne Lin, Owner of Phan Shin, Oxford, OH.

Almost 80% of Miami’s 2,083 international students are from China, and many more are from other Asian countries such as Vietnam, South Korea and India. Yang says a significant amount of his customers were students from these countries, and not having them in town has impacted his business.

Asia Market is located across the street from Oxford’s Kroger, and offers many international groceries and snacks that cannot be found at larger American stores. Photo by Owen Berg.

“Mostly Chinese students [shop at Asia Market] because we are an Asian market,” Yang said. “[While some] students are still living on campus, that’s not enough for supporting the business, so the business has been very slow in recent months.”

Yvonne Lin is the owner of Phan Shin, Oxford’s oldest Chinese restaurant. She says, although half of her customers are students, Phan Shin has survived through the pandemic due to the restaurant’s long history in the Oxford community.

“I’m very lucky that I have a lot of support from townies,” Lin said. “A majority of my customers are very understanding.”

Founded in 1985 in Oxford’s uptown district, Phan Shin is Oxford’s oldest Chinese restaurant. Owner Yvonne Lin credits the restaurant’s long-term support from locals for its success through the pandemic. Photo by Owen Berg.

Despite financial pressure to reopen the dining room, Phan Shin has been doing mostly takeout and delivery since reopening in June, although it has offered some outdoor dining tables in recent months. Due to the older average age among Oxford locals, Lin says she thinks it’s best to play it safe, rather than reopen.

“A lot of my regulars are older,” Lin said. “Some don’t care, but I don’t want to be the one to give it to you.”

As Miami’s graduation approaches, Lin feels pressure to reopen her dining room due to the high volume of visitors that will be in Oxford, but is still hesitant. Right now, she plans on opening her indoor dining room in June, when less students are in town and her entire staff will be fully vaccinated.

Before becoming Phan Shin’s owner in 2008, Lin worked at her in-laws’ Chinese restaurant in London, Kentucky. “There were literally only three Chinese restaurants down there, and that’s probably the only three Chinese families in the neighborhood,” she said. Photo by Owen Berg.

“This is the time of year when I usually get a lot more business, but this is not the year you think about profit,” Lin said.

Despite the struggles brought on by the pandemic, as well as some increased discrimination, these businesses credit their respective communities for helping keep them afloat.

After posting about the incident at Tea n’ Bowl, Low says she received overwhelming support from the Clifton community.

“Some people are inconsiderate, but a lot of them are actually very supportive,” Low said. “They even send me cards and flowers and chocolates.”

Low says the community support has made dealing with the pandemic much easier.

“With all the customers coming out and supporting us, you know, that really means a lot,” Low said. “I hope that in a time that’s already hard, people are nicer to each other.”

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