Foreign Perspective: That’s Not Chinese Food, It’s American

If you’ve ever studied abroad, then you know what it’s like to be submerged in an entirely foreign culture. But have you ever wondered what it’s like on the flip side of the experience – what it’s like for someone going abroad to America? Join columnists Amy Chilcott, of Australia, and Kasumi Hirokawa, of China, as they encounter all things American and Penn State – and tell it as they see it the way only one with a foreign perspective can.

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This past summer when I was interning in Shanghai, China, my colleagues told me the first-ever Chinese-American food restaurant was to be open in the city.

The name of said restaurant is Fortune Cookies. Predictably, they serve fortune cookies at the end of a meal. They have the paper to-go boxes we all are familiar with. I saw their delivery menu and it has the same exact slanted-ish font (you know what I’m talking about, right?) and dragon doodles in red ink.

“Chinese-American food, huh?” I thought. That’s very spot-on. That was the expression I had been searching for. The food—stir-fries, cheese-filled wantons and egg rolls the size of an Olympic torch—is called Chinese-American because it’s not Chinese, but not quite American either. It’s in between.

No offense to Panda Express lovers, but every time someone says “let’s get some Chinese/Japanese food” and refer to Panda or the like, I cannot help but cringe. Because I don’t consider their food to be Chinese. The orange chicken is delicious, sure. But it doesn’t make me think of mom’s cooking. When it comes to the gastronomic wonder that is modern Chinese cuisines, the College Buffet staples just won’t cut it. Here in State College, you won’t find black chicken stew, crab xiaolongbao (yes I’m a Shanghai girl) or Guilin-style vermicelli.

If you know me well, you probably know how I can launch into a full-on tirade on how fortune cookies are un-Chinese. In case you didn’t know, they are not from China, nor have the phrases on the ‘fortunes’ inside been uttered by some Confucian scholar (or Yoda). And why does everyone have an urge to start selling sushi on the side of their “Chinese” joint? Have you been to an Italian restaurant selling tapas or paella?

It’s not that I dislike the Chinese-inspired food here in America. It’s not the reason you don’t find me in the line for Panda Express at the HUB. I don’t go there because I don’t like crowded places. I actually like some of the dishes they offer. Some family-owned places downtown are nice, too. I just don’t like it when people tell me they like “Asian food” when they have no idea what the foods in Asia are like.

What do you think? I’m happy to talk with you about appropriated foreign cuisines over a cup of bubble tea or two.

Photo by Amanda Hunt

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