White American Culture is General Tso’s Chicken and Chop Suey

by Guest Contributor Restructure, originally published at Restructure!

Finally, somebody summarized the myths that non-Chinese Americans have about Chinese food. Most of what White Americans consider “Chinese food” is mostly eaten by white people, and would be more accurately described as “American food” (and perhaps even “white people food”).

Jennifer 8. Lee has a great video on TED Talks titled, Who was General Tso? and other mysteries of American Chinese food.

Here are some important points from the video:

  • Fortune cookies are almost ubiquitous in “Chinese” American restaurants, but they are of Japanese origin. Most people in China have never seen fortune cookies. Fortune cookies were “invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, and ultimately consumed by Americans.” Fortune cookies are more American than anything else.
    • General Tso’s chicken is unrecognizable to people in China. It is the quintessential American dish, because it is sweet, it is fried, and it is chicken.
    • Beef with broccoli is of American origin. Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable; it is of Italian origin.
    • Chop suey was introduced at the turn of the 20th century (1900). It took thirty years for non-Chinese Americans to figure out that chop suey is not known in China. “Back then”, non-Chinese Americans showed that they were sophisticated and cosmopolitan by eating chop suey.
    • “Chinese” take-out containers are American.
    • There is Chinese French food (salt-and-pepper frog legs), Chinese Italian food (fried gelato), Chinese British food (crispy shredded beef), Chinese West Indian food, Chinese Jamaican food, Chinese Middle Eastern food, Chinese Indian food, Chinese Korean food, Chinese Japanese food, Chinese Peruvian food, Chinese Mexican food (which look like fajitas), Chinese Brazilian food, etc.
    • If McDonald’s is Microsoft, then Chinese food is Linux.

    These myths that most White Americans have about “Chinese food” are not trivial. Generally, false assumptions beget false conclusions and distorted worldviews. When most White Americans believe that American foods like chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies are “foreign” and “Chinese”, some effects include:

    • Most White Americans think that there is no such thing as “American food”, and that Americans are cosmopolitan and worldly, because they are exposed to foreign foods. For many White Americans, an example of “foreign food” is chop suey. This is ironic, because it actually reveals American insularity.
    • When White Americans think of “Chinese culture” (and assume that all Chinese Americans have retained their ancestral culture), most White Americans think of “Chinese” American food like chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies. However, chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies are actually examples of how Chinese culture has been lost and replaced by commercialism.
    • Many White Americans think that they are knowledgeable about Chinese culture (and not racist) because they eat at “Chinese” restaurants and order dishes like General Tso’s chicken. What many White Americans think as racial knowledge is actually racial ignorance.
    • In American movies and TV, Chinese identity is often represented by chop suey. For example, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (1961), which is arguably the only major Hollywood film with a predominantly Asian American cast as protagonists, the Asian American actors sang a celebratory song called “Chop Suey”. According to Arthur Dong, “Songs like ‘Chop Suey’ became an embarrassment for politicized Asian Americans. It didn’t matter that Flower Drum Song was based on a book written by a Chinese American; it was, in the end, a white man’s concoction.”
    • In American movies and TV, Chinese culture is often represented by fortune cookies. Sometimes non-Chinese Americans infer from the nonsensical messages in fortune cookies that Chinese thinking is nonsensical, mystical, and inscrutable. (That’s racist!) However, fortune cookie messages are manufactured in the United States for commercial purposes, to entertain mostly non-Chinese recipients. The messages are not ancient Chinese proverbs.
    • It is not uncommon for a White American to meet a Chinese American for the first time, and attempt to “relate” with her by informing her that he loves chop suey. This is offensive for multiple reasons. White Americans think of Chinese people as a stereotype (”Chinese” food), the stereotype is based on White American experiences rather than Chinese American experiences, the stereotype is not even accurate, the White American thinks that the Chinese person identifies with the racial stereotype, the White American thinks that Chinese ethnicity is represented by an American racial stereotype, etc.
    • LFO had a song called “Summer Girls” with a chorus that includes the lines, “New Kids On The Block had a bunch of hits. Chinese food makes me sick.” Many White Americans conclude that they “don’t like Chinese food” after eating one type of dish, and that dish probably did not originate in China. Whatever negative associations that White Americans have about Chinese food should actually be blamed on American culture (and American preferences for deep-fried food), not foreign Chinese culture.
    • Some White Americans use “Chinese food” as an example of Chinese people being unassimilable and not adapting to American culture. (Some White Americans even believe that the popularity of “Chinese food” in the United States shows how Americans accommodate and embrace minority cultures.) The reality is that “Chinese” American food is an example of how Chinese immigrants bend over backwards to create dishes customized for White American tastes.

    Jennifer 8. Lee’s Italian friend was surprised to learn that fried gelato did not originate in China, and remarked, “It’s not? But they serve it at all the Chinese restaurants in Italy!” This incident illustrates the limitations of anecdotal experience as a source of knowledge. Even if the sample size is very large, anecdotal experience does not take into account selection bias. In this case, a biased sample lead to false conclusions about an ethnic minority group’s “culture”.

    This incident also reveals that when the national culture is so pervasive, the cultural aspect of a practice that comes from the national culture is invisible to the ethnic majority. For example, White Italians do not see the Italian influence of fried gelato, only the perceived Chinese aspect of it. To Americans, however, the Italian influence of fried gelato is apparent, while fried gelato’s Chinese influence is not.

    Similarly, Americans generally do not see the American influence of General Tso’s Chicken, only the perceived Chinese aspect of it. To non-Americans and observant Americans, however, the American influence of General Tso’s chicken is apparent, since it is sweet, (deep-) fried, and chicken. The dish known in the United States as “General Tso’s Chicken” is 100% American.

    Perhaps the dish is also 1% Chinese, since the dish’s name was transliterated into English from the name of a Chinese person, and the people who serve it tend to be Chinese Americans.

    However, fond memories of eating General Tso’s Chicken is a culture that is shared among more White Americans than Chinese Americans.