Monday, March 31, 2008

Better luck next film

I should first fully disclose that this is not the kind of film I enjoy at all, and so--predictably--I did not like this film, though I WILL give that it did do a few things well and a few things in interesting ways.

Anyway, the good (as pretty much everyone has already said): it peels the skin off of the "model minority" facade, shows what's lurking underneath, and spins it all as if the Asians were the ones in control... by which I mean it gave Asians guns. Okay, I see that I really have nothing more to add about the GOOD points of this film (people who actually liked it seemed to have covered those points pretty well), so I'll just move onto my critique.

As Melissa mentioned, the plot was nothing new--it's already been done in other suburbia-gone-bad films about white teens. In fact, it seemed merely like one of those overdone bad teenaged suburbia movies with Asians as the main characters and the model minority issue foregrounded... it didn't seem to go anywhere else, and that's what disappointed me the most. Sure, it ends on a semi-poignant comment that these kids are still KIDS and they don't know what the heck they're doing even though they can work the system so well... but they already made this point when Virgil cried in the car, so the ending, for me, brought nothing but a depressing sense that these guys are really, really damaged and nothing in their environment will fix them.

...Which is actually not TOTALLY removed from the truth. A professor of mine (in the education department) is always talking about how the "model minority" image is covering up severe problems in some Asian-American youths that don't show until it's already too late to fix (she usually cites Asian-American students who hate their parents and move across the country for college). The way these students were raised and the environment in which they were raised are always big contributing factors to the problem. This film illustrates an off-the-charts worst-case-scenario of that idea.

However, I think the film can be taken in a VERY wrong way, especially now after incidents like Virginia Tech. The film does not really stop the audience from imagining that ALL privileged, smart Asian students are capable of doing such horrific deeds, since the liberal use of stereotypes and the endearing internal monologue from Ben make these teens seem like your normal, average Asian-American honor student... when they are NOT. Despite what popular movies portray, what the boys did was HIGHLY abnormal of teens of ANY race. There is something seriously wrong with EACH of the main Asian male characters and they definitely needed punishment or serious therapy at the end. Yet, there doesn't seem to be any end in sight... the boys are just left in a lawless, parent-less Lord of the Flies scenario that won't do squat to help them.

So what does the film do for Asian-Americans? Well, it shows that we, like our white counterparts, can ALSO be seriously damaged people. Okay, that's a good point but where does it go from there? Does it offer a non-destructive solution to the main characters' dilemma? Does it show the ROOT CAUSE(S) of or REASON(S) for all the violence and crime the boys commit? Does it give any preventative role to the community, parents, teachers, or other authority figures? ...I guess we need another film to fill in those gaping voids between this film and reality.

Response to Better Luck Tomorrow

I find Better Luck Tomorrow brilliant. It does an excellent job of portraying characters--whose mischievous/criminal actions are masked underneath their model minority facade--by knowingly using stereotypical images to surprise the audience. Who would have thought after watching the first scene that Ben and Virgil, two Asian students talking about college admissions, are the murderers the person underneath the backyard lawn? Only after watching the rest of the movie do we come to believe that Ben and his model student friends did commit this crime. The framework of the movie is effective--just as other characters in the movie are fooled by Ben's model student facade, the audience does not suspect him to be the murderer (until almost the end) because he appears to be a stereotypical model student.

The movie unearths the true life of Ben underneath his facade: his drug use, his use of prostitutes, and his constant supply of cheat sheets. As Ben says himself, "Straight As were our alibis...as long as the grades were there, we were trusted." Ben and his friends exploit the fact that other people identify them with the stereotypical image, an image that comes with an expectation. Most people expect them to be academic overachievers and nothing else. When Ben is on the basketball team, people don't expect him to be a great player. But this stereotypical expectation allows Ben and his friends to get away with so many things, as long as they prolong that public image.

In one of the most memorable scenes, Ben and his friends hire a prostitute and enjoy themselves until Virgil pulls the gun out. Virgil then points the gun at Han, his cousin and a fellow model student, leading to an ugly fracas. The morning after, they win the Academic Decathlon championship, so their vices are buried underneath this achievement. It seems like the stereotypical image is something to fall back on. 

On a final note, I want to briefly talk about why the audience tend to like Ben. Despite his crimes, the audience cares about Ben because we recognize that he, along with Virgil and Han, carries a sense of morality. He knows that what he is doing is wrong, although the pleasure derived from his vices often makes him forget about the immorality of certain acts until afterwards. The fact that he contemplates confessing of his killing of Steve gives the audience the hope that Ben is still a good man at heart.

We Need More Than Better Luck Tomorrow

I found Better Luck Tomorrow to be a really interesting movie because the types of characters embodied by Virgil, Ben, Daric and Han were the very type of male characters I encountered among Asians around my age in New York City, where I grew up. Each of them, in trying to fit into society in America, revealed some of the limitations on Asian American identity that exist in America. The four Asian male characters in the movie represent the main Asian male identities I was familiar with growing up: the straight arrow Asian, studying hard and following rules towards a widely respected ideal of success; the somewhat "whitewashed" and manipulative Asian, who does what is needed to push for his own goals, embodied by Daric; the "cool" Asian, silent, strong, with a hidden temper and a willingness to break rules, embodied by Han; and the smart Asian who wants respect and to be cool, embodied by Virgil.

Characters like Ben for the most part accept the model minority stereotype, and try to find success in their lives by walking the paved road. Daric too tries to find success through education and overachieving, but he does so through different means; he does so by accumulating leadership positions in "white" clubs, like the newspaper, the environmental club, and quiz bowl. In taking up positions usually occupied by white leadership, Daric is also trying to reach success by means largely defined by white society, just like Ben. Han however, lives his life largely in rejection of white standards, and is successful I think, by not fulfilling the expectations of white society; he is an academic delinquent, commits scams, cheats, but at the same time, as an Asian, I can't help but respect Han, because he is independent of the burden of "white" success. Finally, there is Virgil, who is cut largely from the same cloth as Ben is, but also wants to break away from a strictly white society paved life and stereotype, evidenced by his affinity for his cousin Han.

It is Virgil with whom I sympathize most in the movie, because I think his ongoing struggle to be both academically successful, which is associated with whiteness, and be thuggish rebel at the same time, represents a struggle that many contemporary Asian males go through. To be too devoted to classes, grades, and exams is to fit into a white society defined stereotype. To aspire for high positions in clubs and for leadership positions seems too much like trying to be white. At the same time, it is also hard to be the delinquent rebel, who is respected, but at the cost of deliberately forgoing a fulfilling of one's full potential. In the end, Virgil doesn't seem to garner much respect from either side, because he is always seen as being a poser on both sides, yet these "sides" shouldn't have to exist in the first place, as they are both responses to white society defined roles for Asians. I think it says a lot that Virgil ended up being the one that tried to kill himself, because unlike the other characters, Virgil did not have his own crowd to return to after their Chinese gang basically broke down, when in reality, there is no reason why he had to belong to a specific crowd to be respected. The lesson I learned from watching Virgil is that Asian Americans should value themselves as individuals, not in response to the model minority stereotype, because as it is, the vicious cycle of trying to fit into or to vehemently fight stereotypes only leaves the ones who refuse to choose, as outsiders, when in fact, the independent individuals are the ones that one could say most embody the ideas which form the very fabric of American society, such as the ideal of the self made men.

Better Luck Tomorrow

Better Luck Tomorrow, though employing a rather cliche premise ("nerdy" kids plotting to overthrow the system), seems as fresh and shocking as the blood spatters on Daric's face after Ben bludgeons Steve with a baseball bat. That is to say, I liked the movie, despite (because of?) the gratuitous drugs/sex/debauchery.

To me, this is very clearly a teenage movie, even a coming-of-age movie, if you will. The characters seem much older than most high schoolers I know, but their experiences with cheating, drugs, parties, and the opposite sex are common in suburbia, as is the disillusionment they all seem to have. I really liked that the film focused more on the characters' lives outside of school; I think that this created more complexity. I'm not sure if it was intentional on the part of the director or not, but I feel that some of the characters, Daric and Steve in particular, came across as very cold and jaded. Stephanie, the cute cheerleader, seems to be the only innocent -- she wasn't really in a porno, and is always portrayed with a sort of chaste naivete (despite her oh-so-badass theft of a "Music to Hump To" CD). Is she meant to be 'tragically whitewashed'?

All in all, I enjoyed this film -- it's rare to see a cast of young Asian actors in American films, especially Asian actors who aren't Long Duck Dong-types.

Better Luck Tomorrow Response

One aspect of this movie I found the most interesting was the role of females, specifically Stephanie, in terms of her background and her relationship with the other males in the movie. I thought it was an interesting decision by the filmmaker to cast the only Asian American female as being adopted by a white family. It somehow excused her from acting the way the other Asian Americans act in the movie, as they, as Ben says, can get away with anything as long as their grades show otherwise. I felt that her background inherently kept her from getting involved in ways to rebel against the system, as it seemed as if she did not feel the same pressures that the other characters in the movie felt. While all the other male characters in the movie get involved in drugs, cheating, and a “suburban gangster” lifestyle, she remains oblivious to these doings. Her removal from these actions links race to parentage, which raises the issue of the ever-present relationship between child and parent seen in the movie. Although there are no parents present at all, their presence in the movie is overpowering, as it seems to be the impetus behind Ben and his friends’ desires to construct a pristine college application, while at the same time driving them to commit crimes in order to feel a sense of power in their lives.

On a different note, I found the scene in which Han is driving next to actual gangsters while they flash their guns to be very interesting. The fact that it happens right after Derek pulls out a gun at a party serves to emphasize that, as notorious as they are for getting involved in drugs, partying, and having guns, they are still middle-class kids from suburbia. There is obvious tension in the car (except for Virgil) when Han notices the gangsters driving next to them, putting their “gangster” lifestyle into context of the world outside of suburban, gated communities. At the same time, Virgil blinks back tears when he wonders what his dad would do if he found out about Virgil’s actions, further emphasizing that the characters are just high school kids who are indulging in this lifestyle more for fun than for necessity. As Ben says, it isn’t about making money, but is more out of boredom due to living in the suburbs of L.A. Overall, I enjoyed this movie a lot, as it provides a story that takes the “model minority” and spins it around to show a darker side. It draws upon Asian American experience that is more recent and familiar and brings it out into the media.

Response: Better Luck Tomorrow

After hearing many people discuss how Better Luck Tomorrow was the first time they had seen Asian Americans portrayed in the media in a multidimensional way, I must admit I was kind of surprised when I finally saw the film myself. It's true that there was more depth of character to the protagonists of Better Luck Tomorrow, but it still seemed to me that many of the same stereotypes so often seen in media representations of Asian Americans were still present, if not reinforced. Most notably, although the protagonists engaged in violent crimes and so could not be said to be representing the "model minority" in the way it is typically represented, yet the movie did nothing to combat the notion that all Asian Americans are academically brilliant and hard-working. Every Asian American pictured fit those criteria; in fact, the only reason they were able to get away with everything they got away with was because their grades remained high and they remained involved in all of their various extracurricular activities. Granted, the stereotype has in some ways been subverted and it has clearly been complicated, but it has not gone away entirely.

On another note, while this film operated on one level to combat the stereotype of Asian Americans as meek and submissive, I felt that at several points it undermined this endeavor. Specifically I am thinking about the moments when the Asian American protagonists are juxtaposed with members of other racial/ethnic minority groups. For example, right on the heels of their so boldly confronting (and even pulling a gun on) a white student who makes fun of them, the protagonists are shown shying away from a confrontation with a car full of young Latinos who constitute a more dangerous opponent. Scenes like this suggest that our young protagonists are not so tough as they want to believe they are.

Yet, in hindsight, it seems to me that the choice not to completely override these sterotypes but to complicate them serves a greater purpose. A complete reversal of these stereotypes would result in a cast of hot-blooded, braindead slackers who are exceedingly difficult for the average teenager (who does care about getting into college and doesn't go around drawing guns on people) to relate to. Instead, Better Luck Tomorrow provides us with a cast of characters who many young people can identify with (at least to a certain extent--I must admit I liked Ben a lot until he starting sleeping with prostitues and bashing people's heads in). Although these characters share some stereotypically Asian American traits, yet they have transcended a definition on the basis of these traits alone.

In closing, one thing I noticed about this movie was that the basic premise (bright young teenagers turn to self-destructive behavior [crime, violence, drugs, etc.]) was not particularly innovative. After watching it, I vaguely felt like I had seen a number of movies with similar plots before. The only difference was that the only movies I could remember dealt with white teenagers. For me then, Better Luck Tomorrow's greatest achievement lied in taking a recognizable genre and inserting an Asian American cast, and in so doing making the point that Asian American youth are no different from youth of any other color or ethnicity (except perhaps in the racialized nature of the expectations they face).

Sunday, March 30, 2008

model minority no more?

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie to me was seeing the cyclical perpetuation of the "model minority" image. Utilizing others' stereotypes to hide what's really happening almost gives merit to such stereotypical views, and so remains the status quo. I am a little confused by the ending though, because it ended happily but I still felt a little uneasy (then again, it could have been Steve's body remaining buried and undiscovered). What kind of message is it trying to convey? When I imagine the movie to have ended with the boys turning themselves in however, it almost would have ruined it for me. I found myself secretly rooting for our protagonist, Ben, as he struggled with his identity and his love life, even though he ultimately started that which ended in Steve's death. Had he gotten caught, a part of me would have been very disappointed.
Perhaps what Lin was trying to convey was that Asian Americans being more than just a model minority is a well-kept secret, just like the truth behind Steve's death. Even Virgil, who tried to kill himself unsuccessfully, remains silent at the end of the film, and perhaps his story will never be told. I couldn't help but think that the dramatic irony we were left with at the end of the film parallels the irony of the characters themselves- they are not what they seem to everyone else in the movie (namely the non-Asians), but only we, the audience, know this. Otherwise, I liked how there were surprisingly few references to being Asian American, and most of the movie dealt with teenage issues that transcend the boundaries of race. In the end though, I feel that this truly is an Asian American movie, not because of the cast, but because all the events that occur are propagated by the fact that the boys are Asian American. They never get caught because of others' predispositions of Asian Americans, and all they had to do was perpetuate them. Being caught would have acknowledged a break in the cycle, which has not been the case in the real world, or, at least not yet.

Better Luck Tomorrow

I'm not quite sure what to make of this film. In some ways it reinforced a lot of stereotypes about Asians but in the same turn it also broke those stereotypes. Many Asian American viewers of this movie seemed to think it wasn't "raw" enough but I think if it actually did go to this "raw" extreme, it would just reinforce an extremist Asian stereotype. It seemed more effective to show Asian Americans as real people, not as polar characters like Bruce Lee and the Yellow Man. Although I don't think the average suburbia teenager is selling drugs and plotting how to steal computer equipment, I still like how it showed the effects of the model minority stereotype and what can happen if people don't take Asian Americans seriously. Overall, it seemed the film was making a concerted effort to relate to the Asian American experience but also seemed too confusing for the average viewer to really relate to.
In response to the questions about the lack of a visual role from parents in general, it seems to me that it wasn't really necessary to actually cast characters for the roles. The idea of the parents being major drivers behind the pressure to perform is inherent and partially assumed. In the end, I think its more effective that we don't actually see the parents. It helps to convey the idea that the constant pressure to meet expectations these model minority students face doesn't just come from their parents but from society in general.

Better Luck Tomorrow

Whoa. Great film. Before I say anything about the film's intentions, I think the cinematography was fantastic. All the time sequences, the returning shots to Ben playing basketball and the SAT word of the day really emphasized the film's theme of circularity. I think John Cho's character sums it up when he's talking to Ben while he's hitting baseballs, about how he feels like he's in a never-ending cycle that he's dying to break. I'm still unsure as to what exactly that means. There is definitely a message in the film about the negative effects of positive stereotypes. The stereotype of the over-achieving, smart Asian makes them invisible. The film's focus on these guys shows us a rather extreme view of what this kind of invisibility can do to someone. Only when they start committing crimes do people begin to notice them. Perhaps the film's take on this invisibility is that it supposedly makes people feel like nothing is changing. Even at the end of the film, this "cycle" never breaks.

I think a discussion of the significance of each character might be interesting. All of them were really deep and had profoundly different attitudes towards the events that transpired. Virgil, for example, seems to really have been disturbed by his continual invisibility and the expectations of others. He obviously loves the power that his gun gives him. The hero, Ben, seems to have the purest heart of the group but is unable to find a sufficient enough drive to change himself.

I'm also wondering about the significance of the title, "Better Luck Tomorrow". The characters do seem to have a tendency to just hope that things will turn out ok, instead of working towards a positive change. Perhaps that could be another topic of discussion.

It's hard to say if the film is attacking any particular group. But I think the film does a great job of addressing how these so-called "positive" stereotypes of Asian Americans can hurt someone by not allowing them to be anything else. I will admit that perhaps the film was little extreme, but I think the underlying themes are clear.

Questions

An interesting snippet from an interview with Justin Lin, director of Better Luck Tomorrow, with the Orange County Weekly:

"I was actually intrigued that the ethnicities of the characters didn’t matter. Do you think the fact that they are Asians did matter or not?

It matters a lot in that it’s their experience; that’s the perspective audiences are going to share with the film. But at the same time, I made a conscious effort that I didn’t want them to have to explain why they need to exist onscreen. I think cinema is very backward. Every time you see an Asian face, or Asian American face, or even a Latino face or a gay face, they always have to be there for that reason.

You see a Native American, okay, it must be something spiritual. It’s film language, and it’s very backward. I don’t feel I have to explain myself every second of my life, and I don’t feel these characters need to either. I think by doing that, part of it was I wanted to stay very true to the teenagers, to the characters. A lot of times, I feel like you see teenagers onscreen, they’re like 'movie' teenagers. And this time, I tried very hard to portray and stay true to real characters, real people."

I think this excerpt gets at the difficulty of studying contemporary Asian American media representations. Are we supposed to read the character of Ben Manibag as the meek, emasculated Asian male? Or is it safe to assume that Ben is simply a character played by Asian actor Parry Shen and could easily have been played by a Caucasian, African-American, or Latino actor? As Justin Lin says, perhaps in Better Luck Tomorrow, there is no "reason" for the cast to be Asian. (Parry Shen has said: "People came up to me and said, 'After the first five minutes, I totally forgot you guys were Asian,' " he said. " 'Cause it has nothing to do with being Asian, it's universal stuff about ... kids. Not necessarily that they're bad or evil, [just] that they sometimes make wrong decisions.")

If we can assume the second, is Better Luck Tomorrow still an Asian American film? Is it, in a sense, more Asian American because the characters are represented without stigma (or at least, attempted to be represented in that manner)?

One must wonder: would this film have done as well in the box-office, received as much acclaim, and been picked up by MTV films if it were made with a cast of unknown white actors? Is this line of questioning even fair? Or is it as silly as writing, "Would Brokeback Mountain have been as successful had it been a heterosexual love story?"

Is the myth shattered?

Busy but bored, what Ben wants (besides “getting the girl”) is to break through the confines of his stultifying path to excellence. His engagement in criminal activities, on the surface, would seem incomprehensible (at least to his parents and non-Asians) given his academic excellence, range of extracurricular activities, and dedication to the community. But the cheat sheets, scams, and violence all are directed towards defying some invisible oppressor; there is no bully that beats him up for being a “nerd” or picks on him for receiving straight-A’s. The specter that he struggles to vanquish is the model minority image around which his dizzyingly banal life revolves. This is a particularly insidious and successful version of racism which keeps the oppressed on an unquestioned path to “success.” And in the end, this is the path to which Ben returns after his venture into criminality. And it’s the model minority image that saves the crew from overt suspicions and the potential ramifications of killing Steve.

Asians have often been portrayed in films involving gangs and martial arts, and considering the popularity of films like Old Boy directed by Chan-wook Park, the violence and criminality in this movie is not particularly startling. Does this mean that white America has a divided sensibility about what Asian/Asian-Americans are like?
Is there a perception that non-assimilated Asians have a violent streak that becomes suppressed in the domesticated, asexual, and weak Asian American male?

Perhaps the most personally affecting scene was the one in which Virgil is sitting in the car with the crew after battering a jock at the party. The intense rush he experiences from being in a position of power quickly disintegrates into fear about what will happen when his parents find out, something the others were already pondering in silence. Next to them, another car pulls up, this one containing Asian American male teens that never had any ambitions concerning Ivy League universities or being editor of the high school newspaper. It then becomes apparent that they are only posing and their return to suburbia is inevitable and perhaps even preferable.

What I missed in the film especially was an exploration of how the Asian American teenage girl might react to the model minority trap. Stephanie, though played by an A-A actress, is in most other dimensions a stock, cute white cheerleader that the protagonist attempts to court. She is adopted by a white family, doesn’t experience stigmatization, and has a wealthy, suave boyfriend. But I was left wondering whether or not she experiences any of the same frustrations as Ben and how she reconciles her more complicated identity with this model minority image.

A couple things about BLT

There are so many things that can be said about Better Luck Tomorrow, but two things particularly interested me in this film. In response to the conversation about the lack of parents in the movie, I personally thought that this was significant in showing that the characters put pressures on themselves to succeed. Many times, Asian Americans are thought to be overachievers and ambitious because their parents force them to be. Although this may be the case, I believe many Asian American students actually put the pressure on themselves to do well academically because they feel that is the only arena in which they can succeed. In the movie, Ben practices so hard on basketball, but is just a benchwarmer on the team. I thought the film was showing the no matter how hard he worked on other things such as sports, he wouldn’t be able to succeed because he’s Asian American and all that entails. Also, the student journalist writing about how he was the token Asian on the team but never mentions how he’s out of place in other academic activities represented how many may believe that Asian American do not fit in in any other arenas besides academics. Society might be pressuring Asian Americans to feel that they must succeed academically because that is where they are accepted.

I also found the character Stephanie really interesting because she was an adopted Asian American with Caucasian parents. I wondered why the writer decided to make her adopted. She was a cheerleader, so does that mean an Asian could only be cool and fit in if she wasn’t from an Asian background? Or was her desirability heightened because she looked Asian but wasn’t really Asian? She seemed to struggle with her image as a cheerleader(and maybe pornstar?) and being a hardworking student equal to Ben. It seemed maybe this contradiction came from her struggle in her identity as an Asian raised in a Caucasian home.

Better Luck Tomorrow reflection

Justin Lin’s film Better Luck Tomorrow addresses the stereotypes many Asian youths face in regard to being labeled as the “model minority.” Lin paints the life of high school Asian students as one of constant pressure and stress as they grow up in a cutthroat environment where not going to an Ivy League university is not an option. The four Asian boys seem to think that the only way to escape their monotonous suburban lifestyle is to commit small crimes and break school rules hoping to bring some stimulation and excitement to their lives. But how do they first go about this? Alan Dale makes comments on the BlogCritics Magazine website that “at first their crimes are in the model-minority vein--cheat sheets and, to a lesser extent, figuring out how to return computer equipment and keep it, too” (http://blogcritics.org/archives/2003/05/14/235250.php). Thus, Dale seems to suggest that although these Asian high school boys are trying to live dangerously, they still at least at the beginning adhere to the familiar stereotypes of their race. Further, Ben, Virgil, Daric, and Han use their academic decathlon meetings in order to plan their illegal activities. Dale notes that although they “use academic decathlon meetings for planning crimes and unhinged partying, they’re still a championship team” (http://blogcritics.org/archives/2003/05/14/235250.php). So even though they are doing drugs, stealing computers, and robbing houses, these boys maintain the outward perception of being the model minorities. It is not enough for them to simply be on the academic decathlon team, they must win and be the champions. Potentially, the team could have served as a total front for their criminal operations in which they could have completely ignored studying and non take the competition seriously. Instead, they continued to study and prepare because as model minorities, even if they were rolling in dough, they needed to academically perform.

Something else that Dale suggests that I didn’t really think about before is the role of (or in this case, the lack there of) parents during this whole film. From speaking with a lot of other Asians, there is the stereotype that the model minority Asian child is a reflection of their model minority traditionalist parents. However throughout the film, there is little discussion of parental pressures and I found it interesting that the film didn’t focus in at all on introducing Ben and company’s parents to the audience. I expected to see the interactions between the sons and parents, but these relationships were never shown in the film. My own assumption is that these parents were traditional and very strict, which might explain why Ben felt he must attend an Ivy League school and participate in dozens of clubs, but we will never know for certain. I wonder, did we really need to see the parents? Or was the assumption of who they were and what they are like so stereotyped and ingrained in our thoughts that it wasn’t necessary?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Worldwide View of Authenticity

I found the Chinese restaurant videos throughly interesting because it is so easy to assume the American experiences of Asians outside Asian countries is the norm. What these videos showed to me was how concepts like authenticity can change and vary so much from country to country. The statement in class saying how authenticity is subjective because no matter what it is, there is someone around to believe that it is authentic.

I think so many viewpoints on Chinese restaurants depend on the makeup of the community that they are in. A restaurant could be as "authentic" as ever, but if its in a completely non-asian community, there is no one to say that its authentic or not. A foreigner could walk into the restaurant and not see on Asian face and assume that there is not going to be authentic food.

Another question that was brought to my mind; Is there such thing as Authentic Asian-American food? Or when American food is thought of do people just think of burgers or diner type food. What about the so called Tex-mex cuisine, is this not another way to say Mexican-American food? Wouldn't someone be able to remark that a certain dish is authentically Tex-mex? Or does authenticity always trace back to the original "ethnicity" of food that this cuisine is derived from. I think it is fairly subjective and one could argue either way. Could the chowmein sandwich ever be considered authentic....teryaki, chopsuey...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Chow Mein Sandwich is Every Bit As Authentic as Peking Duck

One thing about this class discussion is that it has made me painfully aware of my own class position growing up. As the term “authenticity” is typically thrown around in class, I simply cannot relate to any assertion of Chinese national identity through food. If anything, such a construction of national identity reflects a thoroughly bourgeois class position. Namely, it’s mostly people who have never worried about being able to feed themselves and their families on a shoestring budget who can even ponder being true to “authentic” Chinese cuisine. Growing up, what constituted a typical for my first-generation parents and myself consisted of rice porridge (sometimes substituted by instant noodles, oatmeal, or bread), cabbage, and cheap lunch meat (not SPAM, mind you, since that was expensive to us). This is a typical working class diet for a great number of people around the world. Until I was almost in my teens, I never entered a restaurant, period. Until I was in college, the number of times I ate out every year could be counted on two hands, and most of those outings consisted of road stops traveling to and from quiz bowl tournaments for my high school.

I’m quite irked by those who suggest that first generation immigrants, because they are forced by economic constraints to improvise and hybridize their culinary patterns, are somehow eating less authentically Chinese food than the second-generation bourgeoisie who have the leisure time and the money to partake in the culture of “eating out.” I’d challenge anyone who would think such a thing to eat like a real Chinese everyman, subsisting on porridge and cabbage for months on end. This notion of national culture embodied in the offerings of a restaurant is a notion constructed by the affluent for the affluent who have the means to buy the things on the restaurant menu in the first place. I recall distinctly going to one of these small Chinese diners in NYC. This particular diner had some of the best and most affordable Chinese food I’ve ever tasted, particularly because they happened to specialize in Shandong regional cuisine. But what were the restaurant workers eating for breakfast? Oh, that’s right, they were having rice and bean porridge.

I would say that the simple foods which constitute working class diets are remarkably similar the world over, and they are every bit as authentic (if you want to use that loaded term) as the more elaborate dishes that many are seemingly more familiar with.

I recall a conversation with a student from China here at Brown. When it came down to the bottom line, his worldview regarding food was remarkably simple. There’s food for poor people, and there’s food for rich people. Chinese food is anything made by Chinese.

Chinese Restaurants: The Customer's Always Right?

Tuesday's class brought up the interesting connection between consumer demand and a restaurant's identity. Though this relationship (in some practical sense) may be apparent, it provided a stark alternative to just viewing heritage and history as elements of a restaurant's validity. But then this raises the question- at what point (if there is one) is a restaurant no longer able to classify itself as a Chinese Restaurant?

I'm not sure if everyone is familiar with the chain of restaurants known as P.F. Chang's China Bistro. It is owned by a Caucasian male named Paul Fleming, hence the "P.F." The "Chang" comes frm the surname of one of the co-developers Fleming worked with during the production phase of his restaurants. The P.F. Chang's back in my homestate of Virginia does have a wait staff primarily composed of individals of Southeast Asian heritage; in addition to this claim of authenticity, it also boasts an interior, which one of the waiters slyly told me was in tune with feng shui. To a general restaurant novice like myself, the atmosphere seems appropriate. But is this a chinese restaurant? Can it claim this if Paul Fleming lacks the heritage and history of the owners emphasized in the assigned films? Well, in many peoples' minds, including myself, it is. The sad truth is, when I sit down to eat at a restaurant, its particular history may be one of the furthest things from my mind. I am too overwhelmed by the food in front of me to look past the perhaps superficial asthetics of the atmosphere. And yet suppose, there were more consumers like me- too preoccupied with the food to dig deeper into the question of whether this food is "Chinese" or not. In our minds, there is no doubt to the chain's credibility. And if enough people believe PF Chang's as representative of their definition of Chinese food, who's to say it isn't so? Is there some universal truth that takes priority over the business of consumption? It is kind of depressing to think that something as practical as supply and demand might shape a population's view of a certain culture; in a way this makes me wonder whether exploitation can be a term ever used to describe food culture, a culture whose identity is so intertwined with consumer demand.

Heather mentioned in class that Asian American restaurants used to serve both Asian food and American food such as hamburgers and fries on the same menu, emphasizing this dichotomy of being of Asian American. This reminded me of an all-you-can-eat buffet back home owned by a Chinese couple. They are in the process of handing ownership over to their son and his wife. The restaurant primarily serves traditional american dishes (pancakes,eggs,bacon for breakfast and deli sandwiches for lunch and dinner), yet most of its clientele is made up of asian americans. It is also located in a mall that mostly consists of stores that are thematically tied to Asian themes. So again, can it be considered a Chinese restaurant? Well it depends on who you ask. Many of its loyal customers believe so. After all the restaurant is owned by a Chinese family; certainly it has more of a credible claim to "Chinese restaurant" than Paul Fleming's restaurants. However, there are also many who just don't think of the food itself as Chinese, thus discrediting the restaurant of its claim. Each consumer has their own view and nothing can really sway them from their different degrees of authenticity imposed onto the restaurant.

Stuff white people like

And now for something COMPLETELY different:

I'm not sure if someone has already shared this link, but a friend just sent it to me so I thought I'd share it with everyone else, because quite a few Asian things are on this list of Stuff White People Like.

It's obviously tongue-in-cheek, since the goal of all of the posts is to help a person please or deal with his/her white friends and acquaintances. With the recent satires (using the term very lightly) on Asians at UPenn and (I think it was) the University of Colorado, I thought it'd be interesting to throw some white satire in the mix (though I must admit that it is a LOT more subtle than the recent college paper satires).

My friend originally linked me to "Asian Girls", which is #11 on the list, and currently second most popular after St. Patricks's Day... HIGHLY stereotyped, just to warn you.

And in honor of the food theme of this week, be sure to also take at look at Diversity (#7), Sushi (#42) and Asian Fusion Food (#45).

Chinese Laundry Petition Online

Please sign.

http://www.petitiononline.com/providen/petition.html

This is officially the petition of the National APA Women's Forum:

http://napawf.org/blog/?p=15


NAPAWF Denounces Ad Campaign for “Chinese Laundry” Fusion Restaurant

METRO WASHINGTON, DC - The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) joins community members and activists in expressing deep objection to an ad campaign printed in February and March of this year to publicize a new Asian fusion restaurant owned by Chow Fun Food Group, Inc.

A print advertisement in last month’s Providence Monthly magazine signaled the upcoming opening of Chinese Laundry, an Asian fusion restaurant in downtown Providence, RI, built on the site of a former Chinese laundry business that closed six years ago. The advertisement prominently featured a black and white image of a faceless nude female torso with traditional Chinese characters tattooed down the side of her body, and a black banner containing the text “see what you are missing” across her breasts. A bar of text across the top of the advertisement read, “good things come to those who wait.” Earlier this month, the advertisement was again printed in Providence Monthly, this time with the words, “the wait is over.” Click here to sign a petition denouncing the ad. In an apparent response to public objection to the advertisement led by Asian American activists, Chow Fun Food Group owner John Elkhay recently announced that the ad campaign will be pulled.

This is only a first step. NAPAWF denounces the Chow Fun Food Group for leveraging, in this marketing campaign, the lowest common denominators of Asian female exoticism and the commodification of a generalized Asian culture. NAPAWF is also disturbed by the flippancy with which the restaurant appropriated the name “Chinese Laundry” without recognition of the significance that line of business played in Chinese American history and oppression.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese Americans were largely forced to enter the laundering business due to intense discrimination that closed the door of opportunity to most other forms of work. Chinese Americans came to be associated with the laundry business because, as with railroad work during the mid-19th century, it was one of the few available industries that Chinese workers could enter into to pursue a livelihood. Mr. Elkhay clearly missed the mark in naming his restaurant “Chinese Laundry” to “honor the time honored traditions of those before us,” as Mr. Elkhay has stated.

Similarly, the advertisements’ evocations of passive, faceless hypersexuality resurrect the struggles that Asian American and Pacific Islander women have historically fought against. For centuries, Asian American and Pacific Islander women have been represented as objects of submission, foreignness and sexual exoticism. The advertisement is proof that this “orientalism” continues today.

NAPAWF calls on Mr. Elkhay to take seriously his own proclaimed desire to respect the cultures that he seeks to profit from, by acknowledging their histories and realities rather than packaging them into offensive and oppressive pop culture quips. We urge Mr. Elkhay, as a successful business owner, to wield his powers of publicity in ways that are constructive to dismantling, rather than propagating, culture and gender oppression.

Send a message to the Chow Fun Food Group! Click here to sign a petition calling on Mr. Elkhay to issue a formal apology and discontinue this “business practice.” Please contact Bonnie for more info or if you would like to get involved in local campaign efforts.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Authenticity Of Culture, Not Cuisine

Cheuk Kwan's series at first glance looks like a profile of Chinese cuisine in different places around the world, but as I watched the series, I think that the cuisine, or the authenticity of the cuisine, was not very relevant to consider, but the story and the history of the people behind the restaurants was rather more important. This was true particularly in the countries where most of the restaurants were profiled, because these were not places where people were familiar with the original flavors and incarnations of Chinese cuisine, but rather most people's experience with Chinese cuisine was limited to these restaurants. What that means to me is that evaluating the strength and extent to which Chinese tradition and history is preserved in these restaurants is not related to what is cooked in the restaurant. For example, in Cuba, the Cuban government can send however many people to China to train in the ways of Chinese cooking, but the restaurant that would be subsequently opened does not have necessarily the Chinese history and tradition behind it, at least not in the same way that the restaurant in Mauritius or even the one in Canada does, because the latter restaurants represent a part of Chinese history abroad, and not a conscious attempt to create authenticity.

In looking for an authentic Chinese overseas history in many countries however, I feel that looking to restaurants is particularly effective, because many new immigrants tend to open restaurants, which makes a lot of sense, because cooking is a skill that is very translatable to different places. As an immigrant, you know your own culture and your own cuisine the best, so it seems to be one of the most obvious ways to make a living. However, what I found most interesting was the dichotomy of motivations between restaurants run by first generation immigrants and restaurants run by descendants of immigrants. The former group seem to open restaurants by necessity, again referring back to the transferable skills theme, and they also don't want their children to take over the restaurants either. Restaurateurs who are descendants of immigrants however, seem to engage in the restaurant business more because they feel a need to represent their heritage and introduce their Chinese cultural roots into their non Chinese familiar homelands. It is the second (and beyond) generation that is more concerned about authenticity than first generation immigrants because latter generations strive to fortify connections to traditions that they feel affinity for; it is they who strive to reconcile two cultures, while first generation immigrants are more concerned with making a living before exactly preserving their culture. I would say that in the U.S., this same trend is also true. Consider chop suey, the chow mein sandwich, and other Americanized Chinese foods, which were created in the original immigrant run Chinese restaurants to make Chinese food more accessible to the American population. However, now that Chinese food is established in the American food culture, there has been a surge in demand for "authenticity", often headed by a new generation of chefs in Chinese cuisine who are decidedly not immigrant, but rather more global and fusion prone in their cuisines, such as chefs we have mentioned such as Ming Tsai or Masaharu Morimoto (the Japanese Iron Chef). I think it is for the reason that Chinese cuisine is well established in the U.S. that we can have restaurants like Blue Ginger, Nobu (in New York City), and other high end Asian restaurants, where the wait staff does not have to be Asian for people to consider the food there "authentically" Asian. This is in contrast to restaurants in the countries we saw in Kwan's series, where the presence of Chinese staff or Chinese cultural themes in the restaurant was a major factor in people accepting the cuisine to be "truly" Chinese.

Ultimately, the convoluted paragraph I typed above was meant to point out that looking at differences in the Chinese restaurants and the people that run them is a microcosm where we can look at some of the differences in experience between different generations of Chinese that live overseas. If we are looking at Asian American popular culture, I feel that this is extremely relevant because different generations of Asian Americans are in completely different demographics these days, with different motivations, different priorities, and different consumer patterns. In the United States, the growing demand for "authenticity" makes me optimistic about the state of Asian Americans, because to me, I feel that it means people are willing to learn about and aware of Asian traditions, values, and cultures.

Questioning Authenticity

Several people have raised questions about this issue of authenticity. For me, the word authentic conjures the idea that there is a true or real thing (or way) vs. ones that are false or imitations. There is an implicit value judgment, a presumed hierarchy of real-ness, that seems a bit dangerous because it pre-supposes that cultural expressions, such as foodways, are static and unchanging--even in their places of origin--and that adaptations made by choice or necessity are somehow inferior or wrong. Also, without knowing the deep history of a particular food it can be easy to presume something is authentic simply because it is the way we, our parents, and maybe even our grandparents remember it to be. Therefore, some foods or phenomena that we view as authentic might themselves be “fusions” created in earlier moments of exchange and adaptation.

An example might be the Chow Mein sandwich that Professor Lee has mentioned became popular in the Fall River, MA area. Here’s a description from an article in the Providence Journal:

“What is a chow mein sandwich? The chow mein -- a mixture of minced meat, celery, onions, and bean sprouts in gravy over deep fried noodles -- is placed between a hamburger bun and covered with brown gravy.”

And that’s only one version of the sandwich. Others in the region will claim their variation is the most authentic. For Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans who don’t come from the region the very idea of this concoction represents a violation of boundaries that Manalansan argues are markers of ethnic identity, i.e., acculturated ideas about what tastes, textures, ingredients, etc., do and do not belong together. So, is this food item “authentic”? For some people it is an “authentic” regional food and a unique marker of local identity that they remember from childhood. Yet, its history only spans a few generations.

So, in viewing the “Chinese Restaurants” series I didn’t think too much about what was or was not authentic. Rather, I was amazed at the ability of Chinese chefs and cooks to adapt their cuisine to a wide array of circumstances. Some restaurateurs seemed more concerned than others about compromising traditional foodways (I like that term better than authentic). For example, one of the people associated with Restaurant Huang in Brazil listed the popular dishes and said something to the effect of, “We say these are not authentic; they’re just to fool the Brazilians.” In contrast, some chefs like Collette of Chez Manuel in Mauritius were more excited about the creative possibilities of blending different traditions together. I thought it was interesting that she went to Hong Kong in order to learn more about traditional Chinese cooking. Did what she learn there reflect the traditions of the Hakka who had settled in Mauritius or would it have been reflective of other regional foodways within China?

Rye-Ji Kim and Melissa both raised good questions about the restaurants selected for the programs and whether it is a representative sampling of the Chinese diasporic experience with restaurant work. The series focuses primarily on places that are known as having really good food. As a result, there might be a tendency to focus more on restaurant owners who really love cooking and see it as an expression of their creativity, personality, etc. In other words, despite all the hard work, it’s more than a job to many of them. It’s a passion. The exceptions to this model were poignant, as in the case of Maria and the Little Buddha owners. For them, economic circumstance and barriers to other opportunities have trapped them in a profession that only seems to increase their marginalization within the dominant culture.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Chinese Restaurants

The documentary and readings concerning Chinese restaurants were very interesting in their discussions of various Chinese families using food to improve their socioeconomic status. As people have already mentioned, I found it particularly intriguing how there were many accounts of owners making food not necessarily authentic to their own culture. Allison brought up the example in the Cuba’s artificial Chinatown where the most popular “Chinese” dish seemed to be more Italian in its make up. Despite this unique food experience and the fact this place was overtly made for tourism, he still maintains that there is traces of Chinese culture in this place. I found this to be an interesting note given the circumstances. Regardless, I think an important point was raised at the end of this scene where it was made clear that many restaurant owners have the main goal as serving the wellbeing of the community rather than staying true to their culture. Many think mainly in terms of the simple economic principles of supply and demand. Is this bad? A lot of people complain about how unauthentic Asian food is outside of Asia, but I think the films did a good job of exposing the view of how restaurant owners are trying to keep the overall happiness and interests of the general population in mind.

The films also addressed the idea of how owning these restaurants becomes a family tradition. There were numerous lines that represented the theme of “the restaurant being like a baby to my parents”. The children expressed how it is their job to continue the work on the foundation laid out by their parents. Such accounts closely correspond to the many stories from American immigrants finding a way to capture the American dream and expecting the second generation to follow in their chosen path so as to not let all their hard work go to waste. This is also brought up in the reading where an owner’s son expresses his discontent for the restaurant working lifestyle. However, he is immediately characterized as a “good son doing his family duty” in the next line.

I did really know what to make of the story in the reading about the meeting in the Wisconsin Chinese Buffet that decorated with all Korean artwork and even owned by a Korean family, and yet served the standard Chinese food. It seemed a little sad this family would stray that far away from their roots and have such little faith that a Korean restaurant could be successful. This parallels the previous story in the same chapter concerning the Vietnamese dishes. I think this maybe a testament to how Americanized Chinese food has become, and how it has become a staple of American culture as well. This is not to say that the number of authentic Korean restaurants outnumber those that have clearly been influenced by American culture, however, the average American thinks only of Chinese food when the idea of eating Asian food arises. Therefore, once again, if the overall idea is to cater to the people and make the most profit, this makes sense.

I also wanted to briefly comment on our assignment to describe our experiences inside Asian restaurants. I think all of us in this class have encountered a wide variety of experiences and feelings while dining in Asian restaurants. Most of them probably overlap in some way or another. Sometimes, when I sit down in some Asian restaurants there is a feeling of solidarity with all the other Asian American staff and customers in the restaurant. In some cases there seems to be a silent acknowledgement of respect and understanding of a common bond over shared experiences. However, there are times when being in an Asian restaurant can offer feelings of insecurity at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. When I go into a Korean restaurant, sometimes the workers can identify me as Korean and expect me to be able to speak the language. When they realize my Korean is not very good becomes an invisible barrier, and it makes me feel farther apart from them than if I had never even met them. These awkward encounters makes me personally question by identity as a Korean American. There is one other frequently occurring scenario that arises in an Asian restaurant. If I go out to eat Asian food with non Asian friends, a lot of the times they ask questions as if I am an expert on the food. This feels especially strange if we are eating at a Chinese restaurant because it is a subtle way of my friends revealing how they lump all the East Asian races together. These are the three major classifications of my experiences (and probably the sentiments of many other Asian Americans) when going out to eat Asian food. A lot is dependent on whether or not I am eating at a Mom and Pop type of place or a generic chain.

The métis (a.k.a. the hapas of the world)


Questions of authenticity, nationality, purity, and ethnicity seem to underlie all of the anecdotes in Cheuk Kwan’s “Chinese Restaurants.” The documentary offers a unique lens from which to analyze the Chinese/Asian Diaspora. Kwan’s documentary exposes its viewers to a diversity of flourishing Chinese communities around the world. The documentary reminds it’s viewers that it’s too easy to think of the United States as a unique cultural melting pot compared to the “homogeneity” of other countries. It was intriguing to compare the various nationalistic identities of the interviewees and their relationship to their Chinese identity. Kwan’s documentary reminded me a lot of Renee Tajima-Pena’s “Honk if you love Buddha.” Throughout the movie, Kwan uses his exploration of these diasporic Chinese communities to search for his own family’s history and the meaning of a globalized Chinese identity.

The most interesting case studies featured in Kwan’s documentary was the Chinese community in Cuba and Madagascar. These two communities are examples of opposite ends of the spectrum of reproduction of diasporic Chinese culture. The Chinatown of Havana, once the largest in the Americas during the early 20th century, is now nothing but a ghost town with fewer than a few hundred authentic and “pure” Chinese. In the documentary Kwan frequently refers to the Chinatown of Cuba as a “artificial fantasia,” a government sponsored tourist trap which retains few of its ties to the Chinese. Bringing it back to the food, Kwan (the Chinese food connoisseur) also questions the authenticity and legitimacy of Cuban Chinese food, which he describes as very salty, deep fried, and soaked in soy sauce. The attitudes of the non-Chinese Cubanos in the film towards Chinese food also reinforce and maintain this view of Chinese as distinct, un-assimilated, and foreign.

On the opposite pole, a sustained and large Chinese influence has manifested itself in very different ways in Madagascar. With a history of immigration dating back before the Europeans, the Chinese have been embraced by Madagascar. Soupe Chinoise (similar to Wonton Soup) is even a staple dish of the coutnry. Described as one of the most multicultural societies in the world, the métis Chinese and their fusion food are an integrated part of Madagascar’s mixed race culture. Through both of these examples, Kwan questions the pure/authentic vs. assimilated dichotomy. As can be seen in an array of very different countries, Chinese (food) culture reproduces itself in many unique ways and is not simply a question of assimilation.

Chinese Restaurants

Throughout the three parts I watched of the documentary, I got the sense that this was not really about Chinese restaurants per se, but rather the ways in which these restaurants are invested with meaning by those who find themselves expatriated from their homeland for political or economic reasons. Like Renee Tajima-Pena's "My America," this documentary seems to search for a commonality between Chinese restaurants around the world but cannot come up with a metanarrative common and specific to Chinese immigrants. It is clear that all the people featured in the documentary have used the restaurant as a means to adapt or survive but only a notable few have made it a way of living. For example, the majority of restaurant owners shared the same sentiment as Michael's wife in Norway's Lille Buddha, "This is not a business to pass onto the next generation." These individuals tended to learn about the culinary business and art in an improvised fashion not only because their dislocation was unplanned but also because the clientele in each location necessitated different approaches. For a few, however, such as Chiang in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the restaurant business is more than a survival mechanism but a philosophy of life, a way to serve the community, or a opportunity for cultural ambassadorship. It is interesting that these individuals were typically male and no longer were burdened with the responsibility of providing for a family.

Though there was narrative tendency throughout this documentary to fit the "success story" model of arriving in a foreign land, working hard, and succeeding (or as the Cuban Chinese martial arts instructor says, "I'm Chinese in training, seriousness, and perserverence), I appreciated the fact that Cheuk Kwan also took the time to delve into how the process of economic survival affected the family structure of these restaurant owners. In some instances, the restaurant requires that the family work together more closely as a unit, while in other cases the business further alienates the parents from their children, indicating that often economic survival makes the cohesion of the family more difficult.

Lastly, I found it interesting how the Chinese restaurant in different instances becomes a place of cultural preservation (the "home away from home"), cultural adulteration/fusion (depending on one's point of view), and cultural ambassadorship. This reflected different degrees of and responses to assimilating to the mainstream culture and was demonstrated by the specific characterstics of the restaurant, such as its menu, clientele, and accessory elements (e.g. whether it also had a tai chi center upstairs).

Chinese Restaurants are everywhere

I think this documentary does a fantastic job of providing a unique perspective of the Chinese diaspora. Being raised in the US and totally immersed in American popular culture, it is really easy for me to forget that there are Chinese immigrants across the globe. By showing a glimpse of these people's stories, how they came from China and the impact they've made in their new homes, the film really addresses what it means to be Chinese in the context of the entire world. Looking at how these people struggled to assimilate into their new countries also made me think about assimilation in the US in a new light.

As many posts have mentioned, I did notice some common threads in each of the stories. All the restaurant owners were settling in their respective countries as a means of escape, and many of them view their business as inescapable. I mean, aside from the fact that it's their job, many of them talk about how they had no choice and how they wish the next generation to embrace a greater opportunity. What I also found really interesting was the impact of the size of some of the countries. In smaller countries such as Madagascar, Cuba, and Trinidad and Tobego, the presence of Chinese has a really visible impact. I was really surprised to see the diversity of children that attended the Chinese school in Madagascar.

The film raises some interesting questions about the notion of assimilation. A lot of people here have described the assimilation as a tragedy, but I have mixed feelings. If we define assimilation as a total loss of ancestral culture (e.g. language, tastes, knowledge), then I can see how assimilation can be a tragedy. And I think it certainly is deeply saddening that many of the restaurant owners featured in the film do not have the means to return to China. But I can think a more positive take on the notion of assimilation is to view it as the ability to claim belonging to both; to post flags in both nations, if you will. Maybe they lose physical or lingual touch with their home countries, but there are ways to honor both countries and I think the film shows that the Chinese restaurant is a fantastic method of doing exactly that.
It is amazing to see that America is not the only country embracing diversity (a slow process that still needs a lot of work). I have never been able to travel much, so I was intrigued by the integration of Chinese food in every niche of the globe. It won’t be long before dishes from every country resembled one another, emphasizing the change in transnational identities. Ethnic/racial categories for food might just become nomenclature, but the true culture behind the dish exists within its deviation from what anyone might think it should be (its evolution to a new taste might become the identity). The politics associated to food becomes integral to its change.


The dishes shown in the documentary was reminiscent of tastes I have experienced in Chinese restaurants in several regions and yet they were entitled to their own acquired taste. The richness of Chinese cuisine exists in its ability to reshape and become localized. The adoption of Chinese food into its community encourages me to think that taste=local culture. Regardless of the country (Republic of Madagascar, Cuba, etc…) the traditional Chinese recipes evolved to accept the taste of its community. Chinese food in Cuba had a pinch of Spanish spice and Chinese food in Madagascar steamed with African, Indian, and Chinese taste. Often times in the film, the chefs had never been to China, trained to cook Chinese food in China or formally taught to cook at all. This leads me to believe that the acknowledgment of “culture” is left to those it seeks to cater (it would be the locals in this case).


This makes the idea of “chow mien sandwiches” seem all the more interesting. When Prof. Lee first talked about the sandwiches, I thought that it was just strange. But, now I can’t wait to try one as it is a step closer to being initiated into Rhode Island citizenship. It had never occurred to me how much history is linked to food and the appreciation of the region’s signature dish bestows a sense of belonging.


I feel that the morphology of cuisine should not challenge authenticity. It is not legitimate to compare the regions' distinct dishes (mentioned in the film) to that of mainland China. With every change to the spice and adopted style of preparation, one can taste the legacy of the family working in the kitchen. In between the stir fried noodles and the bun of the chow mien sandwich (I am not sure if it is stir fried) is a story marinating the need of local factory workers for a convenient and affordable lunch and the entrepreneurship of a Chinese-Rhode Island family. Whether the families intentionally tried to tell their story of growth and survival, it is uttered in their attempt to cater their dish to the acquired taste of the local community. The acceptance of the new dish is a marriage of citizenship between locals and the family preparing the meal.

Chinese Restaurants

After watching the documentaries, I've been trying to figure out the roles Chinese restaurants play around the world:
 
In Madagascar, the owner of the Chinese restaurant claims that she opened her business because she loved to cook. But I wonder if there is something more to it than that. The interesting fact is that her restaurant caters to Chinese customers, not the African Madagascans. I wonder if her cooking and taking orders from fellow Chinese Madagascans are her way of establishing a national family, a big Chinese family in Madagascar in which she plays the role of the mother who offers food that reminds them of the "home country." Although she does offer hybrid dishes like "Chicken with pineapples," most of her food seems to be there because her Chinese customers want them. As one old man exemplifies, he "can't go home [China]" for he is  "stuck here," and offering these people Chinese food may be a way to make them feel at "home." In this role, the Chinese restaurant seems to far exceed the expectation of a simple, money-making business.
 
On the other hand, the restaurant in Norway seems to be in business for money making--after all, the owner explicitly says that the quality of the food doesn't really matter as much as the pleasant aura of consumption that caters to the white Norwegian population. No Chinese customers. The couple who owns the restaurant also emphasizes how they cannot take a day off because of money. I understand that they work so hard so that their children will enjoy a better standard of living, however, it is indubitable that this restaurant serves for the sake of business. If there is one role it plays for the greater community, it's providing jobs for other Asian immigrants. The Korean girl, for example, has earned herself a job although she cannot speak the language (the owner himself got made living working in Chinese restaurants around in Germany and other places although he did not speak the appropriate languages). Are Chinese restaurants employment centers for recent immigrants? Who works at Chinese restaurants anyway? And does it matter that a Chinese, a Korean, or a Madagascan works there?

My own Chinese restaurant experience

I've already posted a few wordy comments, so... I've run out of serious analysis for now. Instead, I'll just briefly share my own experience of finding a Chinese restaurant in an unexpected place because... heck, why not.

Well, I was somewhere between Laramie, Wyoming and Denver, Colorado on a family trip several years ago, when hunger drove us to the only restaurant on the side of the road: a Chinese restaurant. It had some sort of very typical name like "China Palace" or "Peking Garden" and the interior looked like a normal, but plain, American cafe / small family restaurant, except with a few bright red Chinese trinkets here and there. There were only about 20 seats total in the tiny restaurant, and we were the only patrons there. The waitress looked at least half Asian, but greeted us loudly in English (and maybe with a hint of a Southern accent). She struck up a conversation with us, which I wish I could remember, because I'm sure my mom asked about stuff like the local Asian population and the waitress's background. I think the waitress could speak Cantonese. Anyway, what I DO remember, though, was that the waitress was pretty proud of her Spanish abilities, which she soon put to good use when a couple of Spanish-speaking patrons came in. My mom asked her about it and her response was something like "Well, yeah, a lot of our customers speak it so of course I do too!"

Also: that tiny little Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere had some of the BEST (I won't say "authentic") Mongolian beef I'd ever had. We had to order an extra takeout box of it for the road.

Behind the Scenes of Chinese Restaurants

Cheuk Kwan's documentary "Chinese Restaurants" offers great insight into the stories of Chinese restauranteurs across the globe.  Aside from topics of acculturation, assimilation, cooking methods and personal histories of the restaurant owners, Kwan was able to focus, albeit somewhat briefly, on the wait and kitchen staff in various Chinese establishments from Brazil to Norway.
    
I found that the opinions of restaurant owners towards the local staff regularly appeared condescending, regardless of location.  Many non-Chinese restaurant workers in the kitchens, with the exclusion of chefs, tend to hold menial or mundane tasks.  In Madagascar, the female restaurant owner clearly stated that the local staff (with the exception of "one or two skilled workers") were simply unable to learn how to properly prepare authentic Chinese dishes. However, a contradiction exists in her reasoning since many Chinese restaurants throughout the world prepare inauthentic Chinese food in order to please local tastes and preferences.  If the Chinese food produced by restaurants is "fake", then how will locals such as the aforementioned workers in the kitchen experience the true tastes of Chinese food?  If ignorance is shed through education, why disregard non-Chinese and non-Asian kitchen staff as simply "not skilled"?  While I acknowledge that many issues factor into the situation, ranging from issues of socioeconomic status to potential racism, such questions cannot be overlooked when discussing workers in Chinese restaurants. 

"Chinese Restaurants" revealed the various hardships restaurant employees face in modern times.  Many kitchen staff have similar immigration stories, fleeing their home country in search of a better life and greater economic opportunities.  While the restaurant owners received a majority of the camera's attention, many immigrant workers can easily relate to the difficult journeys the Chinese restauranteurs and their predecessors faced in order to survive.  Immigrant employees continue to face such hardships, particularly those that entered a country illegally.  Waiters and waitresses in Chinese restaurants, if not locals from the region, encounter comparable difficulties.

Overall, "Chinese Restaurants" provides much more than simple critiques of Chinese food, but a glimpse into the complex history and world of the Chinese diaspora in relation to the numerous Chinese restaurants open for business worldwide.

Chinese Restaurants

Food plays such an important role in each and every culture, it would've been a shame if we had skipped it in our study of Asian American Pop Culture. Here, in this documentary, we see the use of food as a means of cultural identity. For instance, a question has always lingered in my mind: why is it that the Chinese, even after hundreds of years of settling in a foreign land, still identify as culturally Chinese? For example, my family has lived in Vietnam for over a hundred years, yet my entire family still identifies of Chinese. The Chinese immigranted to Mauritius ages ago, but still recognize themselves as Chinese. One strong indication of their cultural identity we notice, is the use and production of their food.

In these documentaries, we learn about the Chinese diaspora, and the traditions and beliefs the Chinese bring with them to their new homes. For instance, in the beginning of the piece on the islands, we see a narrative on the Hakka people, and the traditions still practiced today by the Hakka in Mauritius. Being Hakka myself, and knowing this is a minority group, it was really interesting to see them mentioned in a documentary piece.

After watching these documentaries, I, like some of my fellow classmates, also wondered what the role Chinese restaurants are used to fill. We see the restaurant as a means of survival: financial needs are met by working at these restaurants. We also see the restaurant, and the Chinese "fusion" food as a connection to the ancestral culture. By making Chinese food, are they just as Chinese as those in China?

Just the idea of fusion food is a very interesting topic within itself, and could be thoroughly discussed. Is it a type of assimilation? And we see this in every country, not just in the United States. It is inevitable to incorporate cultures when displaced.

I really enjoyed this piece, and it made me wonder about the Chinese restaurants in my own town. The stories behind each establishment, its hopes and dreams. I wonder about the food and how much it has been intermingled with American ideas of cuisine. It also helped raise more questions about food culture and its use in Asian American popular culture.

Language/Assimilation/Success

An observation/disclaimer: Ironically, Cheuk Kwan's documentary series "Chinese Restaurants" is less interested with Chinese restaurants and more interested in what such establishments can tell us about the Chinese diaspora. Kwan focuses on the bigger picture and often neglects to do, what I would call, a true study of "food culture" to get to the more dramatic diasporic personal stories of struggle, alienation, and regret.

Thus, my post (and I believe most of our posts) will have less to do with food itself. (Any observations regarding this?)

In Kwan's 4th installment of the "Chinese Restaurants" series Latin Passions, Kwan visits Peru and documents two very different stories by two very different Chinese Peruvians. On one hand, we have the owner of San Joy Lao, Luis, a very successful restaurateur who hosts his own Chinese cuisine cooking show in Lima. On the other hand, we have the owner of Chifa San Luis, Maria, a recent immigrant who feels stuck in her job and in her surroundings.

Luis is much more assimilated/intergrated into Peruvian culture than Maria, who still feels like a stranger in Peru. Most interestingly, Maria speaks Cantonese while being interviewed and Luis speaks in Spanish. The level of assimilation and, to an extent, sucess in the restaurant business corresponds directly to language proficiency.

With this in mind, what do we make of Chiang Fu Ching, the bi-lingual Spring Roll King of Buenos Aires, Argentina? How do his abilities to speak both Spanish and Mandarin affect what we think about him as a member of the Chinese diaspora?

Also, a tangentially related topic: The etymology of the Peruvian word "chifa." It's really quite interesting and may help us digest/understand the relationship between language and assimilation.

Peru is the only place where Chinese restaurants are known as chifas. Chifa is a Peruvian word. My grandparents would say "let's cook" which in Cantonese is chui fan. "To eat" in the Hakka dialect--my grandparents were Hakka--is chi fan. Our Peruvian brothers in Calle Capon would hear thousands of Chinese, around 11 in the morning, say chui fan, "let's cook," or at noon, chi fan, "let's eat." Hearing a chi fan and chui fan, they combined into a single word achifa, "let's eat Chinese." That's why chifa refers to Chinese restaurants.

Chinese Restaurants...thoughts

The “Chinese Restaurants” series uses the ubiquity of Chinese restaurants as international institutions in order to gain access into the lives of those people living in all parts of the world due to the Chinese Diaspora phenomenon. In many of the places that the narrator visits, such as Madagascar, Canada, and Trinidad and Tobago, Chinese immigrants were first imported as indentured servants and manual laborers; then the second wave of immigrants consisted mostly of small-time merchants and shopkeepers who have progressed into supermarket owners or successful restaurant owners in some or many cases. It appears from the movies that Chinese immigrants historically have been climbing the socioeconomic ladder in many of the societies that they are working in, enough so that one man in Madagascar called them the “elite minority because they make the best merchants.” The model minority idea seems to have sprung up in countries that do not/cannot know of the Asian stereotypes in the United States, with the Norwegian waitress commenting on her boss Mike’s efficacy and quickness and the Chinese-Canadian restaurateurs themselves stating that they missed all the holidays when other people were having fun. Although this may in part be because the narrator seems to have designed his study such that he interviews the more successful Chinese restaurants in whatever region he visits and therefore the owners naturally would be hard-working, it seems to still hold that there is a lot of truth behind the model minority stereotype. The narrator suggests, however, that in some cases, at least, the perseverance, determination, and work ethic of the Chinese restaurateurs arise not so much from an innate Chinese sensibility regarding work but rather out of necessity. The case that best demonstrates this is the Norwegian couple of Little Buddha in Norway where the husband had settled after years of working in restaurants illegally throughout Europe to escape Hong Kong. Repeatedly he talked about seeking financial security, and when asked if he and his wife would want their children to carry on with the family business, they both adamantly said no. The wife said that she never thought that she would be running a restaurant, and the husband added that they were doing it only because they had to. The other Asian employees in the kitchen also talked about “having to” work long, hard hours in order to support families back home, even if that meant living in a place where there is barely an Asian community, much less a Chinese community. This lack of a community and Chinese solidarity seems to hit isolated Chinese immigrants the hardest because it seems that a common belief, especially among the older generation, is that the Chinese should help each other. Despite discrimination and economic hardships, there may be some comfort to be had in the elderly community in Havana of those “left behind by history,” or in the Canadian bachelor society before 1947. This sort of mentality, while not unique to Chinese immigrants, may be especially important to them in leading their lives because of firstly, the obvious physical differences between the Chinese and their newly adopted society, and secondly, the traditions of the Chinese society they had left behind – especially that notion of people sharing last names being of the same family and therefore parts of the same and long history.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chinese Restaurants Response

I found this documentary was fascinating in its approach to the many, many varied geographical places to which Chinese have immigrated all for the sake of making a better life. After watching and hearing each of the restaurant owners talk about their reasons for leaving China, I found what was most interesting was the way they viewed their future in relation to ever returning to China. Some of the restaurant owners, such as Colette in Mauritius, are perfectly comfortable with living where they are now for the rest of their lives. There are some, like the owners of the Lille Buddha in Norway, who hope to move somewhere else that is not necessarily China, such as France, and have the luxury of being able to travel between a dream vacation home and their Chinese restaurant. Then there are some, such as Maria in Peru, who desire to go back to China but stay for the sake of their children. This documentary proved that there are many layers of self-identity when it comes to these immigrants. When asked how he identifies himself, Noisy Jim staunchly replies, “I am myself.” I was touched by Noisy Jim’s story, as he finds himself working for New Outlook Café for free once he sells it to new owners, and emphasizes that he does not mind the harsh restaurant business because he truly enjoys it. His café becomes a community center, bringing everyone together as he walks around, greeting his regular customers.

The environment in which each restaurant functioned affected the food each served incredibly, either through physical means or cultural means. For example, I found it interesting that the Chinese restaurants in Cuba deep fry their food often and use Italian noodles instead of Chinese noodles in their dishes, while Cheuk Kwan notes that the refrigerators in one restaurant are bare. He attributes this to the difficulty in getting imported Chinese goods in Cuba, showing that Chinese restaurants in this region must make do with what they have to make their own Chinese dishes. At the Lille Buddha in Norway, the owners talk about how they serve non-authentic Chinese food to cater to the non-Chinese clientele that frequent their restaurant. Although they are aware of the non-authenticity of their food, the owners are somewhat forced to serve this type of Chinese food, as it is what their customers expect when they visit a Chinese restaurant. On the other hand, the owner of Casa China de Cultural in Argentina purposefully makes authentic Chinese food, as he feels it is his cultural duty to expose people of other cultures to Chinese culture. Based on his success, with patrons attending tai-chi classes and then dining on Chinese food after their class, he has the liberty to make authentic Chinese food since he is able to provide for himself with his methods. Thus, the type of Chinese food each restaurant served was an indication of society’s perceptions of Chinese food, with restaurant owners struggling to appease whatever the community considers to be Chinese food. While Casa China de Cultural had the freedom to try and change consumers’ views of Chinese food, others, like the Lille Buddha, had no choice but to keep serving the typical beef and broccoli. This reminded me of the “Chinese Restaurant Drive-Thru” work we read in Alien Encounters, as Indigo Som talks to the owner’s son in Happy China Garden. He reveals that almost everybody who works at Happy China Garden is Vietnamese, but when asked if they’ve ever tried serving Vietnamese dishes, he replied that “they had tried a few, but the customers didn’t’ go for them, so they gave up on it” (152). This shows that the same mentality can be applied to other Asians wishing to serve more than the typical Americanized Chinese food, as the customers’ response to different Asian dishes can dictate whether the restaurant can extend beyond serving Chinese dishes to serving dishes from their own ethnic countries. I never thought about the cultural implications Chinese food could have on a community (and vice versa), especially communities in which I'd never expect to find thriving Chinese families, and found that Chinese Restaurants did a fantastic job in addressing the varied types of Chinese food found throughout the world. What are the conditions that allowed the owner of Casa China to serve more authentic Chinese food? Why didn’t the restaurant owners of Lille Buddha try to change Norwegian perceptions of Chinese food?

Chinese Restaurants

I loved watching Cheuk Kwan's documentary on Chinese Restaurants for several reasons.

Firstly, it reminded me of the many places I've traveled to. I've been very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to places all over the world, but each time I leave home I can't help but wonder, will I be the only Asian in the crowd? It wasn't until now that I realized I'm never the only Asian. Asians have settled everywhere in the world. Even in my most recent travels, to Reykjavik, Iceland, I encountered three different, and fairly authentic, Asian restaurants. Needlesstosay, I was a little freaked out to see Chinese people speaking Icelandic as their native tongue.

Kwan's film also sparked a lot of thoughts about my own family's involvement in the Chinese food industry. Even our business, which started in Hong Kong and was brought to the US, shares the same struggles of hope, survival, and courage. I empathized a lot with the second and third generation children who were caught in the dilemma of whether to continue the tradition or whether to continue with lifestyle they grew up in, like we see with the Chinese- Brazilian family's son (i forget his name). I know that I have assimilated so much, and have focused my attention away from the family business, but also feel a sense of obligation to contribute back. After all, my family worked so hard to build up the business that I kind of owe all the privileges I have to it. I would also hate to see all that hard work die out because of my generation. Either way, this film really made me think about the incredible steps it takes to build a business in a foreign country and how I really need to learn more about my history.

Enough about me...some themes I noticed: Chinese as amazingly hard workers, assimilation of the next generation, providing for the family/valuing family, men as a symbol of strength but women as the real backbone behind the operation, arranged marriages (which I guess is just apart of generational differences), expectations on the next generation (usually to succeed at anything/everything the children pursue), and the idea of the "Chinese Apple-Pie" that we saw in Chan is Missing.

I really felt this film helped to set one thing straight - women do play an integral part of Chinese culture. We hear from Colette how her father told her to always respect and listen to her mother in law. As much as Colette did not appreciate her mother in law's constant demands, I think it really rubbed off on her and made her into the woman she is today. We learn that Manuel may be the face of the restaurant, but Colette is really the one responsible for the entire workings of the operation. We see this theme in some of the other restaurants too, like in Madagascar and a little bit in Brazil.

I'd like to touch a bit on the "Chinese Apple-Pie." I don't know what to make of this question of "authenticity" anymore. At the beginning of taking this class, I was very bothered by this lack of authenticity I noticed as a common trend in Asian-American culture. And I guess, to a certain extent, I still am. But I guess I'm beginning to see that this is just natural and almost impossible to avoid (which seems sad to me). After watching some of these Chinese couples and how many of them view the incorporation of their cultural surroundings into their cuisine as a positive thing, I've begun to question my notions of authenticity. Should it really be adamantly sought after, or if it is inevitable, why not just go with it?

Chineseness and Chinese Restaurants

As I’ve always been interested in food culture and anthropologically dissecting trends, the series “Chinese Restaurants” naturally appealed to me. I found that the documentaries tackle far more than these basic areas, however, and that filmmaker Cheuk Kwan did an impressive job at provoking questions about heritage and diaspora—at least for me, a Chinese American whose mother and father’s parents made their livings in Indonesia and the Philippines before sending their children off to the U.S., respectively.

I had many thoughts on the film series, so I am attempting to touch briefly on the most important ones here. First, there were certain recurring themes in each Chinese restaurant owners’ story: assimilation vs. Chinese distinctiveness in new homelands (which was sometimes reflected in the food they made), choosing to work hard and make sacrifices for the economic security of the next generation, meager beginnings or humble entries into their destinations, and a Chinese tendency towards business and self-employment. Despite whatever niche each interviewee had carved out in his or her country of settlement, these ideas factored into their stories; perhaps this makes them uniquely Chinese matters.

In Norway, the Cantonese-speaking couple put in long work hours that they knew compromised closeness with their children. The husband had jumped all over Europe looking for decent work opportunities, and finally found this option to be a profitable one. He catered to a distinctly Norwegian clientele, providing a more “Western” restaurant front for customers while holding his employees to “Chinese” work standards. In Peru, the medical doctor and “achifa” owner acknowledges the great sacrifices his parents made for their children; he is firmly grounded in Peruvian culture and embraces his dual identity; his Chinese peers are descendents of indentured laborers—coolies working on railroads and sugar plantations. In Cuba, the Chinese are an accepted presence in Cuban culture—they are said to have “exquisite” tastes and a sophisticated nature, according to the native Cubans. But as the Chinese people have become such an integral part of the population, the food has changed too: it is mostly fried and salty, and the noodles are made in the same way as Italian pasta. Pizza graces the menus of most Chinese restaurants. Here is an undeniable story of assimilation. These stories are all unique, but also have uniquely Chinese aspects to them.

Lastly, each family and restaurant owner in the documentary had so much character; each man or woman represented some part of history, the Chinese narrative in (fill in country of settlement). This stands in stark contrast to the depiction of many restaurant owners in Som’s “Chinese Restaurant Drive Through”—people who opened brand-name buffets that deliberately catered to American tastes at low cost (as the food quality leads one to assume). The author describes a Chinese buffet owner who takes his lunch break and fills his plate with white rice and watermelon. It says a lot about his respect for food from his own kitchen. I’m really interested in the explanations for this phenomenon—maybe American culture has forced the Chinese restaurant tradition into a more unfortunate, even shameful chapter.