Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chinese Restaurants and Identity

I found myself reminiscing a lot about my experiences traveling when I watched this documentary about Chinese restaurants by Cheuk Kwan. Once, I traveled to Uzbekistan and found a pretty large population of Koreans over there. None of them knew how to speak Korean or knew anything about Korean culture. Only the grandparents knew some broken Korean. There was one Korean restaurant that was such a fusion of Korean and Uzbekistan food, that I didn’t recognize any of the dishes and the dishes did not taste at all Korean. It was sad for me to meet these people who had started losing their culture and identities through the generations, and I found I felt the same way while watching this documentary.

Most of the people that emigrate from their countries, emigrate because of their economic situations. This was a common trend in the documentary where most of the Chinese immigrants had emigrated to make a better living and send money back home. It was sad to see that many had to give up their family lives, either not having enough time to spend with their families, or leaving them behind in China. Money seemed to be the driving force for all the restaurant owners, who mentioned many times that they would not want their children running a restaurant. I was especially struck by the attitude of the restaurant owner in Norway, who seemed always really stressed and unhappy. His dishwasher, Kim, also did not like his conditions in Norway. It’s sad that they would continue to live this hard, stressed existence because their circumstances made them think it was necessary to go through the hardships.

The Chinese immigrants had come to make a better living for themselves, and most in the documentary had, but did they realize the effect this would have in their future generations? The odd thing is, that most of the immigrants did not seem to miss China at all and probably did not mind if their children lost their Chinese identity. One thing I kept wondering throughout the documentary was how all the children of the restaurant owners would turn out. Many of the children that were interviewed in the film seemed successful, probably because of the success of their parents, but also seemed very assimilated into the culture they grew up in. It seemed like they had lost their Chinese identity and acquired the one that they had grown up in. I wondered if they realized what their parents’ histories and hardships consisted of, and if they knew much about their Chinese heritage. As I watched the film, I found myself wanting to know more about my own history and the circumstances that made my grandparents immigrate to the U.S.

On a side note, I find that the whole Chinese Laundry controversy is not putting the Asian-American community in a positive light. I understand why many are enraged by the ad, but isn’t that ad just one man’s bad judgment and ignorance? By being so angry at this one ad/man, I feel that people are judging Asian Americans as an angry, violent bunch. It’s frustrating that one man’s horrible ad, and a few people’s irrational threatening comments, make each side stereotype each other in a way that will probably lead to both sides just getting more judgmental about each other and no where near the peaceful enlightenment that they all need.

1 comment:

Lucy Lou said...

You know, I've felt the same sense of sadness or pity when I see Chinese people who are completely out of touch with Chinese culture... but then again, I might just be because I only know my own way of living. I am beginning to wonder (especially after watching some of this series) if it really a shame that people have not totally kept up with their motherland's culture. Sometimes, you're in a place like Madagascar where it is easy to keep up traditions, and other times, you assimilate completely... there really isn't a "correct" way to negotiate biculturalism.

Also, the stories of how hard-working all these people were really hit home for me too. I personally know of Chinese restaurant families in the US (quite a few kids from my high school had parents working in restaurants), and their stories would fit equally well in the series... and we are talking about nearby Boston, not some far-off land where you wouldn't expect to find Asians.

AND: that is a good point about the Chinese Laundry situation. I too wonder if sometimes people are being too much of a bitter minority to cause positive change... but I also think staying quiet is even LESS useful. As it stands right now, I think pissing off a few people by being vocal is a lot less worse than being the nice model minorities people expect. (Hey, if worse comes to worse, at least we're no longer model minority doormats, right?)