Monday, March 17, 2008

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).

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