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.

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