Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chinese Restaurants

In watching all of the episodes of Chinese restaurants, I'm reminded of my own parents, who've worked in a Chinese restaurant since they game to America 17 years ago. One could hardly say that my parents have assimilated to U.S. culture: they don't consumer any U.S. media, they don't eat American food, and they don't really have American friends. I often question if the Chinese restaurant is an offshoot of this resistance to assimilation. By working in a Chinese restaurant, Asians can inhabit a space filled with their people (there are exceptions, such as the restaurant in Madagasgar), their own language, and their own food (ostensibly).

This question of assimilation is played out in the various restaurants in these documentaries. What we see is a very diverse set of restaurants and restaurant owners, some of whom have assimilated better than others. The restaurants have customer bases that range from all Chinese to very diverse. Their owners have learned their new languages to varying degrees. They also serve food of varying degrees of authenticity.

But regardless of what owners do, it seems that the fact of opening a Chinese restaurant can make a person more foreign in the eyes of the local population. The exoticness of Chinese food translates to beliefs that owners are exotic. Locals may view owners as lacking a will to assimilate. This creates a problematic tension between trying to assert one's culture and trying to blend in and drop the label of foreignness.

Another interesting aspect of these restaurants is that often, their workers are illegal immigrants. The sociologist Georg Simmel notes that in cities, immigrants often being working in the black market until they assimilate to the city and learn the customs and culture. This seems to be what's happening in the Chinese restaurants, as the cultural identify of the owners almost predisposes them to helping other (illegal) immigrants.

All in all, the various episodes in the series were very interesting and showed many different dimensions of being and eating Chinese across the world.

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