Monday, March 17, 2008

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.

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