In my Understanding Asia class (required for my Asian Studies minor, and one of the most engaging classes I’ve taken), we’ve been studying Asian-American literature for the last two weeks. We’ve been looking at several major elements: 1) what does it mean to be Asian-American, and to what extent do you remain Asian while at the same time incorporating this identity into being “American”? and 2) how do elements of a multicultural person create the cultural hybridity that we have around us today? and 3) can you choose your your ethnicity to some extent (and, if so, will society let you)?
To do so, we’ve read a collection of poetry written by Japanese Americans about the internment during WWII, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. It has been a fortnight full of enlightening ideas regarding what your ethnicity means to others and to yourself, and how one adapts culture, and creates hybridity. The guest professor (the entire course has been taught by guest professors, except for the first 2-week segment taught by the coordinator, Dr. Tom Keene), Sarah Robbins, has facilitated a series of great class discussions, getting us really deep into what it means to be Asian-American.
Somewhat by coincidence, my own curiosity lead me weeks earlier to a book on the new release table at Barnes and Noble– one that delved into the curious incident of a Powerball lottery that had several dozen winners, all of whose numbers had been identical and inspired by the same thing: a fortune cookie. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, written by New York Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, 8), takes the reader on a journey into everything you’ve never imagined behind the ethnic food we love so much; and, Lee argues, it isn’t really all that “ethnic” anyway. Chinese American food is essentially American food, says Lee, and from there she shares stories about the origins of the fortune cookie, the international argument caused by soy sauce, the dangerous lives of Chinese deliverymen, and a heart-wrenching tale of a Chinese immigrant family who was nearly torn about by working and living in a rural Georgia town. I have found this book to be an interesting addition to my own understanding of the Chinese-American experience. Though it focuses on food, who can really argue that food is not a basic playing field for cultural exchange, no mater what your ethnicity or geographic location? Even without knowing a person’s language or culture or history, they can share with you their food. And so, through this familiar medium, Lee explores the whole globe to define “Chinese food.”
I am going to share an expert here, because I think it is an excellent illustration of the way we see cultural hybridity today, and how “assimilation” itself may be changing in meaning. Her sentiments in this passage echo almost exactly a point we touched upon today in class– when a minority combines itself with the majority, what elements of each culture are retained, which are lost, and to what extent might each be a bad or good thing? By giving up parts of your own culture to assimilate, how much becomes a personal loss? And what happens when walls or bumps arise between the two cultures one may be living in that might cause someone to step back an reevaluate their identity? She adds to it an interesting additional point: when the minority or immigrant population becomes an integral part of mainstream society, that society itself adapts to it, and appears different than it used to. We can see this most clearly all around us in the United States. As shes says earlier in her books, we often think of apple pie as being quintessential “American”– but when is the last time you had apple pie, and when is the last time you are Chinese food? Exactly. Probably in the last week or so. Interesting…
I think it is a testament to the writer, and a great cultural learning tool, that we can see elements of the Chinese American experience in her own exploration of American Chinese food.
I’ll leave you with her words:
“As much as the mainstream changes the immigrants, the immigrants change the mainstream. As recently as three decades ago, being American often meant distancing yourself from your immigrant ancestry. In her 1975 essay “Ethnicity and Anthropology in America,” anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, ‘Being American is a matter of abstention from foreign ways, foreign food, foreign ideas, foreign accents.’
Even our definition of ‘assimilation’ is changing. The old-school definition referred to how a minority blended into a majority. Now social scientists are pushing a new definition: the convergence of disparate cultures. The popularity of Chinese food shows that assimilation may no longer require that minorities be subsumed into the majority. Instead, in a country where 20 percent of the population consists of immigrants and their children, assimilation means convergence from all sides.
In reality, General Tso’s chicken is arguably as American as it is foreign, Chinese only in the way that burritos are ‘Mexican’ or spaghetti and meatballs is ‘Italian.’ These are ‘native foreign dishes’– ‘native’ because they originated here and may exist nowhere else, but ‘foreign’ because they were inspired by other cuisines. American Chinese food has developed its own identity– so much so that it is sold in Korea, Singapore, and the Dominican Republic as its own distinct cuisine. “