American privilege: Take-out edition

Column by Allison Borthwick, Opinion Editor

If a professor starts a sentence with, “Today we’re going to watch…” heads turn, phones are put down, hopes are lifted and single tears are shed.

If the professor then says you’ll be watching a documentary about Chinese food, your stomach sheds a single tear as well – mostly because it’s a 12:30 p.m. class and Chinese food is God’s way of apologizing for all the hardships in life.

Needless to say, when my professor told us we would be watching “The Search for General Tso,” my first thought was, “Now THAT’S a search I can get behind. Let me get my walking shoes, flashlight and a pair of chopsticks so I can pretend I know how to use them when we find this Tso-called General.”

This documentary ended up serving me a steaming hot plate of reality – much harder to grasp with chopsticks than perfectly bite-sized, saucy chicken.

In all seriousness, I really came face-to-face with a rather upsetting aspect of American privilege. We have taken for granted the delicious food Chinese restaurants cook up for us.

The reason why the makers of this documentary were on this “search” is because nobody, not even Chinese restaurant owners, seems to know the true origin of General Tso’s chicken. There isn’t even a consistent, agreed-upon pronunciation of the word, “Tso.” Furthermore, pretty much every Chinese restaurant has a different recipe for the popular dish.

One thing is consistent, though: Americans love it. Some genuinely can’t get enough of it.

As it turns out, there’s a reason why.

Chinese restaurant owners learned quickly and early how to be successful in America: cater to our very refined pallets. Fry meat (but only ones we already eat – pork, chicken, beef), make sauces spicy but not TOO spicy and make sure some of the sauces are sweet, too.

One of the documentary’s interviewees phrased the key to a Chinese restaurant’s success perfectly: “Foreign, yet familiar.”

Everything from recipes and menu wording to the actual names of the restaurants are created with American tendencies and interests in mind. The names can’t be too Chinese-sounding and recipes can’t use too many foreign ingredients, out of fear of scaring Americans away.

So even when we think we’re being adventurous by trying “something new,” half the time we’re just being predictable.

As such, Chinese chefs had to sacrifice two of their most prized values to thrive here: authenticity and tradition. A good number of “Chinese dishes” were created in America, for Americans (i.e. cashew chicken), and many ingredients used in them aren’t even native to China in the first place.

We simply don’t know how spoiled we are, and Americanized Chinese food is just one example of this.

I’m not saying we need to feel guilt weigh down on our shoulders every time we order Chinese food; I’m saying we should appreciate the careful thought, consideration and sacrifices people from other countries make to live here, in the “land of opportunity.”

I’m also saying that we should maybe stop expecting everyone to eat like us, speak like us and think like us.

God-forbid anything in this coined “melting pot” we live in actually melts, right?

1 Comment on "American privilege: Take-out edition"

  1. You should have at least mentioned that your Mom and sister favorite dinner is General Tso! Ha Ha! Great article!!

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