On the day of Chinese New Year a few weeks ago, I was at a restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown with a group of Andover students. While passing the family-style dishes around, two of my peers decided to play a joke. Taking advantage of the language barrier between them and the waiter, the first jumped up, shouting, “Did you see that? I just saw a rat!” Another, grimacing at the noodles, made an obscene comment on the appearance of the sauce.
As an international student from Shanghai, China, I was offended and appalled by their disrespectful behavior, for eating in a Chinese restaurant reminds me of home. As I watched them wave off every single dish that was passed around, I was yet again reminded that my culture’s food is ridiculed for its stereotypes: cheap venues, cashiers with strange accents, and food that is too greasy, too spicy, or too smelly.
My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1990s, bringing along the Chinese culture with them — my mother brought her Southern hundun recipe and my father his Northern jiaozi recipe. Immigrants often bring their homemade secret recipes to the shores of the United States. The town of my previous home in California has selections of foods from China, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Greece. The owners of these family restaurants take pride in the food they serve, overjoyed when customers of other cultures love their recipes as well.
In Chinese culture, chefs take pride in the colorful names and stories behind each centuries-old dish. However, when these dishes are introduced to the United States, the creativity of their names are lost in translation. Foods such as “Three Kinds of Seafood in the Bird’s Nest,” “Lion’s Head Ball,” “Happy Buddha with Duck Sauce,” and “Dongpo Pork” appear on English menus. Many Chinese people would know Dongpo Pork refers to a story of Su Dongpo, one of the most respected scholars in Song Dynasty China. For people who cannot read Chinese or do not understand the meanings behind the names, however, these titles are perhaps strange, laughable, and unappetizing. Ignorance, however, is no excuse for disrespect.
People may not love the same foods and can make completely honest mistakes. This is okay. What is unacceptable is overt disrespect towards foods of other cultures and towards the people of that culture preparing it. Students must avoid this kind of behavior and avoid bringing xenophobic hierarchies into food culture. Sometimes even statements with no harmful intentions about the restaurant, cuisine, or ingredients may come off as racist or a cultural misunderstanding.
For example, I often hear students generalize Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, or Greek food into one gigantic cuisine called “ethnic” food. The term “ethnic” other-izes and denigrates the food itself as well as people of the food’s culture. Additionally, people believe the stereotype that Chinese restaurants are all low-status eateries — whether it is assuming that food in cheap takeout boxes from restaurants like “Peking Garden” and “Teatone” are what Chinese people eat at home, or assuming the uncleanliness of Chinese restaurants. According to “The Atlantic,” New York restaurant sanitation grades do not show any significant differences between Chinese and American restaurants. Finally, jokes about Chinese restaurants serving only dog or rat meat are incredibly disrespectful.
As Andover students, we pride ourselves on our diverse community and the 44 countries our students represent. It is not until foods from all cultures are treated with the same respect, however, that Andover will truly be the inclusive community we aspire to be. That said, I do feel that Paresky Commons could make improvements to support this aspiration. I hope that during future Asian Arts Weekend dinners, Paresky will serve more authentic Chinese foods instead of, for example, appropriating spring rolls by combining them with the ingredients of the very American Philly Cheesesteak.
All of us grow up loving and hating different foods. But that does not mean we have to grow up respecting and disrespecting different foods.
Allison Zhu is a two-year Lower from Shanghai, China