“You know, that’s not authentic Chinese food.”
I’d imagine that most of us have heard someone evaluate take-out from a local chop suey restaurant as “not authentic.” Some of us, myself included, have probably made this critique ourselves. The reason behind this pervasive accusation seems clear: we don’t want people thinking that Americanized Asian food is comparable to the food in Asia.
In my experience, Chinese Americans are quick to condemn others for believing that food like General Tso’s chicken or fortune cookies are actually Chinese. Other Asian Americans likely do the same. Yet, we fail to take the next step and ask, how should we label this type of food? Simply referring to chop suey as “fake Chinese food” is misguided. We shouldn’t expect Asian American restaurant owners to produce authentic Asian food. Instead, their food should reflect their circumstances and convey their story as Asian Americans; we should acknowledge their food as Asian American.
The lack of Asian American food, or rather our inability to recognize Asian American food, derives from our tendency to define the Asian American experience in terms of duality— a clash between our ethnic identity and American culture. Shows like Fresh Off the Boat, which follows an Asian immigrant family as they balance preserving their Chinese heritage with adjusting to American life, exemplify this concept of duality. Like Americanized Asian food, Asian Americans are regarded as American by Asians and Asian by Americans. We lack a coherent label (i.e. an identity) because we’re constantly struggling to reconcile these competing ideals.
Consider the fortune cookie. History and popular thought has deemed the fortune cookie an American invention. To be sure, the modern fortune cookie likely originated in California. Yet, we categorize the fortune cookie as American, rather than Asian American, even though Asian immigrants in the United States produced and served the first fortune cookies. If an Asian American identity existed beyond the context of duality, I believe we would describe food like the fortune cookie as Asian American— but it doesn’t, and we don’t. Contrast this manner of thinking with how people label soul food. Although soul food originated in the southeastern United States, we consider soul food African American, not merely American.
African Americans developed soul food in the United States. Likewise, Asian Americans created the fortune cookie in the United States. However, we label the former as “African American” while we refer to the latter as simply “American.” What explains this discrepancy? I posit that we lack the ability to conceptualize “Asian American food” because Asian Americans have yet to form a palpable identity. A coherent racial identity removes the need for one to choose between two seemingly irreconcilable sides by creating a third distinct category.
Our discourse must move past the idea of duality if we are to realize a truly racial identity. The formation of this Asian American racial identity begins with the development and recognition of an Asian American culture (e.g. food, art, music) that is distinct, but emerges, from both Asian and American cultures.