Cultural and Intercultural Functions of Chinese Restaurants in the Mountain West: An Insider's Perspective

By Li, Li | Western Folklore, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Cultural and Intercultural Functions of Chinese Restaurants in the Mountain West: An Insider's Perspective


Li, Li, Western Folklore


As Jan Harold Brunvand points out (Brunvand 1998:591), folk foods (in which category we can also include the kinds of ethnic and national foods I will discuss here) are unique among traditional expressions because they are so "quickly and wholly consumed" by their makers and eaters (their performers and audiences, in folklore terms). Since traditional foods appear and disappear so constantly, a proper study of food folklore must focus not only on the foods themselves, but also on the cultural codes that determine how and why they are produced, and on the customs, assumptions, and shared tastes on which these codes are founded. Virtually all studies of foodlore that go beyond regional recipe books take the contextual, culturally constructed dimension to be at least as important as the resultant foods themselves-often more so, as a look through Brunvand's extensive bibliography indicates (1998:609-614). Most of the essays in the special foodways issue of Western Folklore (vol. 40 [1981]) are also related to the cultural, rather than the metabolic, aspects of food, as are the essays by Yvonne R. and William G. Lockwood, Janet S. Theophano, David Shuldiner, Carolyn Lipson-Walker, Larry Danielson, Olivia Cadaval, and Susan Auerbach in Stephen Stern's and John Allan Cicala's Creative Ethnicity: Symbols and Strategies of Contemporary Ethnic Life (1991). By now, that is, the ethnic dimension of folk foods is more often assumed than questioned.

Even so, many studies are shaped by outside inquirers who, though fascinated by the food customs and convinced of their importance, approach their topics without deep personal experience in the assumptions that lie behind the customs they seek to document and discuss. The insider, on the other hand (and several of the articles indicated above were written by members of the community being studied), faces another problem: deep personal acquaintance makes it difficult to be objective about the details of the tradition-a dilemma resolved in part by access to the nuances of language not available to the outsider. The present essay lies somewhere between these two positions for, although the author is a native-born Chinese, the American Chinese traditions discussed here are not exactly what a Chinese "insider" might initially expect to find. For one thing, while many Chinese dishes in America reflect their regional origins in China with great accuracy, others are new or modified. Thus, in addition to the topic of cultural maintenance or cultural identity through food (which we more or less expect to see), we have a record of modification and change in response to the American cultural environment, which provides evidence of subtle cultural pressures expressed in food more fully than in words. We will also see that Chinese food in American restaurant form plays an important role in active, ongoing cultural relations-as is the case with many national cuisines now resident in the United States.

One can hardly find a town in the western United States that does not offer at least one Chinese restaurant. Chinese food, like Italian food, has become almost ubiquitous in American everyday life: Americans take their dates to Chinese restaurants, they take their whole families out on weekend evenings for fancy Chinese dinners, or they order a take-out when they have to work overtime at their businesses. However, Chinese restaurants in America not only serve their function as restaurants but also represent Chinese culture and help Chinese-Americans or overseas Chinese to re-experience and maintain many of their cultural values.

Chinese food and the functions it serves represent Chinese traditions, customs, personal points of view, skills, and experiences. Chinese food is good to eat, yet it is troublesome to prepare, since cooking Chinese food properly is like creating a piece of art, and to Chinese it requires a Chinese hand. This may bring up some questions: Can Chinese food in America really be "authentic"? …

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