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April 28 2017

Harvard Grad and Prize-Winning Author Finds Something to Feel Oppressed About

by Charlotte Allen

Let's see--I graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, and I've lived around the world, published three well-received books, and won two prestigious literary prizes--all before or around the time I reached age 30.

So there must be something to feel oppressed about. Oh, I know, so here goes:

One Friday night at a bar in San Francisco, I took a look at the menu and found myself face to face once again with the curious modern-day ubiquity of the Asian salad. The “Asian Emperor Salad,” with its “31 ingredients representing the tastes, textures and flavors of Asia,” stirred something other than hunger in me.

I tried to identify exactly what that was. I made a halfhearted joke to my husband about just which Asian emperor this salad was honoring. I thought about its grand imprecision, which irritated me as a Chinese-American. And I wondered, who cooked up this thing?

I was reasonably sure it wasn’t anyone Asian, but I did some investigating to find out.

So begins Bonnie Tsui's New York Times op-ed, "Why is Asian Salad Still on the Menu"?

Yes, Bonnie Tsui is feeling oppressed because someone slung together a mixture of napa cabbage, ginger dressing, and fried wontons.

In many American restaurants, the Asian salad is right up there next to the Greek salad and the Caesar salad. You might think this is progress — cultural inclusion on a menu. And yet the Asian salad is often the one that comes with a winky, jokey name: Oriental Chop Chop. Mr. Mao’s. Secret Asian Man. Asian Emperor. China Island. Chicken Asian Chop Chop. Chinese-y Chicken.

The persistence of these names — let’s at least call them “questionable” — on the American restaurant menu underscores how non-Asian-Americans have been making up their own version of Asianness for a long time now.

In the weird cultural geography of the casual-restaurant menu, half-century-old jokes about Asians and long-discarded terminology jostle up against chicken tenders and nacho plates.

Oh my.

Am I taking this too seriously? The casual racism of the Asian salad stems from the idea of the exotic — who is and isn’t American is caught up wholesale in its creation. This use of “Oriental” and “Asian” is rooted in the wide-ranging, “all look same” stereotypes of Asian culture that most people don’t really perceive as being racist. It creates a kind of blind spot.

Actually, Tsui doesn't mind "the idea of the exotic" when it comes to high-end restaurants serving up "Asian" cuisine that nobody who lives in Asia has ever heard of:

Even as the actual cuisines of Asia influence and sometimes appear to dominate American food culture — David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants, Roy Choi’s Kogi barbecue-fueled empire, ramen joints and izakaya and Mission Chinese Food by Danny Bowien — these stereotypes persist and control a lot of what’s on the menu in Middle America.

In other words, it's OK for Momofuku to serve up something called "Chicken Meatball Buns – paprika mayo, jalapeno, iceberg lettuce" that sounds about as authentically Asian as a Charlie Chan movie--but woe unto you, Applebee's:

Applebee’s menu features an “Oriental chicken salad” with the following description: “fresh Asian greens tossed in a tasty Oriental vinaigrette.” The “Asian greens” and “Oriental vinaigrette” are so laughably vague as to have no meaning at all. When I asked Applebee’s for more specifics on what made its Asian greens Asian and its Oriental vinaigrette Oriental, a spokesman told me the company was unable to “provide a thorough response.” No kidding.

Bonnie Tsui seems unaware that it was Chinese cooks who originally invented the supposedly ersatz Chinese dishes that Middle America loves so much. Take chop suey, for example, invented during the Gold Rush by the immigrant cooks who fed the Chinese railroad laborers--and ultimate the miners themselves, and everybody else. In the same way that Italian-Americans invented Italian dishes found nowhere in Italy: the sub sandwich, "chicken riggies" and pizza with a lot of stuff on top.

But it's also only in America that you can be a food snob and feel like a victim at the same time. Plus be a Harvard graduate, a prize-winning author, and a resident of one of America's most expensive cities.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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