Li: Our foods and our culture

I rarely complain about food. But let truth be told, I’ve never been fond of the stuff served in our dining halls — except, perhaps, the yogurt. A proud descendant of the ancient civilization in the Far East, I have always considered stuffing my mouth with the smelly liquid that is blood squeezed from “medium rare” steaks rather barbaric and thought calling raw, uncooked carrots and baby spinach “salad” rather than “bunny food” the definitive characterization of human hypocrisy.

What can I say? Old (eating) habits die hard; I just love good Chinese food, especially the hot, spicy kind from my mountainous, underdeveloped hometown in southwest China.

But finding an authentic place — where the food reminds me of my home — in New Haven has been hard. American interpretations just don’t cut it. “Stir,” proudly presented by Commons, failed to meet my demanding expectations since its debut. To me, regardless of the Ivy Noodle owner’s presence in the kitchen of Commons, the well-intentioned practice of calling “Stir” Chinese is like calling Pizza Hut Italian.

The landscape of Chinese food in the city of New Haven is no more promising. Most restaurants in the city attract customers not because of their authenticity, but because of their cheap prices. In fact, Ivy Noodle, the main purveyor of Chinese food in New Haven actually serves Singaporean cuisine. But Americans can’t get enough.

Real Chinese food is often another story. After much searching, I found a small hole-in-the wall that served what I consider authentic Chinese food — a spicy hot pot dinner with an unlimited supply duck intestines, chicken feet and cow lungs among other delicacies. But I’ve been to this restaurant, Great Wall, many times and not once have I seen another American. Perhaps this stuff is just too disgusting for them.

Admittedly, there is an upscale restaurant that sells many of these same foods that is well attended by local customers. But this restaurant is not authentic; like most Chinese restaurants in America it has light pink tablecloths, white teacups, Shirley Temples and fortune cookies, things that would never be found in China. Instead, real Chinese restaurants have a television fixed on China Central Television’s news program. Before every headline, there is the same Chairman Mao-era background music. It’s these types of restaurants that me bring me back to the days of childhood when I sat and had hot pot dinner with my parents.

For Americans, though, this is not the way to satiate a yen for “Chinese food.”

Appropriating food to a particular culture is not just an American phenomenon. Six and a half years ago, McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Beibie, my home city. Now, as you may recall, my hometown’s nothing like Beijing of Shanghai; at the time, we didn’t have Burger King or Wendy’s. For that matter, there weren’t even very many Americans. I remember anxiously waiting in the horrendously long line with my mom (who promised to reward my diligence in school with spicy chicken wings and french fries) for the big red clock above McDonald’s M-shaped entrance to strike 12 p.m. We — along with a sea of Chinese kids and their parents — wanted a taste of America.

I think our tendency to wrongly believe certain foods are authentic, comes from lack of exposure. After spending three years in New Haven (and other parts of the U.S.), I know there is more to American food than Big Macs and supersized cups of Coca Cola. There is more to an American restaurant than a walk-up counter, plastic booths and Playland. But most of my American counterparts haven’t had such an experience — they’ve neither been exposed to Chinese food on its own turf nor found themselves in a completely foreign culture realizing that the interpretation of their culture’s food is nothing like the one of their home.

This is not to say that one cannot enjoy the hybrid food. I still go to Ivy Noodle frequently (and I do love fortune cookies). But we need to realize that this food is not a true representation. Instead, it is its own entity distinct both from the home culture and the one it inhabits.

Robert Li is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.

Comments

  • An Indian

    And ditto about Indian food! I am still looking for a restaurant that serves food from my part of India (the East).

  • An American

    I don’t think any of us are deluded enough to think that what’s in the dining halls or the local restaurants is anything like authentic. The term “Chinese food” doesn’t mean “food from China,” it means fried rice and general’s chicken and spring rolls etc. It’s American food, maybe distantly Chinese inspired, eaten with chopsticks and never complete without a fortune cookie. I can understand your frustration, but it does make sense that in America, the restaurants are going to serve what Americans typically want.

    And honestly, the dining hall doesn’t do such a great job with the American food either. While I’m here, I would kill for a nice beef stew, or a real steak served with well-cooked vegetables, or pasta with good sauce and garlic bread that actually has garlic on it. And it’s not like there’s any restaurants around here that serve “home cooking.” The taste of home is important to all of us, and we’re all missing it.

  • Lolz

    An American nailed it.

    Admittedly, some Yalies are stupid, but the overwhelming majority of us do not consider Thai Taste, Ivy Noodle, Bulldog Burrito, etc to be remotely authentic. We frequent them because they are different enough from the ordinary fare, cheap enough, and good enough.

    That said, I do feel sorry for Chinese kids because Ivy Noodle is terrible.

  • y’11

    Basil is delicious!!

  • Streever

    Ivy Noodle is awful.

    Great Wall is fantastic: I eat there, and I’m surprised at how few “westerners” I see there too. I actually preferred it when it was the hole in the wall behind the grocery store and was a more frequent customer.

    As an american, I can tell you one problem I have there is I’m always steered toward the buffet, which is lackluster & no where near as good as the old buffet or the regular menu…

  • Sarah

    Hi Robert,

    Ivy Noodles is definitely not representative of Singaporean/Malaysian food. Most of the small and inexpensive food stalls I eat at back home are better. Just so you know.

  • Sarah

    Come visit this summer and I’ll show you real Singaporean food!

  • sigh

    i am so, so sick of yalies complaining about the food in the dining hall. i guarantee we have among the best in the country. please go to any other college and see if potato and leek gratin is EVER on the menu. or go talk to the people at the downtown evening soup kitchen (who eat our leftovers, by the way), and see how grateful they are for a good, well-balanced meal.

    honestly, we are so lucky. and it makes the rest of us sound like jerks when a spoiled few are always complaining.

  • anonymous

    I don’t know whether Ivy Noodle has anything to do with China or, Singapore, or whatever, but I am loving it.
    I think this whole text is beside the point. “Ethnic” restaurants are not about authenticity or about making homesick people feel better. They are about giving an average consumer something sufficiently different, and yet still not to radical.

  • @#8

    Saying it’s not like home isn’t necessarily saying we don’t appreciate the quality. Face it: no mass-produced meal is going to be as good as what your parents make, and it’s natural to miss what your parents make.

  • kmherb

    There are plenty of “Westerners” at Great Wall. It depends on the time of day. I have been there when my husband and I are the only non-Asians and I have been there when Asians are in the minority.

  • Goldie ’08

    Does commons still serve clam strips on fridays? Best meal at Yale

  • Recent Alum

    Boring

  • yale 11

    @sigh,

    We pay 250,000+ to go here.

    I expect better food.

    Would you pay $20 for McDonalds? NO

    So why pay the insane room/board fees and get crappy food?

  • A thought…

    @14
    Or, you could simply choose to not pay those fees: live off campus, make your own food, save money, and be happier while still getting a Yale education. I am doing it, you can do it too!
    Yale bubble much? Whiner.

  • ong

    li is just random. what social benefits does this op-ed bring to yale community?

  • anonymous

    living off campus for $20 a day without xtra money from parents is fantasy. try it. and you certainly won’t be eating anything organic…not to say I don’t enjoy it otherwise, but it was an eyeopener.

  • BACK UP

    While i find your argument fascinating and valid, it is so only to a point. Your argument hinges on two things: authenticity and the power of personal (read subjective) experience. If we deal with the later first we can imagine the following scenario: an American who has been raised on general tso’s chicken, pot stickers, and egg foo young goes to china and has an “authentic” chinese meal that you would approve of; along one line of logic she or he has had an authetic meal, but if we follow your lines of nostalgic remeberance and the personal (subjective) as arbitrtor of correctness, perhaps the American has not had Chinese food; it doesn’t fit what he or she personally knows or has experianced to be Chinese food. So for me, the personal/subjective cannot be a stable enough ground upon which to build your argument. So we are left with the idea of “authenticity;” the only way for this to work is to assume that there is such a thing as the “authentic thing.” This is a sweeping assumption, shaky at best, free floating and plastic at worst. So, while i agree with the sentiment of the piece, the logic behind it leaves something to be desired.

    as per #16′s comment, food is a highly political and contested site of cultural work. One can easily look at this piece, see beyond the sentiment and look at what and whom is being implicated here: Americanization, transnationalism, globalization, social construction, etc. Even within the comments, already people have touched upon class and privilege and displayed an awareness of money and what it should secure for you; all this from an article about food. I would say it brings plenty to the Yale community.