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.