I spend a lot of time eating, making, talking, and thinking food. Food is fascinating because it is the nexus of a myriad of factors – it can signify culture, race, migration, tradition, modernization, and politics, to name a few. A couple years back I read an interesting article in the National Post about the Chinese restaurant and how there is one located in virtually every small town across North America. Chinese restaurants, then, are not merely about food, but about adaptation and migration of the people who run them.
There have been many conversations about what constitutes ‘authentic’ Chinese food and what is ‘fake’ or ‘Americanized/Canadianized’ Chinese food. I had never had chicken balls or egg rolls until my first year of university, and I still balk at the sight of the bright red sweet and sour syrup that accompanies most Canadian-Chinese meals. It doesn’t mean that these menus are more or less ‘Chinese’ (whatever that means), and it certainly does not make it less ‘authentic’ (another word that no longer has currency). This food, although invented in North America, was created by Chinese people who had to find a medium between the food of their hometowns and the food that their new customers would enjoy. As the spectrum of Chinese food is ever widening to include cuisines from other parts of China and its massively global diaspora, Canadian/American-Chinese food is slowly evolving and moving away from its deep fried aesthetic.
This is what surprised me on a recent visit to a Chinese restaurant near my home in Toronto. I don’t live near Chinatown and there isn’t a whole lot of Chinese anything near my place, but I was craving fried noodles so I ventured into the Good View Restaurant just a couple blocks away. At first glance it seemed to be one of those typical Chinese restaurants catering to white people. The menu had the usual fried rice, noodles, egg rolls. My boyfriend, from China, had never tried Canadian-Chinese food, so on a whim I ordered him a Combo that came with egg fried rice, stir fried veggies, sweet and sour chicken ball, and an egg roll. I ordered myself a beef ho fun.
We had to wait ten minutes for our order, much to my surprise. It would mean that our food was fresh, a departure from the cheap Canadian-Chinese eats I subsisted on my freshman year of university. As we waited, I looked around the restaurant and saw telltale signs of feng shui at work – the glass partition at the door, the fish tank behind the cash register, the green frog at the tip bowl with the coin in its mouth. These clearly were not for decor, but for the peace of mind of the owner. The woman who took my order was from Hong Kong but I felt somewhat ashamed to be ordering chicken balls in Cantonese, so I stuck to English. We took our food and hurried home.
The food was surprisingly good and fresh, and I even liked the chicken balls and fried rice. My beef ho fun was cooked the way I liked it, prompting my boyfriend to ask, if maybe they cooked differently for Chinese people. We decided we would go back.
We went back with my sister, her non-Chinese boyfriend, and my cousin visiting from Hong Kong who was here to learn English. We decided to eat in and consequently were the only table with Asians. We felt kind of silly sitting there, but each ordered a combo with egg roll, except my sister and I substituted for the more Hong Kong-esque spring roll.
After the food arrived, my boyfriend struck up a conversation with the woman serving us. Although she initially greeted us with a dour expression, she immediately warmed up to us while conversing in heavily Cantonese-accented Mandarin.
The restaurant had been in this location for 15 years and she was the third generation to run the restaurant. Her father was in the kitchen frying up our food and her daughters helped out while attending university nearby. She was from Hong Kong and belonged to the wave of migration from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1980s. Many of her customers were bankers and lawyers from the financial district and during the school year she served university students. She told us that she always packed a little more rice for the students, whom she loved serving because they were always polite and ravenously ate their fill. She also smiled while speaking about how they had to alter their menu for ‘white people’. “You know that my father is a real chef because of his fried rice.” And it is true, the mark of an excellent chef is in the quality of his/her fried rice. The fried rice there was deliciously fluffy, not overfried or undercooked, and not oily, but dry.
I felt a sense of solidarity because my own grandparents ran a diner in small town Alberta during the 60s before rampant racism drove them and their young family to the more cosmopolitan city of Calgary.
At that point the conversation shifted towards my second cousin, who was tucking into a giant plate of satay beef and rice. Her English is fairly limited, having spent less than a month in Canada. The woman switched over to her native Cantonese and asked her how she felt in Canada. My second cousin shrugged and said she liked it.
Woman: “One month is not enough time! You should at least spend half a year here. Learning English is like climbing a tree. You can’t just put one foot on the roots, you have to keep climbing up.”
My shy cousin just smiled bashfully.
“You need to learn from her [points at my sister] and go after a gwai zai [loose translation: white boy].”
My sister’s boyfriend didn’t understand but he did understand gwai zai at least. My cousin simply blushed deeper.
The woman continued, “I knew a friend who came from China to Saskatoon [middle of Canadian nowhere] to learn English and she told herself, ‘I will find myself a white boy and learn English and when I do I’ll dump him!’ Such bad luck to say these things you know? I told her, ‘God will strike you from the skies!’ and you know what? She still hasn’t found a white boyfriend.”
The conversation had taken a very hilarious turn. It was moving deftly back and forth between the old immigrant and the new, from the veteran to the newly Anglicized. It spoke to perceptions, objectification, and negotiation of culture (the ‘white boy’ comments, the acknowledgements of the ‘type’ of Chinese food that was wanted by the non-Chinese community). And all because of food.
Food has and always will be the frontier of cultural interaction.