I still remember the horror of going to Panda Express and seeing double orders of orange chicken. Homogenous and drowned in orange-brown goop, these strangely circular rocks deviated from Chinese dishes where dragons carved from carrots guarded ornate platters of whole fish or duck.
However, I have now come to embrace American Chinese cuisine. My second home at school was the enigmatically-named EPS (Eastern Pacific Site?) Corner where I fell in love with the lunch special. A partially frozen spring roll harnessed the crunch of ice crystals to accentuate the crispy fried skin. Meanwhile, the futuristic architectural design transformed half of the restaurant into a glass-domed greenhouse, ensuring comfort in all seasons. Eventually, meat sliced thinner than the finest French chef’s julienne would float in on a pool of miscellaneous oil. I ate at EPS every single week of my senior year except for one. At the end of this week where I skipped this ritual, I was divinely punished with a case of gastroenteritis.
What created this shift? Here begins an investigation into my appreciation of American Chinese food.
Early on in college, I faced an introduction to the historical conception of Asians as unassimilable. Tracing through eugenics, the Page Act of 1875, and Chinese Exclusion, I grappled with my identity in a country that defined citizens as “free white persons” in the Naturalization Act of 1790 and upheld restrictive naturalization laws against Asians until 1952.
I struggled particularly with two Supreme Court cases, Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923). During the 1910s, some Asian-American men successfully petitioned for naturalization, convincing courts of their status as “free white persons.” However, when Takao Ozawa claimed citizenship on the basis of his light skin and American lifestyle, the Supreme Court deemed the Japanese unassimilable. Popular understanding linked whiteness with being Caucasian. One year later, Singh presented scientific evidence of Caucasian ancestors, but the Court stated that an average person’s opinion would deem Hindus permanently tied to non-white ancestry. Subjective personal biases defined American citizenship.
This revelation disavowed the immigrant narrative I grew up with. I had learned that citizenship was a privilege to be earned through diligence, political passivity, and economic success. Instead, I saw that America could have extended citizenship to immigrants without this trial.
I reflected on honorary whiteness, the educational, economic, and professional privilege that I possessed despite the exoticization of the Chinese. I noticed that no matter how much prestige I obtained, I could always be subjugated with a reference to my foreignness. Playful jokes about math skills, Asian male femininity, and tiger moms conveyed that biological determinism, a forfeiture of social skills, and abusive parenting explained my academic success.
Many Asian Americans first feel their foreignness through food. In 2016, NBC Asian America coined the term “Lunch Box Moment.” Bringing a school lunch with pickled kimchi, fragrant curry, or any meat in a more natural state than a processed slice, children recognize that food they consider an essential part of family is foreign and inferior to others.
I don’t remember a specific lunch box moment. I still hear the usual dog-eating humor and the fear of whole fish, chicken feet, or animal heads. Multiple people told me that rice mixed with butter and soy sauce was their favorite Chinese dish.
However, I also recall jokes about American Chinese food. A friend told me his favorite Chinese food was the Great Wall of Chocolate Cake at P.F. Chang’s. Classmates took pride in ignorance of authentic Chinese food, joking that orange chicken must represent the pinnacle of Chinese cuisine. Even when enjoying this take-out cuisine, people restricted Chinese food to cheap dishes that relied on oil and MSG rather than technique or integrity of ingredients. Exoticizing traditional Chinese food underlined my foreignness, yet praise for American Chinese food commended subjugation to an American palette and acceptance of an inferior status. These moments highlighted a dominance–how Chinese restaurateurs adapted their food to an American taste. Even though these statements bothered me, I also condemned American Chinese food. I found pride in being an insider, having access to a superior Chinese cuisine. American Chinese food was lowbrow, a forfeiture of culture.
However, examining this history of citizenship taught me that this cuisine should also be seen as a symbol of resilience. Forced into emasculated, subjugated professions of laundry and food service, immigrant restaurateurs adapted to a dominant white taste in an act of survival. These early restaurateurs found themselves fighting a conception of their bodies being foreign and unassimilable. However, despite this unassimilable nature, food proved the exact opposite–that Asian and American flavors could meld together and gain acceptance.
Somehow, this cultural product from an unassimilable race had become an entry point for immigrants to live in America. Despite the need to appeal to a dominant taste, this adaptation process originated from immigrants themselves. This agency has resulted in the creation of an internationally-known cuisine. Adaptations of Chinese food in European, African, and Latin American countries all exist, and almost no other country outside of France or Italy has developed a cuisine with the same reach. Embracing American Chinese food challenges the immigrant narrative and might be a revolutionary act of self-love. American Chinese food is not only a stepping stone for the next generation to gain economic success as a lawyer, teacher, or doctor but also a testament to ingenuity, resilience, and unity.
Coming soon: How I Came to Love Orange Chicken Part 2: W.E.B. Du Bois and Why I Order White Rice at Panda Express