In a restaurant I eat at often, yet never truly observed, I have discovered the mechanics of a wild conglomeration of Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and Korean cuisine held together by the strong semi-tainting glue that is American cuisine. The local College Park restaurant, Shanghai Tokyo Café, provides us college kids with fairly priced and well-prepared “Asian Fusion” cuisine. Asian fusion has become increasingly popular throughout the United States and is considered to be a ‘trendy’ cuisine. Taking a spin on flavors of Asia, Asian fusion pulls from several styles and creates dishes that appeal to Americans.
While this idea of Asian fusion may seem harmless, the presentation of Asian culture as one giant entity may be sending the wrong message. What is Asian Fusion? Though it sounds self-explanatory and would appear to be simply dishes from multiple Asian countries, this title neglects the strong influence of American cuisine, while simultaneously representing Asian food and culture as one large entity. After spending a couple hours in Shanghai Tokyo Café, I noticed many customers who ordered cuisines from all different sections of the menu, seemingly with no concern or acknowledgment of which culture the dish was based on; I certainly am an offender of this as well. Now, this may seem a bit extreme, how can ordering foods send a wrong message? How can a restaurant that was created by Asian Americans actually be feeding a negative phenomenon regarding Asian Americans? The truth is the collection of cuisines, cultures, and styles in these restaurants perpetuate the categorization of people from various countries as ‘Asian’. Thus, these “Asian Fusion” restaurants are one of the biggest culprits of enforcing the idea that there is one giant category called “Asian”; the unfortunate side effect of this is that in our society, often times once you are in the category of “Asian” there are many assumptions and stereotypes instantaneously attached to your presence.
Additionally, during my observations I witnessed a conversation between a customer and a Caucasian cashier that went as follows,
Customer: “Excuse me, do you know is the curry has any dairy in it? I am allergic”
Cashier: “Um, [he looks around the restaurant back and forth to the kitchen] I’m not sure. I’m sorry, I can’t exactly ask the chefs; I don’t speak Chinese or Japanese or whatever…”
This statement truly perplexed me. Firstly, I began to wonder how these individuals could possibly work together without a common language between them; then I began to consider his final statement, “I don’t speak Chinese Japanese or whatever”, this statement is what initially got me thinking about the presentation of Asian food and culture as one large construct that was the same throughout. Chinese, or Japanese, or whatever; this, for me, embodied the huge mistake made by all “Asian Fusion” restaurants.
What does “Asian” really mean? What does it mean in its current usage today? In contemplating this I cannot help but think of how foolish I would think someone if they were to refer to me as “from the Americas”; the only connection “from the Americas” provides is geographical and the region requirement is so vast that it is almost irrelevant. Doesn’t our society act with the same foolishness when we consider “Asian” to be something more than a geographical label? I believe the umbrella term Asian has been taken to an extreme where it has come to mean too many things and nothing all at once. Meaning, the way in which it is currently used demonstrates that it is supposed to encompass all Asian countries and cultures, I do not believe that one word can effectively complete that task, making the term seem somewhat meaningless.
The understanding and appreciation of the fact that “Asian American” is an extremely broad term that does not actually tell much of anything specific about the individuals who fall under this category is the first step towards abolishing stereotypes assigned to “Asian Americans”.