Pure Racism and Chinese Dining

There are several kinds of racism. The roots and the dynamics of racism are among the most interesting sociological issues. Here is a small but important fragment of the whole matter. The most common kind of racism involves three separate mental operations: 1 Assign an individual to a group; 2 Assign certain undesirable features of character or culture to the same group; 3 Assign these same undesirable characteristics to the individual because he belongs to the group.

The most pure form of common racism I know used to make me laugh. Of late, it has begun to annoy me. Here is a relevant story.

I pick up my wife at the airport after a short trip. We go out to celebrate our reunion. My wife wants to eat Chinese food. There is a Chinese restaurant near the airport where I have had excellent dinners in the past. It’s a large and old establishment with many Chinese customers. In fact, every time I have been there, I was with Chinese friends.

We sit down a little early. I don’t like the early bird menu, of course; I don’t like the regular menu either; the “specials” menu is not much more attractive. None of these menus corresponds well with my golden memory of the several original meals I have had there. I ask the waitress if there is a Chinese menu with different dishes than are on the English-language menu. “No,” she says. My wife and I order the less boring dishes from the main menu.

Within minutes a dish of crab with snow-peas appears on a nearby table. There are four Chinese-looking people sitting around the table. I check; crab and snow-peas is not on any of my menus. I call the waitress. She acts as if she did not know what I am talking about. In truth, I don’t know if she does understand me. I have been there before. I come prepared. I pull out of my wallet a little note in Chinese characters a Chinese friend has prepared for me. The friend is a well-educated man who bears me no ill-will. The note reads:

This foreign (barbarian or ghost) actually likes our traditional Chinese dishes, including organ meat. Please, serve him anything he asks for. He will pay without discussion for everything he orders.

The waitress reads the note distractingly, smiles brightly and moves on. She is busy; waitresses are always busy. Besides, I have no way to know how well she reads Chinese characters. She does not come from the Shanghai urban upper-class elite schools, in all likelihood. However, one of the two advantages of age is that your intuition improves with experience. (I don’t quite remember what the other advantage is.) I know I am being ignored and taken for a ride but there is not much I can do. I eat my mediocre westernized dish because I am hungry but it’s not as good as what either my wife or I could cook at home. Meantime, the Chinese table nearby is having a good time.

I have lived forty years in California, where there are Chinese restaurants at every street corner. Early on, a long time ago, when I was a in community college, a San Francisco Chinese waiter staved off malnutrition by slipping me double helpings of fried rice (also known as “rice fried with whatever leftovers”). Four of those forty years I spent in San Francisco, with its large Chinese-originated population. Yet, I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of times I have enjoyed really good Chinese food in America. That was enough however to convince me that there is such a thing outside the private Chinese homes where I have also enjoyed myself. Every single time I ate good Chinese food in an American restaurant but one, I was accompanied by a Chinese or by a Chinese-American person. Nearly every other time I had a mediocre to a horrible experience. The last time my wife and I tried to have lunch in Chinatown Number 2 (Clement Street) in San Francisco, by ourselves, the waitress first told us there was no lamb on the menu. When we pointed to five different lamb items in the bi-lingual menu, she said OK with resignation. Then, she brought up a dish of Mongolian-style something or other drenched in some sweet sauce but nevertheless without flavor. It took us but a few minutes to recognize that the lamb was actually chicken, not even an inventive substitution.

It would be wrong to imagine that the company of a Chinese person always saved me from bad food. Two episodes stand out. Once, after class, I am chatting with one of my MBA students from Taiwan. She is a slight, pretty woman with a great deal of aplomb. She occupies an important position in her company and she is obviously well-educated. It’s noontime. Knowing what I know, I invite her for lunch at a nearby greasy chopsticks. I like that place because it serves the kinds of disgusting foods that both the Chinese and the French relish (I Used to Be French) I am referring to parts of animals’ bodies you don’t even know exist.

I want beef tendon with noodles. People who eat tendon like it for its gelatinous texture. It’s quite distinctive. There is no other meat or part like it. It’s permanently on the menu there but I have already failed twice in ordering it. I figure my well-turned out, upper-class, authoritative Chinese companion will pull rank on the scruffy waiter and obtain for me what I want. What I want is a seven-dollar dish of beef tendon, in black on white on the menu. My companion confirms that the dish is also advertised in big Chinese characters on the wall. She conducts a brief conversation with the waiter to order. Negativism is written all over his face and he turns around abruptly toward the kitchen. He comes back carrying two big bowls of noodles with braised beef. Not a shred of tendon in sight.

This time, I am pissed off, in part because the scruffy waiter with the grease-spotted, formerly white serving-jacket has caused my female companion to lose face. Although his English appear limited I half-yell at him, “What the hell is wrong? My friend ordered tendon – pointing at the right sign on the wall, and then at my bowl – This is not tendon, NOT!” I am a big man coming from a long lineage of colonial oppressors. At least, I read a bit of anxiety in the waiter’ s eyes. He is not sure I am not going to strike him next. He mutters something in Mandarin. “What did he say?” I ask my companion. Her face has become greenish with anger. “He says that I mispronounced the word for ‘tendon.’” “Any chance?” I ask. “No way, she says, the words for ‘tendon’ and for ‘brisket’ are not even close.” We stomp out and go for a burger. I am re-pissed.

Another Chinese MBA student is also picking my brain after school. This one is a guy, the Chief Financial Officer of his successful Silicon Valley company. I advise him that the first twenty minutes are student advising and after that, it becomes professional consulting and he has to pay my rate. My rate is high because I don’t really want to do consulting. I add that he can avoid paying any bill at all if he will promise me an unforgettable Chinese dinner of his choice. He likes the proposal. We agree to meet far away from campus and even farther from my town. On the appointed day, in a pricey-looking restaurant, he has a little conference in Chinese with the waitress. She keeps turning her head toward me and she motions “No.” The young man calls the manager. He starts the discussion anew with the manager. Same routine. Finally, the manager leaves with his order. “Did it work out, I ask?” “Only partly, I had to compromise. He did not want to serve us all that I wanted because of you.” Couldn’t be more clear. We eat pretty well, but I am sure I missed out on something.

Back to the airport night. I pay my bill with a sense of waste. Then, I spot a Chinese man in his forties who is walking around with an eye to the service. He asks me how my dinner was, perfunctorily, California-surfer-by-day style. I tell him it was OK but not very good. He seems dismayed. We start chatting. I let it slip that I like “authentic” food, that I cook a bit myself, that I collect mussels, and that right now, I have five pounds of fresh chanterelle mushrooms waiting for me at home. Suddenly, his face opens up as if he had been wearing a mask the minute before and the space between us fills with warmth. Yes, they have a Chinese menu; no they don’t usually propose it to “Caucasians” unless they are known personally. It’s up to the discretion of the waitress. “Next time, you talk to me and I will tell you what available.” I am not from the Caucasus, fucker! I haven’t even been there!

For the hundredth time, that night, a half-literate, provincial immigrant, perhaps right off the boat, has taken one look at me and used the only thing she knows about me, my appearance, my race in other words, to classify me. She has determined that I belong to a group that could not possibly appreciate the subtlety, the elegance, the sophistication of real, of good Chinese food. She has decided on the spot that the usual “Caucasian” slop was good enough for the likes of me and my wife. Incidentally, my wife is from India and looks it.

That’s racism in its pure form.

8 thoughts on “Pure Racism and Chinese Dining

  1. “a half-literate, provincial immigrant, perhaps right off the boat” – I am almost certain the article mentioned zero evidence that would support such a dismissive, elitist, racist claim.

  2. Marco: It’s not an “article,” it’s a story. Are you saying that there are no “half-literate, provincial immigrants, perhaps right of the boat,” or are you saying that I did not give scientific evidence that the man I refer to in the story was one? Or, are you disturbed because one is never, never allowed to say. “half-literate,” or “provincial immigrant,” or “right off the boat”? Get a life!

    PS I used to be a half-literate, provincial immigrant right off the boat myself. Does saying this make me a dismissive elitistt? Jesus, life is complicated!

  3. That was pretty funny.

    Good Chinese food is hard to find, but not impossible. This place, in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, is pretty authentic, or so I’m told by someone who ought to know:


    I guess you can’t taste it from where you are, but maybe the menu is informative. Alas, it’d be a pretty long hike for you. You might as well just go to China at that rate.

    Maybe it was precisely the presence of your Indian wife that made things worse? Perhaps the legacy of the Sino-Indian wars lives on.


    I occasionally eat at an Indian restaurant that describes itself as serving the food of “all of South Asia,” which according to the menu includes India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Hmm. In New Jersey, ordinary “hummus” becomes “hummus beyrouti” if you eat it in a Lebanese restaurant. Lettuce and tomatoes thrown together become an “Israeli salad” in an Israeli restaurant. Soft culinary power.

    Maybe this is just me, but I find that the following generalization holds for restaurants serving cuisine eaten in South and East Asia: the better the food, the worse the service. If the food is sufficiently good, they act as though they’re doing you a favor by being there at all. Unfortunately, the converse doesn’t quite hold: bad food is compatible with middling to poor service. But good food entails ill treatment.

    • All useful pointers but, you are right, I might just as well go have dinner in China as in New Jersey. Of course, I will be treated with racism either place. What’s maddening is not that Chines restaurants are bad in my area; it’s that they are good, precisely, but not for me. I have sumptuous food in Hong Kong; capitalism trumps prejudice!

  4. “But good food entails ill treatment.”

    Well this certainly explains many French restaurants 😉

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