A Chinese person asking me if I’m used to using chopsticks and eating Chinese food has always been a sure way to tick me off, especially if that conversation is in Chinese. You would figure they would know that if I speak Chinese, I must have been studying at least a few years, and that in those few years, I would have to have eaten to survive, and in the unlikely scenario that I don’t eat pizza and hamburger every single day, then I might have still picked up a pair of chopsticks. I typically call them out in some way; “If I’m not used to Chinese food, wouldn’t I have starved by now?” or something.
After a trip to Fujian province with a group of Chinese friends, I’ve changed my stance a bit. Fujian prides itself on seafood. America also has seafood, and in New England, where I grew up, there is no shortage. And yet Chinese vs. American seafood is perhaps the most different of parallel cuisines. I grew up on clam chowder and fish and chips. In Fujian, we were slurping slimy bits right off the seashells. I realized that as much as I tried to learn the difference between the Chinese words for clam, oyster, and mussel, that I never would because I don’t know the difference really in English.
I admit, I finished a lot of meals unsatisfied. I tried everything, and enjoyed most of it. But I was in no way satiated enough by Fujian seafood to feel like I had a meal. Of course my friends wanted it everyday, given that it was the local cuisine. I had to order a lot of noodles and come to terms with the fact that, indeed, I was not “used to” all parts of Chinese cuisine.
Which is actually just fine. I take no issue with my good Chinese friends joking about my American taste. However, when a waitress comes up to my table and says, “You all like this, order this” (“you all” referring to all white people, or, as she sees it, all Westerners), this is a different matter. Whether or not I do like Kung Pao Chicken （宫保鸡丁）is besides the point. If you are American or otherwise come from an ethnically diverse society, then I need not preach to the choir.
I’ve asked the waitresses a few times why they assume I’ll like whatever-food, but for the most part I let it slide. One time a waitress saw me at the counter, ready to order, and very amiably suggested that I go down a few stalls to the hamburger joint. She was not being rude or curt; she actually thought she was being helpful. So I humored her and asked why she did not think I could eat at her restaurant. “It’s just that most foreigners come here looking for that restaurant, so I wanted to help you.” No harm meant. Still, I pointed out that since I speak Chinese (which she knew already before suggesting I leave) that didn’t it seem like I could also eat Chinese food? She laughed and shrugged.
When I get as used to Chinese seafood as I am with Tex-Mex, if that ever happens, then I’ll have some real ammo for my battle on profiling white people in China. In the meantime, best to keep it simple and use discretion.