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.
I have spent half the last 10 years in China, and even when I am using chop sticks, I still often get people telling me how to use them.
I think of the west spending centuries designing and refining the craftsmanship to create specialist implements for eating, including knives, forks and spoons of various shapes and sizes. The training that we take as children to learn to use these implements politely and properly, to assist with ensuring the correct sized portions are placed in the mouth. Eating in the west is an art form, and a reflection of our culture’s evolution.
China, with it’s 5,000 year history, produced two sticks, and want to teach us the right way to eat?
I like the menu. I think one of the best bad translations on a menu I ever saw was in some little sushi place around Houhai. The Chinese said something like 沙漠寿司 but they had translated the sushi as ‘Operation Desert Storm Sushi Roll.’ It isn’t quite as off putting as the included menu translations you have offered above but I always like to mention that sushi place when a conversation steers toward strange translated menus. Nice blog by the way.
I am interested in your opinion on this: What is viewed as rude in the US (sterotyping everyone of the same race/gender/ethnicity etc.), is perhaps indeed the opposite in China. In the US, people like to be positively highlighted for being different than others- unique- special. In China, I have heard that you do not want to be picked out as different than the others- and thus if you characterize someone as a member of a group, saying ‘you all like to eat this’, that is a positive statement.
Yes, conforming is generally valued more in China than in America. It’s not so bad that you’d have no friends for being a little eccentric, though. In some ways Chinese people have a higher tolerance for different behaviors than Americans do, but that’s such a long and nuanced story that I won’t get into it here.
I think that the ‘you all like to eat this’ statement is more like trying to be welcoming to a guest. People in mainland are generally not used to associating with foreigners so it does not occur to them that profiling can be received negatively; they think it is actually rather accommodating. And I suppose, depending on how you take it, you as a foreigner could also feel accommodated, offended, or some mixture of the two.