Chinese food that isn’t: All about American Chinese buffets {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

However, that being said, I have never set foot in China, nor have I ever traveled west of Italy. But I did write this article for a May 2010 issue of TheBurg after wondering about the extreme oddities of a Chinese buffet (especially a jumbo buffet) where overstuffed Americans are shuttled in rapidly to dine in gorgeous settings, plates are cleared silently by beautifully-dressed women, and the myth is perpetuated that Chinese cuisine, via these buffets, is something that Americans are familiar with and somewhat appreciate. No doubt a Chinese buffet is a cultural experience, but of what kind? 

This article was reprinted on examiner.com on May 4, 2010.

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Chinatown, Philadelphia, Summer 2012
Chinatown, Philadelphia, Summer 2012

The Chinese buffet is an American guilty pleasure.

The spacious booths, the gilded gold artwork — everything about a Chinese restaurant appeals to the American preference for having as much salty food as one can handle, the convenience of not cleaning up and the comfort of never running out of Coke. While this may sound uncouth, even I have to admit that I visit a buffet at least once a month.

We in Harrisburg have more Chinese restaurants in a 10-mile radius from our state Capitol than we have McDonald’s and Burger Kings combined. Good Taste on 3rd Street in Midtown (carry-out only) is for lunch, dinner and midnight cravings, offering an extensive, reasonably priced menu of lo mein, chow mein, beef, pork or chicken. Asian Empire Bistro on Union Deposit Road is a sit-down, white-tablecloth venue geared toward dinner or drinks, providing new twists on old favorites like orange beef and shrimp in chili sauce. If this isn’t enough, there are approximately 70 other Chinese restaurants in the Harrisburg area, catering to patrons’ every white rice, rice noodle need.

According to the U.S. Census, the state of Pennsylvania saw a 61% growth of the number of Asian residents between 2000 and 2010. However, for many of us, a Chinese buffet is as much of Asia as we will ever see. While we hold chopsticks and name our Chinese zodiac, we have to admit we know very little about China. Instead, we secretly believe that every meal in China is deep fried and soaked in sauce. In our eyes, Chinese homes probably come standard with an electric waterfall and a tank of live fish.

According to Indigo Som, manager of the blog “Chinese Restaurant Project,” American Chinese buffets are less windows into a foreign culture than they are mirrors of our own. The very existence of a “Chinese buffet” caters to the American need for choice and individualism. Equally, the idea that food should be heavily fried and rapidly consumed parallels the basis of our fast food culture.

Jingxia Yang (Judy) Stiffler, part-time professor of Chinese at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA, said the Chinese view food much differently than the idea promoted at a buffet. While most clients finish a meal at a Chinese buffet in under an hour, an authentic Chinese dinner is an opportunity for patience and togetherness. The family sits around a circular table where several main dishes are placed on a large, central lazy Susan. It is culturally acceptable to eat from your own plate, from the dish in the center or to pass food from plate to plate with a quick “Here, try this.” At buffets, we clutch our plates to our chest as we wait for our share of General Tso’s, but Judy explained, “In China, there is no such thing as your ‘own plate.’ Eating is very communal.” A meal with friends can last four hours or more, starting with a cold salad and liquor and moving to stir fries, meatballs and soups. Dessert is only served for special occasions.

Traditional Chinese food differs from what we find under our buffet heat lamps. The country has five to six major types of cuisine that vary by region. Food from the Chinese province of Szechuan, for example, tends to be spicier (think Szechuan chicken) while food from the north of China is similar to that of Russia (like noodles and pickled cabbage). Vegetables such as bok choy, kai-lan, tomatoes and carrots are central to certain dishes, whereas American Chinese food pushes vegetables aside as garnish.

Judy maintained that American Chinese buffets aren’t necessarily poor representations of her country’s cuisine, but we need to regard American Chinese food for what it is. It represents both a nation of 1.3 billion people and a nation with a population one quarter of China’s — ours.

In Harrisburg, Paxton Street’s Jumbo Buffet welcomes the same patrons as the nearby Planet Fitness. Evergreen Chinese Buffet on the Carlisle Pike serves clients in a neonlit former diner. Across social and ethnic boundaries, we value equally the ability to promptly cater to our own tastes, and we rub shoulders with the neighbors with whom we would otherwise never speak. A Chinese buffet becomes a cultural intersection — a place where we are fully American and then some.

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