BEFORE READING PLEASE NOTE THAT AUTHENTICITY IS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT. PRETTY MUCH EVERY TIME I WRITE AUTHENTIC WHAT I MEAN IS “AUTHENTIC”
Americans are obsessed with authenticity. We are a nation of immigrants, not even three hundred years old, with no dominant cultural tradition other than Christianity, and even that is splintered into smaller spheres of influence. The only universal folktale is the American Dream, the only universal hero George Washington, who manages to get a free pass on slavery because he looks good in comparison to TJ.
Americans pursue authenticity in a myriad of ways, most of which fall into the following two categories:
1) Being Authentically American
2) Being Authentically Something That Has a Cultural Legacy of More Than 236 Years
Things that fall under category 1: white supremacists, fundamentalist churches, extreme assimilation by immigrants (i.e. a complete rejection of all things associated with the country of origin including but not limited to language, food, and clothing), Cowboy and Indian movies, self-loathing POCs, the NRA, the Tea Party, LA circa 1950
Things that fall under category 2: appropriationist hipsters, Hare Krishna, Starbucks, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants looking to reconnect with their cultural roots, people who complain that New York isn’t Paris, The Karate Kid, Eat, Pray, Love, and other movies about other cultures where none of the main characters are from that culture, slum tourism, a significant portion of gap years, “Navajo” chic.
Note: The concept of authentic “blackness” is something that doesn’t fit entirely into either of these categories. Blackness (as opposed to African-ness) is typically considered to be an authentic American tradition but is not considered to be representative of the American tradition as a whole. American is commonly used as a synonym for white; to designate a black American, some sort of modifier is necessary (case in point).
And now the part where I talk about sweet-and-sour chicken.
Sweet and sour chicken is as authentically American as pizza and hamburgers. Like pretty much all “American” foods, it is a bastardized version of a dish from another culture that has evolved so as to be basically unrecognizable/unreproducable by members of that culture. It is also pretty damn good.
First layer of awkward: To a not-unsubstantial percentage of the American population, sweet and sour chicken represents authentic, exotic Chinese food. When people eat sweet and sour chicken and think that it is authentic, they display a certain level of ignorance about Chinese culture that is mildly infuriating/hilarious to many Chinese Americans. I realize that this seems somewhat unfair, but as a child who was told by a 3rd grade teacher that Chinese people eat fortune cookies to celebrate Chinese New Year, and as a child who then got in trouble for informing said teacher that fortune cookies are American, and as a child who was accused of eating cat, and as a child whose dumplings “smelled like MSG,” I can attest to the fact that ignorance about food is often linked to other, nastier types of ignorance.
Second layer of awkward: There is a segment of the non-Asian American population that has realized that sweet and sour chicken is not authentically Chinese and therefore goes very far out of its way to prove how truly cool and awesome and adventurous it is, while snobbishly looking down on sweet and sour chicken-eaters. These people think of your culture as being a consumer good. No matter what you say to them they will always be more Chinese than you, are too open-minded to ever be racist, and are really fucking annoying.
Third layer of awkward: I was not raised in an “authentically Chinese” household. I’m a half white kid from the South, which is a depressingly large Asian food desert. I wasn’t friends with Asian people because there weren’t any. I identify as Asian/Chinese because that’s what everyone always told me I was, not because I was raised in any particular tradition. Translation: I AM A POSER. The only difference between my experiences with authentically Asian food and culture-consumers’ experiences with authentically Asian food is that I’ve got a Chinese mom who has got a Chinese mom who has on at least one occasion killed a pigeon from her balcony and made soup with it (isn’t it awkward how I’m using that anecdote to shock people into accepting my half-baked claim on authenticity?)
Things that go through my mind when I consider ordering sweet and sour chicken:
1) Am I eating with white people? I will counterbalance my sweet and sour chicken order with a very loud and obnoxious yet casual statement about how sweet and sour chicken isn’t REAL Chinese food but probably I will make that statement and still not order sweet and sour chicken.
2) Am I eating with Asian people?
2a) Are these Asian people more Asian than me? Nope no chicken.
2b) Are these Asian people problematically self-identified twinkies? I’m already judging them way harder than they’re going to be able to judge me. Sweet and sour goodness come to mama.
2c) Are these Asian people actually my friends? I will start a hilarious conversation about all of my sweet and sour feelings and then order sweet and sour chicken.
3) Am I eating alone?
3a) Are there lots of white people around?
3a) i. Will these white people be able to tell that I’m part Asian? Well poop, if I’m eating sweet and sour chicken, I’ll be reinforcing their ignorance.
3a) ii. These white people will definitely not be able to tell that I’m part Asian. I could get away with ordering sweet and sour chicken but this is also an opportunity to educate the masses….I’m going to order something made with organ meat.
3b) Are there lots of Asian people around? LOOK, SEE I’M ONE OF YOU. I’M NOT ORDERING SWEET AND SOUR CHICKEN.
4) I need to go home and meditate on my privilege.
My cravings for sweet and sour chicken are a feedback loop from hell. If I give in, I’m a bad Asian and I’m enabling ignorance. If I don’t, I’m a pretentious douchebag who’s buying into and reinforcing societal expectations of what authentic Asian-ness is.
Screw this. I’m getting pho.