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“You All Like to Eat This”: Responding to Chinese People Saying You Can’t Eat Chinese Food

By: Hannah Lincoln

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 hamburgers every single day, then I might have picked up a pair of chopsticks. I typically call them out in some way; “If I’m not used to Chinese food AND CHOPSTICKS, wouldn’t I have starved by now?” or something.

After the recent Fujian trip with Professors Fan Ke and Simon and many other HNC 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 and American seafood are 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 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 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 tastes. 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 like Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁)is beside 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 it should appear that 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, it’s best to keep it simple and use discretion.

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