One recurring question I see on restaurant message boards in Chinese food centers such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles is where to take overseas Chinese groups (e.g., business travelers, youth groups) making a local visit. Usually, there are two broad categories of responses: those who suggest representative local venues providing food that the visitor wouldn’t find at home (e.g., Mexican food in Los Angeles), and those who suggest the most authentic Chinese restaurants in the area consistent with the visitors’ regional origins. Those in the first group then question why visitors would want to eat the same kind of food they get at home, particularly since the local version of Chinese dishes here in the United States would likely be inferior to what they’re used to. The second group replies that the visitors would probably prefer Chinese food.
I counted myself firmly in the former category, since to me it made perfect sense that if I’m traveling in Italy, why on earth would I want to eat either American or Chinese food? When visiting Italy, it only makes sense to eat Italian food. But a few years ago, when planning my first trip to China through a Chinese American tour packager, I was flipping through the catalog of worldwide tours and noticed that many of their tours to non-Asian destinations proclaimed “All Chinese Meals.” My first thought was “How stupid. Who wants to eat Chinese food in Hungary?” But it eventually dawned on me that many Chinese would rather eat terrible, inauthentic Chinese food before they would eat any other type of cuisine.
If this preference for Chinese food exists among Chinese Americans traveling to places like Europe, it’s certainly not surprising that the Chinese food option is standard procedure in tours originating in Asia. Indeed, as one non-Chinese writer accompanying a tour group from China to Europe reported to CNN, “Everywhere we went in Europe we ate Chinese food,” with the article adding that the writer became “desperate for Western food” toward the end of his 10-day trip in Europe. There’s a term for this preference: the Chinese stomach. Supporting this theory, two top upscale regional shopping malls in Los Angeles have just announced Chinese restaurant openings, largely to placate Chinese tourists complaining about the lack of such an option.
My first up-close look at the Chinese stomach phenomenon was on a tour to the Canadian Rockies organized by a San Gabriel Valley tour operator. In the case of this trip, the meal package was a separate add-on, with an almost apologetic comment that while most of the meals would be Chinese food, there would be two non-Chinese meals on the trip. We opted not to purchase the meal package, since we could always go à la carte at the designated restaurant stop. When we got to the tour’s first food stop in the remote town of Merritt, British Columbia, we perused the officially chosen restaurant, which served the most disgusting looking Chinese buffet we had ever seen. Happily, we found a Subway a couple blocks away and dined there.
This is not to say that all the Chinese food on the tour was gruesome. On our way back to Vancouver, the tour bus stopped in another remote British Columbian town, Golden. Checking out the Golden Dragon Restaurant on the Trans Canada Highway, I was surprised to find fairly decent and authentic Chinese food. Puzzled, I asked the tour guide about it. He explained that Golden Dragon was opened specifically to serve the busloads of Chinese and Chinese American tourists traveling to the Canadian Rockies, and that after tourist season was over, the restaurant closed down until the next year. More recently I’ve encountered a similar restaurant in the California desert serving Chinese tourists riding the tour bus between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
So why do many Chinese have such a preference for Chinese food, even if it is a bad version and even if there is good non-Chinese food available? Here are some reasons that come to mind.
Superiority complex. Since I’m Chinese, I’ll come out and say it: Many Chinese believe that things Chinese, including Chinese food, are better than anything that isn’t Chinese. After all, Chinese have always believed that China is the center of the earth. And in one way, I kind of agree with this. The one thing about Chinese culture which always puzzled me was how in ancient times a reasonably homogenous culture (geographic food differences aside) could have developed over such a large geographic area. The answer came in a scientific magazine which concluded that what became known as Chinese culture was so superior to other adjacent cultures that those cultures were overpowered. This feeling of superiority could explain why this preference for Chinese food extends to many Chinese Americans who are widely exposed to other cuisines, not just the Chinese from Asia who may not be similarly exposed. This may also manifest itself in a desire to connect with brethren on the other side of the world through Chinese restaurant visits.
Chinese diners consider themselves adventuresome when they eat a different regional Chinese cuisine. Once upon a time, Chinese diners were quite provincial and seldom crossed regional Chinese food lines, though Cantonese food did have a following in many regions. However, in the past few years Chinese population centers like Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing have seen the rising popularity of other regional Chinese cuisines within their midst. The manifestation of this movement is seen in the United States with the recent opening of authentic Chinese restaurants that can’t be pigeonholed as clearly belonging to one specific region. There is a vast difference between various Chinese regional cuisines, and it was a big jump for many Chinese to even accept other regional Chinese foods. Not surprisingly, getting them to accept Western cuisine is another big jump from that point and may still be insurmountable at this time.
Many host country ingredients and methods are culturally or physiologically incompatible. A good example is dairy products and lactose intolerance. Even many Chinese Americans who are intimately familiar with American food will avoid major categories of Western food items, such as dishes containing cheese, cream, or mayonnaise, or large slabs of meat.
Many Chinese eat comfort food at every meal. All cultures have their comfort food, but for Chinese, rice or noodles (depending on the particular region of China) are part of most every meal. A meal without that staple may not seem like a real meal.
Put the shoe on the other foot. Before singling out Chinese for not wanting to try other types of cuisines while traveling, look at how many Americans don’t like Chinese food, or only accept the blandest, most Americanized versions, and those who eat at McDonald’s no matter where they travel in the world.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.