My in-laws, who are in their 50s, insist on referring to Chinese food as "Oriental food," and it drives me crazy. My husband assures me that they don't mean to be racist, that that's what most Americans of their generation called Chinese food. I still feel like they should have noticed people don't call it that anymore. Should I say something?
—Culturally Sensitive Takeout
Dear Culturally Sensitive Takeout,
Americans started referring to Chinese food as Oriental when it was first introduced to these shores as cheap grub for miners during the gold rush. They did not use this term exclusively, however, says Andrew Coe, author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. Some did correctly call it Chinese food, while others confusedly dubbed it Mongol food.
The term Oriental became less popular in World War II, says Coe, when "the Chinese became our allies, as distinct from the 'evil' Japanese." In other words, Americans began to realize that the Orient represents more than one country and culture. As Coe says, "Oriental refers not just to the Chinese, but could mean anywhere from Israel all the way to Japan."
After the Second World War, an influx of immigrants caused Chinese restaurants to multiply. Nonetheless, many people still referred to them as Oriental. Cynthia Lee, the curator and director of exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America, says that for many Americans, it was not until the '60s and '70s that China truly metamorphosed from the Orient into a distinct country. This was in part because master chefs fleeing the Communist takeover of China began to open restaurants that served more authentic regional food. Nixon's 1972 visit to China paved the way for more Americans to go there. And perhaps most important, Lee explains: "With the civil rights and Asian American movements, a generation said [Oriental] wasn't a proper term because of its associations with colonialism."
Nowadays, most people know it's inappropriate to refer to a Chinese restaurant as Oriental. But some older folks may not have gotten the memo—including many Chinese Americans, Lee admits. "My mother was born in 1933, and for her [the term] doesn't have the same political meaning."
Interestingly, at least one restaurant has begun using the term in a postmodern ironic way. Chef Anthony Myint, who opened Mission Chinese Food, advertises it as "Americanized Oriental Food." On his blog, he explains: "Our use of the term 'oriental' is not meant to be offensive. ... For us, as Asian-American cooks, using this loaded term is an indictment of the Eurocentricity of fine dining, but it's also meant to desensitize the term in that transcending-racism-by-not-interpreting-every-single-thing-as-racist way. You know, like the 'queers' did."
But there's no need to burden your in-laws with mind-bending semantics. In fact, you shouldn't even be the one to set them straight. They'll probably be more receptive if a blood relative is the one to raise the topic, so ask your spouse to do it. He shouldn't make a big deal out of it but can bring it up with a casual remark: "Nowadays most Chinese restaurants refer to themselves as Chinese, not Oriental." That will open up a discussion of the subject without seeming like he's slapping them on the wrist.