Drive across the United States and you’ll be hard pressed not to run into a Chinese restaurant. With nearly 41,000 of them spread across the land, nestled in strip malls or occupying prime real estate along crowded boulevards, they’re more commonplace than McDonalds franchises—and decidedly more American than apple pie, as Jennifer 8. Lee explains in her seminal book about Chinese food in America, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. In fact, according to Lee, there are more Chinese restaurants in the country than McDonalds, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined.
In places like New York, American-Chinese restaurants have deeply embedded themselves within the city's cultural fabric thanks to their garishly lit picture menus, trapezoidal takeout contains, and reputation for hawking fare like pork-fried rice with fries and chop suey. They hold a special place for Jews during Christmas time, and have become immortalized in hip-hop circles for providing greasy sustenance.
But there’s a clear difference between a Chinese restaurant in China and an Chinese-American restaurant. Bring people straight from China into the latter, and most likely they will be terribly confused by all the zodiac placemats, fortune cookies, and dishes smothered by an extremely generous amount of corn starch. Even amongst Americans, there is still plenty of confusion. “Hey do you want some cream cheese wontons?” my Minnesotan roommate asks me. This is years ago. I am in New York City and she is ordering take-out Chinese.
“What? I’ve never heard of that in my entire life,” I say.
“But you’re Chinese!” she exclaims, equally confused.
Little did she know that dairy products are seldom used in Chinese food, and that most of the take-out dishes she grew up eating can't even be found in the mainland. For many like her, the Chinese-American restaurant was the first glimpse of Chinese culture—albeit one that promised a skewed representation of the rituals back home.
To understand the idiosyncrasies at play, here are 8 truths about American-Chinese restaurants that need to be addressed.