Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Case of Blurred Identities

One of the things I find funny over here in the United States is the fact that the concept of "Asian" culture has become generalized, whereas the concept of "American" culture has become extremely relative. The effects are quite obvious, especially when it comes to discussing the restaurant business around here.

The Asian restaurants in the Philippines, you see, come in many different flavors: You've got your Chinese restaurants, your Japanese ramen houses, your Thai places, your Vietnamese noodle spots... I suppose that anyone who's ever dined out in Makati City on a weekend evening will know what I'm talking about. If you want American cuisine, though, then you essentially get yourself to either Friday's, Chili's, or one of the international fast-food chains, and think nothing more about it.

Over here, it's quite the reverse. If you want steak, for example, you'd have to specify how you want it: Texan, perhaps? San Franciscan? The New Yorkers do a nice prime rib, I hear. And just the other day we visited this really nice New Orleans-style steakhouse...

Now, if you want a hamburger instead, then at least you get some degree of consistency there. After all, a hamburger's a hamburger, no matter where you go. But the international fast-food chains aren't the only inhabitants of the American culinary landscape around here; there are a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of independent hamburger houses sitting around. Some of them are even well-established family businesses. You're very likely to run into a burger chain from Arkansas as you are likely to run into a steak-and-soda joint that first started in Rhode Island.

The real irony, for that matter, is that Asian restaurants have fallen into a generalized rut around here. The vast majority of Asian dining establishments are known as "Chinese restaurants", and the strange part is that a lot of them don't exclusively serve Chinese cuisine. In fact, you're just as likely to find sushi and bibimbap as you are wonton noodles in a "Chinese restaurant".

I've found it curious, in fact, that Americans easily refer to themselves by state around here. A fellow from Nebraska, for example, will probably find a warm welcome in a Maine household inhabited by former Michigans. In sharp contrast, if you even vaguely look Asian around here, the first question you'll inevitably get about your lineage would probably be "Are you Chinese?" (Fortunately, most Americans appear to be too polite for that.)

We had dinner at a nice Thai restaurant a couple of nights back. (I think it was Thai, at least. It could have been Indonesian.) At the end of our meal, the impressed manager stopped by for a little chat and ended up offering us a token of his gratitude. Seeing that we were full almost to bursting by that time, we smilingly refused his gift, but one of my uncles must have been curious.

"What dessert do you have?" he asked.

The manager smiled. "Sticky rice," he said.

And then I thought of suman.


cstiu said...

I think its because of the proximity of cultures to where you are at the moment. The first time I came to live in Hong Kong, my notion of chinese food was just that: Chinese. Its not until a few months of hanging out with my officemates that Chinese doesn't necessarily mean just Chinese: there's Cantonese, Sichuan, Shanghainese, Chiu Chow, Fukienese, among others. In fact, even among the Hong Kong style foods, there are several subgroups: Typical posh cantonese and dimsum, fastfood style cantonese (what they call "Cha Chan Deng"), Pick-and-Point your topping noodle shops (Che Tsai Min - this is actually my favorite). In fact, at the moment in Hong Kong, even Japanese is not "just" Japanese here. For the more picky, there's the Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawan versions. I guess its similar to when we eat "Filipino" foods.. there's the typical Tagalog, then there's Ilocano, Cebuano, etc. Its just that most foods are generalized to the bigger culture that they "comfortably" settle in - hence, for American in the Philippines - Fridays, Chillis.

I love Boston Chicken though, and well as Maine Lobsters. :)

Sean said...

cstiu: There seems to be some sort of "chili debate" going on around here, too, especially in the states near Mexico. One school of chili encourages the addition of red beans to the recipe, while others will only consider a batch of chili to be 'authentic' if it has no beans in it at all. Funny, isn't it? :)