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Imagining the Transcultural

What’s the Chinese Food Like Here?

English version
Shawn Wong
p. 31-32

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1I’m probably like most people—I judge a city by its Chinese food. Years ago,I added cappuchino to the list, but with the infestation of Starbucks everywhere on the planet, judging a town on whether or not they have both good Chinese food and good coffee proved irrelevant. The Chinese food standard still applies. It’s an easy standard to apply because nearly every city in the world has a Chinese restaurant. Immigration theorists call it diaspora. I ain’t no theorist. I just look for the Chinese restaurants. In the most remote towns, the Chinese restaurants have names of grandeur such as Jade Palace or Golden Riverside Inn (where there is no river) and these restaurants are usually decorated with lots of gold, red, and calligraphy proclaiming good luck and happiness while the tables are chipped laminate and vinyl covered chairs. If you can speak Chinese, you can usually talk to the owner of the restaurant into making you something real to eat instead of the usual items listed on the menu.

2In Rome, the second most popular restaurants are Chinese restaurants. I’m afraid to eat Chinese food in Italy. I’ve peered into restaurants. I’ve seen the food sitting on the plates. I imagine there is good Chinese food here, but I also believe a lot of the food served in these place is some kind of elaborate act of revenge for Marco Polo stealing all that stuff from us. In Dingle, on the remote southwestern corner of Ireland, a little blond haired boy stares at me in the grocery store. I know why. I say, “Hello.” Now he’s wide-eyed. His mother replies for the suddenly mute boy. I’m still holding the experience of driving down to Dingle over Connor Pass in a fog so dense, I had to crane my head out the window of the car so that I could drive parallel to the stones lining the road on my right. What does the boy see ? He sees an Asian person where there are none. I hear water. Am I driving toward a river ? Is the road washed out ? I let the car coast slowly toward the sound until I know I’m right at the edge of the water. There’s still a road, but there’s a waterfall cascading from a rock above the road and it empties out onto the middle of the road. As soon as I pass underneath it—the water washing over the car—the fog breaks and I stop the car. The fog bank is really a cloud and when I get out of the car, the bottom of the cloud is just a few feet above my head. The Irish poet, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill warned this would happen. Rather than give me directions to Dingle, she listed a series of images—the narrow stone-lined road, the waterfall, the expansive view of the valley below on the descent from Connor Pass, her grandmother’s house on the coast of Dingle by the ocean. Later, she sends me a picture of herself as a young woman holding her baby daughter. Perhaps it’s the same way I communicate—through images and the past. The mother of the little boy pulls him away to divert his gaze. She whispers, “Sorry,” to me. I should tell the boy that I’m Chinese so that he can complete the story that’s unfolding in his head. In another part of the world, a woman who owns a laundry in Bellagio, Italy doesn’t ask me for my name when I leave my clothes to be cleaned. When I pick up the clothes, she’s pinned the word, “cinese,” inside the waistband of one of my pants. The next time, she doesn’t bother to label my clothes. I’m the only Asian person, let alone the only Chinese person, living in the town.

3In Germany, you can tell where a person is from by looking at the license plate of his or her car—“M” for Munich, “B” for Berlin, “Tü” for Tübingen. When I lived in Tübingen for several months, several people stopped me and pointed at my red license plates and asked where I was from and many, many people stared at the plates first, then up at me. I could see they were puzzled. An Asian person driving a car with unidentifiable license plates. The car and the license were from Sweden and I was not. In Tübingen I never saw a house for sale and one woman who was from a small town near Tübingen said that in her entire life she could not remember anyone moving away from her hometown.

4In Rome, late one Sunday night, I get into a taxi and I ask the driver, in Italian, to take me to the nearest open pharmacy. After driving for a minute or two, he says me in an language that I know isn’t Italian. I’m not sure I heard him correctly, so I answer, “Che ?” He asks me again and this time there’s no mistaking that he asked me if I speak Japanese in Japanese. I tell him, in Italian, that I’m not Japanese and that I’m American. He can’t believe I’m not one of those ubiquitous Japanese tourists. I resign and tell him I’m cinese from America. “Ah, OK, Rambo,” he replies. I think I’d rather be Japanese than named after a Sylvester Stallone character. A few minutes later, he asks me, “Nee how ma ?” in Chinese. I tell him I speak better Italian and German than Chinese. We speak German for the rest of the trip, but he still calls me Rambo.

5In 2001, I was invited to a conference at Hong Kong University to be an example of the diaspora. The university invited writers of Chinese ancestry from all over the world who wrote poetry or fiction in English. There were probably two dozen of us gathered in Hong Kong to discuss the diasporic issues that surround us and our work. One afternoon between serious sessions I was drinking a beer with novelist Timothy Mo from the UK and Hsu-Ming Teo, a young novelist from New Zealand. This was the moment the conference organizers were hoping would happen. If a literary scholar were seated with us, I’m sure his or her theory quill would have been quivering with anticipation above the ink well. Neither Timothy nor I had read Hsu-Ming Teo’s novel, Love and Vertigo, so we asked the question two well-published and seasoned writers would ask at a conference, “What’s your book about?” Hsu-Ming sighed, shrugged, and replied, “Family and identity.” We laughed and ordered more beer. End of literary conversation. The family and identity book is a rite of passage for all of us and it didn’t matter where the borders were set or where we went to school or what language we used. I took a sip of beer and asked Timothy, who was born in Hong Kong, “So, you know a good Chinese restaurant here?”

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Shawn Wong, « What’s the Chinese Food Like Here? »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化, 1 | 2006, 31-32.

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Shawn Wong, « What’s the Chinese Food Like Here? »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化 [En ligne], 1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 13 septembre 2009, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Shawn Wong

Shawn Wong s Director of the University Honors Program and Professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of the pioneering Chinese American novel Homebase, and editor or co-editor of six literature anthologies, including the landmark anthology, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers. The film of his latest novel, American Knees, is directed by Eric Byler and is currently on release.

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