Chinese Food, the Irish Diaspora, and Identity

I recently read a piece from NPR called “Shanghai Warms Up to a New Cuisine: Chinese Food, American Style” by Frank Langfitt.  It really caught my attention.

“What does Chinese food have to do with Druidism?” I hear you ask.

It has everything to do with identity and authenticity – two things that modern people on the Druidic path are constantly thinking about, talking about, and confronting.

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Some lovely mashed potatoes I had at Watertown’s own Irish pub, Coleman’s Corner.

I’ve known for some time that Chinese food served in America is different from what is served in China.  I’ve never experienced any traditional Chinese cooking, so my only knowledge of this comes from friends of mine who have actually studied and traveled in China.  In the article, American expats living in Shanghai have found themselves missing American style Chinese food despite having a plethora of traditional restaurants around them.  One of the people interviewed has actually opened a restaurant that serves Chinese American food complete with all the trappings that are never seen in “authentic” Chinese restaurants – fortune cookies and white takeout boxes.  Some may cringe at this strange import/export, but one of the owners is of Chinese heritage – yet he grew up in America.  And I learned something that seems rather obvious now but I had never given it much thought: “Chinese immigrants created it over time, adapting recipes with U.S. ingredients to appeal to American palates.”

Fastforward to the present and recall every time you or someone you know critiqued an “ethnic” restaurant in America because it wasn’t “authentic.”  Now, just to be clear – I completely understand the appeal of traditional food.  America has a tendency to turn everything good into some weird, super sized, overly sweet/salty version of itself with high fructose corn syrup and artificial dye for good measure.  But let’s be fair – that isn’t always the case.    Many “ethnic” restaurants in America are  local “ma and pa” places that have been passed down through generations that originate through, yes, immigrants!  Immigrants who had to fight and often, for better or worse, give up parts of themselves to assimilate in America.

My Irish ancestors were part of that process.

March is coming.  In many ways, March is like the American Chinese food of months for Irish diaspora like myself.  Irish pride month is full of things we recognize as somehow Irish – traditional music, step dancing, Jameson whiskey, and soda bread.  Yet it’s also full of things that make people who know a lot about their Irish heritage and its culture cringe – garish green “Mardi Gras” style accessories, green beer, poorly translated Gaelic t-shirts, and “Irish nachos” (whatever those are).

Yet!

Yet I try very hard not to let those things detract from my ability to enjoy celebrating my heritage.  I know I’ve grown up in America and my nationality is American, but I am also of the Irish diaspora.  You cannot take my heritage away from me.  I’m not perfect and there’s so much more I want to learn about and engage in with regards to Ireland.  I want to learn more Irish, practice more traditional music on my viola and bodhrán, read more history and mythology, fight to preserve the land in America and Ireland … And I do so with the greatest amount of respect and an open mind.  I wasn’t always this way.  I’ve grown up from a relatively ignorant child who thought Ireland was all about green beer and old castles with stones to kiss, to an equally ignorant new Pagan who felt St. Patrick’s Day was the worst thing ever, to the modern Druid I am who embraces Irish pride month and thirsts to know more about her heritage – ancient and modern.  I will forever be on that journey, and I know others are on similar tracks.  When it comes to Druidism, it’s far more productive to live my path and offer guidance when asked rather than turning my nose up at everyone who wears their plastic Mardi Gras St. Patrick’s Day beads or insists that “Bring Back the Snakes Day” is a good idea.

If my country were an Irish American pub menu, yes there are a lot of Irish nachos and loaded Irish potatoes and whatever other very “American” breeds of Irish diaspora, but there are plenty of people like myself.  And although I get annoyed with the so-called “plastic paddies,” we all start somewhere and even most people who value the traditional also enjoy the comforts of their childhood (like my fondness for Americanized soda bread from time to time).  Although it’s not something I see often, occasionally a Pagan from Europe will look down his or her nose at the diaspora, as if we are somehow less than deserving to embrace our heritage – usually as a result of people who have lost touch with most of their ancestry, have yet to delve into a deeper exploration of their past, and instead fill that part of them with what modern America tells them is Irish.   American, Canadian, Australian, English, South African,  and all nationalities of Irish diaspora should not be deterred from embracing their heritage and honoring their ancestors who left Ireland for whatever reason.  They did what they felt was right, and unfortunately that often meant giving up some of their traditional ways to fit in.  The fact that we have any Americanized “ethnic” food is because immigrants from all over the world came here and engaged in the overwhelming give and take that happens in very diverse places.  There was sacrifice.  For better or worse, it happened and the food they produced, the culture they produced, is still authentic – just not necessarily traditional!  We are authentic Irish Americans – which can mean a great many things, including embracing some of the traditional ways of the Old World… or making Irish nachos.

So when you worry about whether or not the dishes in American Chinese restaurants and American Irish pubs are “authentic,” realize that they are!  They are authentic Americanized versions of recipes that our immigrant ancestors brought over and experimented with over generations just to fit in.  Whether or not you think assimilating was right of them or society, dwelling on it for very long is fruitless.  Rather, honor the ancestors’ by toasting their efforts to do the best they could, reflect on how you can celebrate and encourage diversity today, and perhaps explore the traditional recipes your ancestors used to know.  Perhaps, one day, more traditional dishes will rejoin the Americanized in the restaurants to provide a culinary history lesson.

(For more on how foods from around the world changed due to immigration, check out this neat article from NPR entitled “Fat Tuesday: The Many Different Doughnuts of Mardi Gras” by Emily Hilliard.)

3 thoughts on “Chinese Food, the Irish Diaspora, and Identity

  1. Good point you make about how people sneer at ethnic food when it isn’t “authentic” enough. There is a large Cantonese-speaking community where I live, and a neighborhood with a lot of Chinese immigrants; I went to a really great restaurant that had “American Chinese food” as its own section on the menu. It works really well, because you can work your way up to the more exotic things while having more familiar standards to fall back on.

  2. Well said–“authenticity” can sometimes be a cudgel to beat down others, and it’s a bit sickening. It’s a fine line to walk, of course–you don’t want to fall down into “Irish potato goddess” territory, but it’s important to acknowledge that synthesis is a reality in a country built on synthesis, and as long as it’s acknowledged as being a synthesis, it’s a valid creation.

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