The Harvard Crimson: What was the genesis of the book?
Jennifer 8. Lee: I wrote an article in 2003 about a Chinese family that had moved from China to New York City and were now moving to Georgia to open a Chinese restaurant. Sitting with them a couple months into their journey, it just struck me that they knew nothing about opening a restaurant. And I saw Chinese restaurants through their eyes, and the strangeness of what Americans like. And I saw the real American Chinese restaurant in a real town of 750 in the foothills of the Appalachians and I was like, “I think I can write a book on Chinese restaurants!”
THC: You cite in your book the impressive statistic that the U.S. has more Chinese restaurants than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Kentucky Fried Chickens combined. What is it about Chinese food that makes it such a substantive part of the American diet?
JL: Well, it’s the most prolific food on the planet—served on all seven continents, and in space! There’s thermo-stabilized sweet-and-sour pork. So it’s not just Americanized; it’s Indianified, Koreanized, Mexicanized. Chinese food is really more of a philosophy of cooking than it is a set of fixed recipes. The food is good enough that it can adapt to the palate of the local clientele.
THC: What are the major differences between authentic Chinese food and most American Chinese food?
JL: One difference is that Americans don’t like to be reminded that their food ever walked, swam, flew, or crawled. Anything that’s very animalistic, they don’t want on their plates—so no eyeballs, claws, lungs, feet, nothing like that. A dish like General Tso’s Chicken is the ultimate Chinese American dish because it is fried, it is chicken, and it is sweet—all things that Americans love.
THC: Is the prevalence of Chinese restaurants in some ways a good thing, because it means that the culture is flourishing? Or is it more of a sad phenomenon because it represents selling out—sacrificing authenticity to become part of the American capitalistic market?
JL: Well the first question is: What is authenticity? Authenticity is a function of time and place, so what’s really interesting is that American Chinese food has become its own thing. If you go to South Korea, there’s actually a chain of South Korean American Chinese restaurants. They even have the take-out boxes. So it has evolved into its own set of dishes and expectations because that’s what people want. Food is all relative. We think of tempura as Japanese but it’s actually from Portugal in the 1500s. And we think of potatoes as something very Irish, but potatoes are from Peru.
THC: What kinds of discussions were you hoping to provoke with this book?
JL: The large aim of the book is to make people think twice about what it means to be American. And that in a post-1965, post-Open Door Act world, when we’re in the midst of the largest non-European wave of immigration ever, our center of gravity of what it means to be American shifts. And as much as the mainstream changes immigrants, immigrants change the mainstream. That’s the point I’m trying to make.
THC: So that’s your main message.
JL: Yeah, and also to talk about the Chinese diaspora without being boring. If I said, “Wow, there are a lot of Chinese people living in Singapore because there were big famines and floods in the Fujen Province in the early 1800s,” people are like, “Whatever.” But if I say, “There is fantastic Chinese food in Singapore,” then they’re interested. Because food is something that’s totally universal and everyone shares. You ingest it; you are what you eat.
THC: Did the focus of the book shift in its evolution? Did any topic surprise you by coming to the forefront?
JL: Well, when I started out, I didn’t know fortune cookies were Japanese. So that was surprising and really came to the forefront, along with a bit more about Chinese immigration. Oh, and Jews and Chinese food got its own chapter. And actually my two constituencies are Jews and NPR listeners. So those are the people who will buy my book!
THC: At Harvard you concentrated in applied math and economics, but at the same time had journalism internships with five major publications, which obviously seem to pertain much more to your present occupation. Did your academic concentration influence your current job at all?
JL: Definitely, in certain ways. Applied math is really hard. Most of the time, you didn’t understand what your professor was saying and had to have your TF explain it to you later.
So at a certain point, your attitude becomes, “I’m pretty intelligent. So if I’m not understanding what you’re explaining to me, it’s not because I’m not smart enough, it’s because you’re not explaining it well.” So that gives you a sense of confidence when you’re dealing with technology or financial reporting. When they’re talking about collateralized debt obligations, it becomes, “I know that I could understand this if you were explaining it better.” And I know that because I got through combinatorix, or whatever.
THC: Is there anything good about the Kong? Be honest.
JL: Yeah! Oh my god, I can’t believe they renovated it. That was heart-wrenching. That was the best part of the Kong—that you could say, “I’m sitting in the same booth that Al Gore sat in,” not in this, like, Starbucksian place.
I actually kind of liked their Peking ravioli—not quite Chinese, but it’s doing its thing. And you know, it is good, because when you go there, you’re reminded of late nights at The Crimson with...What are they called? Dragon bowls?
THC: Scorpion bowls.
JL: Scorpion bowls! I knew it was some scary animal. Yeah, so to me, the Kong brings back memories. It really carries a lot of nostalgia.
THC: Do you have a favorite single piece of advice for aspiring journalists?
JL: You’re remembered for your highs but relied upon for your averages. So you need to understand how to place your bets so that it works out. It’s like venture capitalism...And maybe the best method is to have a mixed portfolio, low probability but high return. So the book for me is kind of weird, because I suspended my career for a couple years working on it. But you know, in the end, I was obsessed with Chinese food, so I really didn’t have a choice.
THC: It would have caught up with you eventually.
JL: Exactly. I mean, I flew to Taipei for five hours to eat General Tso’s chicken, meet the chef, and fly back the same day. Very fucked up.
—Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Jessica R. Henderson.
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