That Chinese Restaurant Lifestyle

This is a copy of a semi-legitimate essay-like piece that I wrote for an assignment

For my project I would like to look at the Chinese food and restaurant culture in San Francisco. As a young-looking, middle-class, American white woman, my race, gender and age will likely play a significant role in how I am perceived and treated. In addition, my lack of linguistic abilities will greatly limit how much I am able to participate and understand the culture; as well as how I am perceived and thus likely define and affect many of my relationships. Nonetheless I would make an effort to learn the language and study it as much as possible on my own in order to improve as fast as possible.

In China white Western people are considered desirable and rare, as well as other things that I am probably not aware of. Particularly, it is seen as an indicator of status if a Chinese man is with a white woman. Chinese people will often make a big deal about a white person speaking Chinese. In this way I highly expect to be treated with a high degree of privilege and also held at a certain distance from what is really going on.

My race/nationality may help with the restaurant’s staff’s eagerness to get to know me or include me. Although it is possible that some might resent me or think me silly or lazy or place judgments on me that I won’t be able to understand. There is also a high chance that I will be biased by my own sense of privilege entitlement and self-centeredness based on my race and nationality, and the fact that I will not be able to fully understand my surrounding due to my lack of fluency in the language. Therefore, my perception and interpretation may end up clouded by my being in my “own little world”, so to speak.

In order to make my way into the San Francisco Chinese food and restaurant culture, I will approach it qualitatively. I will focus on one particular restaurant, and attempt to understand its business organization, structure, and work culture. To accomplish this I would endeavor to get a job as a server in a non-commercial Chinese restaurant where the staff speaks mandarin primarily. I will try to work at least 20 hours a week there over the period of at least a year. The more time I spend there is probably the better, but it should be a minimum of 10-12 months.

Another barrier that comes along with this is that I will have a difficult time assessing the social atmosphere and dynamic of the particular restaurant and really getting to know the specific people when they don’t speak English at all. I won’t be able to pick up on important subtleties and nuances about people when we are relying purely on the communication medium of my very basic Chinese and their very basic English. Contrasting this with the interpretive fullness of when I am in a group of people who speak English, and I can build my image of them in my mind in a much more complex and reality-rooted way, than I could if I were with a group of people with whom I would be extrapolating many aspects of their personality based on their visible actions, body language and my own stereotypes of their visible identities.

On top of the unanticipatible particularities of the specific individual individuals and dynamic that make up the particular restaurant, there is also the issue of the Chinese cultural context — with the added complexity of the Chinese cultural context as taking place outside of China; in the container of San Francisco, in the USA. There is also the work culture of the employees, their background, their social status, their immigration status, their level of assimilation into US culture, their relationships with each other, their attitude toward management, and many others that I probably cannot anticipate.

Given my limited understanding of Chinese culture and the added factor of the surrounding context of my experience, I will need a lot of time and a multi-dimensional approach to understanding Chinese culture and its expression in my lived experience of the restaurant. This will include media and developing relationships with both the management and the employees inside and outside of work. Then there is the matter of the job itself and how well I perform.

However, despite all this preparation and cultivation of relationships, I suspect that most of the time I will be flailing about in a void of confusion, disillusionment, and embarrassment, as I careen wildly up and down on the roller coaster of joy and despair that is cultural immersion. Additionally I will probably commit endless cultural faux pas, and I might be fired eventually.


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