Why I am Tired of Hearing About P.F. Chang, Pei Wei and Panda Express as a Chinese American
by Chris Kondracki
I can admit it is not fair to just blame P.F. Chang, Pei Wei, and Panda Express. As many “authentic Chinese” restaurants, the staff can get very disrespectful to those that are not Chinese. I have gotten an attitude from the staff a few times before being half white and Chinese, but once the Mandarin comes out of my mouth the server would become a different person. I am calling on both, the chain Chinese restaurants and mom and pop Chinese restaurants to stop marketing themselves as Chinese food when it is clearly of and for American origins, and for actually authentic Chinese restaurants to become more open and urge to American diners to try popular dishes among the Chinese community. It’s worth noting that all the founders of P.F Chang’s, Pei Wei, and Panda Express are either White or Chinese American. Also, more fun, not a single person on the executive board of Pei Wei is of Asian descent (they purposely try to hide this on their website). With slogans such as a “Chinese Bistro” or a “Fast Casual Chinese Restaurant”, people will mistake these establishments as authentic Chinese eateries.
I am also calling on those with a Chinese American friend or someone in your life that is Chinese American I am sure they would appreciate you not telling them that any of this chain or take-out bullshit is authentic. Please also do not suggest they eat similar food at home on a regular basis because it is honestly insulting. The equivalent would be going up to a white American and asking or telling them that they eat shit like McDonald’s every night for dinner. Bottom line does not assume and for the love of all that’s holy can we stop calling Pei Wei, Panda Express, and P.F. Chang Chinese food.
I first experienced I had with people assuming my relationship with what they think is “Chinese Food” in the 7th grade. Walking through the mall my friend and I passed a food court with a Panda Express. My friend noticed the notorious fast food establishment and made us stop as it was one of his favorite restaurants at the time. He then asked me if it was like the Chinese food my mom cooked at home. I explained that I never tried it, but was willing to give it a shot and let him know. That was the first and the last time I would ever eat Panda Express, as I quickly grew embarrassed and outraged at my white friend thinking I ate this crap all the time at home. Although he did not know any better and I did not blame him, I quickly grew to resent the “Fast Casual Chinese Restaurant”. Another time one of these chain Chinese restaurants would come into my life was during my 18th birthday as a gag-gift one of my friends bought me a $25 gift card to P.F. Chang’s with the note “Now you can enjoy the food of your ancestors”. Meant to be a joke at the time, ultimately fueled my hatred toward the chain Chinese restaurant.
In college, there was a relief period and I managed to escape these chains as there were some very authentic Chinese restaurants within the neighborhood of the University I attended in Boston. However, I would not escape it for long as it followed me to my first full-time job. In my very second week as an Associate Consultant at a boutique management consulting firm, I offered to host a Chinese food night, since our company hosts various cultural food nights throughout the year. This was an honest effort to share with my coworkers the food and culture I grew up with, but soon as I offered, a coworker asked and insisted that I needed a wok to cook every dish because that is what chain Chinese restaurants and take out places have had him believe. Although maybe some reading could give him the benefit of the doubt; there could have been a chance he was joking, but his face, his tone told me he was dead serious. It wasn’t until I told him most of what I would be cooking involved pots for stews after that he quickly shut up, but the damage was done, I couldn’t tell who was more shocked. again I can’t blame him, but I continued to blame all the Chinese fast food chains that have led to making the average American think that is what Chinese food is.
One night my aunt prepared our usual Saturday dinner which included 三杯鸡 (three cups chicken) braised beef ribs, braised soy sauce meatballs with cabbage, salted pork and veggies, and spicy tofu. This sparked an interesting conversation with my little brother in which he explained to me that he did not think many Americans knew or experienced Chinese food like this and if they did they might never go back to the Pei Wei’s, P.F. Chang’s, and Panda Express’. I realized this is the root of my frustration with the typical Chinese fast food chain if they did not market themselves as a “traditional Chinese experience” then maybe Americans would understand the difference. The fact is they do and many Americans get tricked into thinking that they are getting what someone in Beijing would get, which is flat-out not the case. In fact the majority of Americans who eat from a Chinese takeout place or one of the big three chains are only getting one style of Chinese cuisine, Cantonese. When in reality there are actually 8 major types of Chinese cuisines that are all unique in their own right. It is daunting to navigate the world of Chinese food featuring 8 different main regions especially if you are trying it for the first time, but I know the experience of educating yourself in Chinese cuisine and culture is worth the adventure. As a Chinese American who believes food can bring people together, I encourage you to go to your local Chinatown or a Chinese restaurant instead of choosing from P.F. Chang, Pei Wei and Panda Express, choose from Sichuan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hunan, Anhui, Guangdong and Shangdong cuisine. It could be intimidating but put your best genuine foot forward and it will be worth the jump into new food.