When I was little, my Singaporean-Chinese family used to go out for dim sum in L.A.’s Chinatown. Squished between a million other families, we’d sit around a table and yell at the top of our lungs, trying to get the attention of the waitresses pushing their clanging silver carts. If we succeeded, we’d be rewarded with tiny plates full of pig ears, chicken feet, char siu bao (pork buns), and bok choy (Chinese cabbage), the Chinese names of which only my mother knew. I loved every bit of it: the chopsticks, the yelling, the sense of false urgency, as if every plate of potstickers that passed you by was the Last Plate of Potstickers on Earth.
But you know what else I loved? Panda Express. Yes, that’s right: I’m Asian, and I love Panda Express. I get a hankering for it about once a month—the greasy sheen of orange tofu that’s been fried to a crisp and smothered in grease and piled on rice that has also been fried. Egg rolls dipped in fluorescent red sauce that is mostly corn syrup. Wontons stuffed with cream cheese and MSG. I’m not ashamed to admit it: American-Chinese fast food is delicious.
Unfortunately, delicious American-Chinese fast food is not what was being served at Oberlin College, the notoriously liberal Ohio alma mater of Lena Dunham. Instead, the New York Times reported this week, Oberlin’s dining halls have been cooking up culinary travesties: steamed General Tso’s chicken, unfresh sushi, and pulled-pork-and-coleslaw sandwiches masquerading as Vietnamese banh mi. In an article published last month in the school’s newspaper, the Oberlin Review, several international students from Asian countries raised complaints (understandably!) about how the “Asian” food in their cafeterias was disappointing, ridiculous, and “weird.”
But the article didn’t just convey that students thought the food was bad. Instead, the students told reporter Clover Linh Tran, a sophomore and co-chair of the Vietnamese Student Association, that the dining halls had offended them—that to serve such a terrible version of dishes from their home countries was “disrespectful” and amounted to nothing less than cultural appropriation. As Tomoyo Joshi, a college junior from Japan, told the paper: “If people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”
As a result of the article, students from three of the school’s Asian communities recently met with Campus Dining Services to discuss their concerns. And they succeeded: According to the Times,
Michele Gross, Oberlin’s director of dining services, said in a statement on Monday that “in our efforts to provide a vibrant menu, we recently fell short in the execution of several dishes in a manner that was culturally insensitive.”
Uh … what? That is not what you need to be apologizing for, Michele Gross. Before we bandy around fraught terms, let’s review what “cultural appropriation” actually means. Cultural appropriation involves taking another’s culture—usually that of a minority, usually by a Western or colonial power—and using it outside of its original cultural context. Calling your sports team The Redskins is cultural appropriation. Selling Navajo-patterned panties at Urban Outfitters is cultural appropriation. Blackface minstrelsy was cultural appropriation. But crappy American-Chinese and American-Japanese food? Not so much.
Americanized Asian food wasn’t stolen, so to speak, by colonialist white Americans. Americanized Chinese food was invented by Chinese immigrants to America, who smartly sought to rework traditional dishes to suit American tastes. Today, American-Chinese food has come to mean something altogether distinct from its predecessor. Orange chicken—like Star Wars, like all American-Chinese food, and like much of America—is a pastiche. It’s an artistic interpretation of a regional dish. You might even say it’s a bastard. But it’s our bastard. And it’s a delicious one. For Oberlin's cafeterias to further Americanize something like General Tso's chicken doesn't harm its “essence”—it had American DNA in it to begin with.
Dear Oberlin students: Your cafeteria served you subpar sushi. That does not mean that your cultural heritage was appropriated. It means that cafeteria food is gross. The sin that Oberlin’s dining services committed was terrible cooking, cultural ignorance (they got most of the recipes online), and trying to serve sushi in a Midwestern state.* (There was only one dish served at Oberlin that was truly offensive: an Indian tandoori dish that the Oberlin cafeterias served on Dawali, which was reportedly made with beef despite the fact that many Hindu people do not eat beef for religious reasons. That is undeniably disrespectful, and should not have happened.)
Anyone who goes to their school cafeteria expecting tasty, authentic cooking is fated to be sorely disappointed. College cafeterias have a long, time-honored tradition of serving horrible, lukewarm, cardboard-tasting substances masquerading as foods. This tradition provides a shared experience for freshmen to bond over, as well as an opportunity for various cultural groups to get fed up and show their peers what Chinese food actually tastes like by taking to the kitchen or to real Chinese restaurants. It’s a time-honored college rite of passage—much like learning that just because you dislike something does not make it cultural appropriation.
Correction, Dec. 23, 2015: This post originally misstated that Ohio is landlocked. It is not.