Episode 3: Roommates

Each episode is accompanied by a blog post which examines various elements mentioned in the video at a deeper level and draws connections to the world we live in today. The following blog post is by Chelsea Shieh, student at Columbia University.

In this day and age, America and China are no longer independent nations existing on opposite sides of the globe. As our world is “flattening” with the help of technology and globalization, China and America’s political affairs are of great interest to each other. Jesse plays on this idea by envisioning China and America as roommates who have a lot of difficulty getting along – “it’s basically third grade diplomacy,” as he aptly says. While the majority of the issues raised in the video are related to Chinese politics, America has a clear investment in the outcome as well. Using Jesse’s roommates metaphor, China’s decisions undoubtedly will affect America, and vice versa. The China-America relationship is a rocky one, but as Jesse says, “we have to learn to live with each other.”

The video makes references to various Chinese political issues, and I’ve selected a few to elaborate on for you. As China rises to become a global superpower, America and the rest of the world have a definite stake in the outcome of these affairs.

China and Taiwan

“For the last time, don’t put your boats between me and Taiwan!” China and Taiwan have historically had quite the rocky relationship, and even to this day, mainland Chinese will argue that Taiwan is part of China, while the Taiwanese will vehemently deny this, believing themselves to be separate from China. So how did this split happen?

In 1949, the Communists defeated the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War, and the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan. Taiwan then became the seat of the Republic of China (ROC) government, while the mainland was ruled by the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, both claiming the other government was illegitimate.

What does the U.S. have to do with any of this? Well, the United States government initially recognized the ROC as the legitimate government of China. The U.S. didn’t reestablish relations with Beijing until 1979, signing a joint communiqué that supported the One China policy. The One China principle states that there is only “One China,” of which Taiwan is an inalienable part of, while allowing Taiwan to interpret the principle however they wish.

Taiwan has generally emphasized its sovereignty and independence from mainland China. After 2008, however, the KMT regained its power and the current president, Ma Ying-jeou, has maintained a more conciliatory approach with China, calling for increased exchange with China. However, the Taiwanese people in general are in opposition to reunification, and fear that Taiwan’s growing economic dependency on Beijing could lead to a slippery slope.

Nevertheless, while relations between China and Taiwan have definitely improved in the past seven years, their relationship remains tenuous. China has deployed ballistic missiles along the Taiwan Strait, which is seen as an act of aggression against the ROC. The United States, meanwhile, has supplied Taiwan with ships, planes, and arms, which China has consistently protested.

In the video, when China tells America to move away his ships from between China and Taiwan, this is echoing China’s sentiment that America should not interfere and exacerbate China’s fragile relationship with Taiwan. The U.S. government, on the other hand, doesn’t want to see Taiwan fall to China, and worries about the increasingly warm relations between the two.

The South China Sea

During China and America’s bubble bath, China tells America to move his ship onto “your side of the nine duck line,” which America promptly ignores. This part of the video is referencing China’s investment in the South China Sea. The South China Sea is an area in the western Pacific Ocean that is of hot dispute, with competing territorial and jurisdictional claims from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. The area is significant for its extensive potential reserves of oil and gas. China has been expanding and modernizing its Navy in order to enforce greater influence and control over the South China Sea, which has been seen as a unilateral action by other countries.

The United States also has some pretty significant stakes in the South China Sea; while the U.S. has advocated for a peaceful resolution to the problem, taking a neutral stance, the American government has reservations about China’s increasing aggression in the region, fearing that China may cut off American naval access to those waters. The U.S. also claims to be an enforcer of peace and free trade in the region. However, the U.S. maintains its desire to preserve stability in U.S.-China relations, and is careful to not have the situation escalate to an armed confrontation with China.

The “nine duck line” mentioned in the video refers to China’s “nine-dash line,” which marks the area of the South China Sea that China claims sovereignty over. There is debate over whether there is adequate historical basis for the nine dashes – in the video, China hands America a scroll from 1592 and claims that this “roommate agreement” provides the evidence for the “nine duck line.” The “nine duck line” also signifies the overall hazy and shifting nature of what parts of the South China Sea “belong” to China.

Chinese-American Cuisine

“No General Tso? … You are blowing my mind!” As this short scene illustrates, many Americans probably think that American Chinese dishes like General Tso’s chicken exemplify authentic Chinese cuisine. But American Chinese food is a whole different animal from traditional Chinese food – the differences between the two are rooted in the history of Chinese Americans, and the taste palates of Americans.

During the 19th century, Chinese immigrants in San Francisco began to open and operate restaurants to serve food to fellow Chinese people. Restaurants became a staple in the Chinese immigrant community, since they were one of the few ways the Chinese could run their own small businesses, as ethnic discrimination prevented them from securing other types of jobs. Eventually, however, the food served in these restaurants evolved from a means of survival to an assortment of famous dishes (General Tso’s Chicken among them) that were adapted to suit the American palate.

There are many differences between American Chinese food and traditional Chinese cuisine. Chop suey is perhaps the clearest exemplification of American Chinese cuisine, consisting of assorted meats, eggs, vegetables, and starch-thickened sauce. MSG is another popular ingredient associated with American Chinese cuisine. Another main difference lies in the ingredients – American Chinese cuisine tends to treat vegetables as a garnish as opposed to the greater emphasis on leaf vegetables like bok choy that is seen in native Chinese cuisine.

Many Chinese chefs believe that American Chinese food is “dumbed down” for the American palate. In fact, many American Chinese establishments have two menus – one in English featuring the typical sesame chicken and beef and broccoli, and one in Chinese, featuring traditional Chinese delicacies like liver and chicken feet that may be too much for the general American public to stomach. For more information on American Chinese cuisine, check out Andrew Coe’s book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.

And as for the General Tso myth – while Jesse’s video claims that “General Tso never existed,” it is believed that the dish was named after one Tso Tsung-t’ang (Zuo Zongtang), a Chinese military leader from Hunan who served in the Qing dynasty. Tso was a leader during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), China’s most devastating civil war, and succeeded in pushing out the rebel forces. However, his exact role in inspiring the flavorsome chicken dish remains unknown.

Another theory states that the origin of the dish may in fact lie in another Hunanese man, who is far more (in)famous: Mao Zedong. When Mao took over in 1949, the prominent Hunan chefs – among them a man named Peng Chang-kuei – fled to Taiwan. In Taiwan, Chef Peng created a dish named in honor of General Tso, inspired by the “heavy, sour, hot and salty” flavors of Hunanese food. This dish was eventually exported to America thanks to the wave of Taiwanese immigration to the U.S. that took place after 1965.

Ultimately, it can’t be denied that American Chinese cuisine is significantly different from traditional Chinese cuisine. Nevertheless, American Chinese food could also be seen as a major contribution to American society – serving as a symbol of the adaptation that Chinese Americans have had to go through in order to live and survive in this country.

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The U.S-China relationship can sometimes be too daunting to understand, or too complicated to even start a conversation on; I hope that this blog post serves as a lens on this relationship that may otherwise seem too complex to even penetrate.

Asia Society and the China Learning Initiatives appreciate your interest in learning more about China. If there are any topics you want to learn more about, feel free to email us at Chinese@asiasociety.org.

 

  • The Great LOL of China video series with Jesse Appell explores modern Chinese people and society from a foreigner’s perspective and an emphasis on the humor in cross-cultural misadventures.
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