tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS April 29, 2012 8:30am-9:00am PDT
>> hinojosa: did you know that there are more chinese restaurants in america than donald's, burger king, and kentucky fried chicken combined? what makes americans so crazy about chinese food? my guest today is journalist and author of the fortune cookie chronicles jennifer 8. lee. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. captioned by media access group at wg access.wgbh.org jennifer 8. lee, you are a former new york times reporter and the author of fortune cookie chronicles: adventures in the world of chinese food. and lets just start with that first statistic of if you look
at the number of mcdonald's, burger kings, kentucky fried chickens, and wendy's combined, you still have more chinese food restaurants. >> more chinese restaurants. more than 45,000, and growing every year, about ten percent. >> hinojosa: so how is that possible? because people think, you know what? you have fast food everywhere in the united states. or there's an image. so the truth is that in fact chinese food is... >> more pervasive, yeah. >> hinojosa: more a part of who we are, in a way. >> exactly, exactly. because, you know, as i like to say, you know, if our benchmark for americanness is apple pie, you should ask yourself, when was the last time you ate apple pie versus when was the last time you ate chinese food? i think for the vast, vast majority of people, they will have eaten chinese food, whether it's general gau's chicken, or beef with broccoli, or, you know, fried rice more recently. >> hinojosa: so you grew up on the upper west side of manhattan. >> yes. >> hinojosa: new york city. and in, you would say, what, a traditional chinese family,
relatively traditional? >> yeah, with a mom and dad. my parents came over in the 1970s as part of the... you know, the open door act that sort of let more educated immigrants in, and a lot more people from asia. and then they came here, and they had three little babies, bump, bump, bump, that's me, my sister, and my brother. >> hinojosa: by thway, j, f, k. >> it's true. my name is jennifer, my sister's name is frances, and my brother's name is kenneth. and if you take our initials, it spells jfk, which my parents like to say is the airport that they landed at when they came to america. >> hinojosa: when you were growing up, did you have this kind of constant critical perspective of, "what is the food that i'm eating as a chinese firstborn in this country," versus, "what is the food that's being eaten in my upper west side new york city neighborhood," and kind of this... or were you just like, "you know what? i'm a new yorker," or, "i'm a chinese immigrant"? >> yeah, no, i was, like, kid. no, i was a kid, and to be honest, when i was growing up, i loved beef and broccoli and, like, you know, roast pork lo
mein. and my mom actually would tell me, you know, "that's not real chinese food." and i'm like, "what do you mean it's not real chinese food? we get it from the chinese takeout on the corner," right? >> hinojosa: so you guys would call. >> or i would go down. we didn't have to call, because, you know, i was, like, you know, ten years old, and i'd go, "bop bop bop ba..." you know, because it's on the block, and you just go, and you say, "i want beef with broccoli, roast pork, fried rice, and your chicken lo mein." you know, egg rolls or two. and we would eat it. and i actually didn't understand that there was that significant a difference between, like, chinese food and this takeout until i went to china. because i just felt like, "well, my mom might not be, like, the greatest cook." or the fact, that, you know, like, pizza... like, pizza is very different, what you get in a cafeteria versus what you get in a restaurant, right? so i'm just like, "oh, maybe, like, my mom doesn't have, like, the right, like, you know, wok, or the right kind of stove." >> hinojosa: so you actually liked the chinese food from the restaurant. >> oh, it's so much better, because it's full of msg, you know, or it was full of msg. >> hinojosa: your poor mom.
did you tell her that? were you like, "mom, i like the chinese food from the restaurant better"? >> hinojosa: i think she knew. i mean, she's like, "oh, that's not real chinese food." and i couldn't understand what she was talking about, right? but then, you know, we would go to flushing, which was the... you know, the chinatown for the taiwan immigrants at that time. and then they would order like, you know, big fishes with, like, the eyes sticking out, or, like, you know, chicken claws, or, like, you know, cow's tongue. like there were all these, like, bits of animal that you don't see in an american supermarket. and then i was like, "why can't we order beef fried rice," or whatever. and they're like, "that's not chinese food." like, "don't do that." but in my reference to the world, you know, it was chinese food, and it was going to china when i was older that i was able to sort of understand, "oh, wait, this is really different," you know? and in traveling the world and also spending a lot time studying in taiwan i understood suddenly, like, "oh, my god, chinese food adapts." like, when you go to mexico there's... you know, they have things that look like fajitas. and if you go to france you have salt and pepper frog legs.
you know? so it's actually only in this larger context, you know, comparative food, that you begin to understand the role that chinese food has had and how it's sort of adapted. >> hinojosa: so were you a foodie when you were growing up? >> not particularly. >> hinojosa: do you consider yourself a foodie now? >> you know, i don't, actually. i think i consider myself sort of, like, a food, like, expert, and i really enjoy, like, food, and analyzing food. but the reason i don't is because my boyfriend considers himself a foodie. and even though he only eats five substances, which is, like, bread, tofu, cheese, pasta, and, like, desserts. like, he's a carbotarian. and he gets so upset... >> hinojosa: carbotarian? >> he's a carbotarian. he's a... >> hinojosa: is this another word that you created, jennifer? because you're known for actually coming up with a few things. you created mandate. >> oh, i helped popularize mandate. but i had overheard it in some context. >> hinojosa: and lets just make it clear-- it's not a mandate for something. >> like a mandate of heaven, right? >> hinojosa: it's a man date. >> yes. >> hinojosa: what was the other thing that you popularized?
>> i... i think... let's see, what else have i popularized? i popularized the idea that neveah, which is heaven spelled backwards, is the fastest growing baby name in the united states ever in terms of its history. so yeah, carbotarian, i think it should exist. i'm sure if you googled it it would exist. i happen to, you know, use it as applied to him. and it's interesting, because he gets upset. because he is a foodie within those very narrow categories. and he... you know, he's like, "she's not a foodie. i'm a foodie." you know, "she..." because to me food is fascinating from, like, an intellectual perspective, and i definitely enjoy, like, oh, trying that and that. like, "oh," you know, "what is," like, you know, "szechuan alligator like, in terms of cajun chinese food? let's go try it." and so i'm... >> hinojosa: that's right, because you did do that, right? there was this szechuan alligator. there was the other... you have these fascinating stories in this book that actually has got... well, it was a bestseller, but you also got, like, a big cult following. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: there were some
other things that i remember. there was one about the story of the chinese food that's kosher in the south, that people drive four hours to and from to get. >> totally. the jews love chinese food, or as i like to say, you know, why is chow mein the chosen food of the chosen people? and they will go to great length there's a basic... it's basically a takeout. it was called hai peking. and it... people would fly. my favorite example is the guy who flew his little plane from tennessee to atlanta to pick up, you know, chinese food for their big synagogue banquet, you know, because it was glatt kosher chinese food. so it was very, very, very specialized. and it's, like the only glatt kosher chinese restaurant within 700 miles. and they would deliver by fed ex, you know? that's, like, pretty hard core. they would, like, you know, cook it, freeze it on dry ice, and then they would, you know, ship it the next day. >> hinojosa: so what is it... you know, i actually... when i was reading your book, and i said to people... it's like, "gosh, you know, i really hadn't..." i mean, i guess if i
had thought about it i would have put the fact that chinese food and jewish people... yeah. >> yeah, you're in new york. >> hinojosa: right. but, like, until i read it, i was like, "oh, my gosh, it's really true." and i hadn't thought about the fact that... this other great fact, which is chinese restaurants, their biggest day of sale is... >> christmas, by far, yeah. and it's really funny, because if you watched the hearings for elena kagan the other day, one of the queions they asked her, you know, was, like, "where were you christmas day?" because that was the day of the bombing. and she was at first, like, very defensive, because she didn't know, whether, you know, it was a terror question, or whatever. and they're like, "no, we just want to know where you were." and she laughed, and said, "well, like all jews, i was probably at a chinese restaurant." and in new york city especially, it's sometimes twice as popular at least, compared to your next popular... your second most popular day. because, you know, for a long time chinese restaurants were the ones that were open on christmas. and it just became this interesting american jewish tradition. and it's specific to america.
i mean, it's not like they're doing this in israel. >> hinojosa: it's also because of the fact that these are two immigrant groups that are not christian. >> yeah, the two largest non-christian immigrant groups. and they... you know, so chinese restaurants are open on sundays, you know, and they're open on christmas, when jews wanted to go out to eat, whereas everyone else was sort of in their day of rest. and other things. you know, chinese food doesn't use dairy, which is really critical. because there was a time when many, many, many more jews kept kosher, right? whereas the two other main ethic cuisines in america are italian and mexican, both of which use, you know, gnificant amountof iry. >> hinojosa: well, actually, in mexico, they don't really use that much dairy. >> oh, interesting. >> hinojosa: that's americanized mexican food. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: actually, it's kind of low dairy in mexico. it's the same thing, you know? the mexican food in mexico is actually... >> totally diff... that also was very shock... like, you know, burritos, like, not mexican. like, what is that all about? i know. >> hinojosa: no, no. now they have burritos in mexico, because they want to... it's a strange thing that happens. >> spaghetti and meatballs, also not italian. it's this... it's interesting, right?
because it's part of this phenomenon that i call indigenous chinese... oh, sorry, indigenous foreign cuisine, that we think of them as foreign or exotic or ethnic, but in fact they were developed in america. so the burritos, italian spaghetti and meatballs. so what happens is this book tries to make you think twice of, like, what it means to be american, right? that in fact you think of it... you may think of it as something foreign, when in fact people in china, you know, or maybe even in mexico, whatever, don't recognize this food when you show it to them. you know, fortune cookies, of course, is the canonical example, and hence why my book. >> hinojosa: speaking of fortune cookies, well, you did write a book called the fortune cookie chronicles, inspired by this story about fortune cookies and lotto ticket winners and the fact that all of these people had won this huge lottery. >> 110 people came in second, march 30, 2005. >> hinojosa: and it was all from numbers that they got. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: okay, so we're going to open... now, these fortune cookies... >> those are special. those are not your typical... >> hinojosa: these are not your typical... >> vanilla fortune cookies, right?
>> hinojosa: these i would eat, i have to be honest with you. >> yes, i know, i know. i would say that fresh fortune cookies are actually really good. but the ones that are kind of shipped and... >> hinojosa: but these are special because they're chocolate, right? >> yeah. >> hinojosa: it's the chocolate. all right, so now we're going to read this fortune. it says, "spring has sprung, life is blooming." now, you're going to look at this. this has got numbers and everything. >> oh, yeah. and now there's a whole, like, "learn chinese" phenomenon on... that has, you know, been sparked in the last couple of years. >> hinojosa: from these fortune cookies. so what do we know, jennifer, after you wrote your book the fortune cookie chronicles, what do we know about where these little pieces of thought came to be and why... because they're not actually... >> they're not chinese, and they're not american. in fact, you know, my, like, main intellectual contribution to this planet at this point is probably kind of helping to prove that fortune cookies are japanese in origin,. and we know this for two reasons, one which is still today in japan, outside kyoto, they have small family-run bakeries that are making fortune
cookies by hand. but they're not yellow, they're not small. they're, like, this kind of big, brown, very nutty flavored kind of fortune cookie. and they don't do them with machines. it's very much an artisan craft. so that's one. and two, there is a drawing from the late 1800s that a japanese researcher dug up through many, many, many hours of sifting through the archives in japan, and it shows a man in a kimono, you know, back then, in an etched kind of drawing, making fortune cookies. and together, we know that. and so what happened is that the japanese immigrants came to america around the turn of the 20th century, and they brought... you know, some of them made, you know, cookies and whatnot for a living. and so they brought some of that over with them. and it's been fascinating, because it started out sort of very localized, very californian, kind of like, you know, a very regional thing. but at a certain point it became a big thing. and we were able to sort of track that back to world war ii,
in part. because what happened was they were being kind of served in california, maybe los angeles, but basically in the san francisco chinatown. and what happened is that san francisco was such a big port of call, like, during world war ii, and you had all these soldiers going in and out of san francisco. of course they went to chinatown in order to eat and to, you know, watch the singing and the dancing. and then they had these cookies, and they go home after the war, they go to minnesota, iowa, and they askheir local chinese restaurant, "why don't you have those authentic cookies?" and the chinese restaurateur goes, "what cookies," you know? and but slowly within a span of basically 15 years they go from something that's in california to a nationwide phenomenon. >> hinojosa: but doesn't it also have to do with the fact that the japanese were interned? >> right, right. >> hinojosa: so... which i think is the other thing that your book does really interestingly. because it shows how, you know, while food may be incorporated into part of all of us as americans... >> right. >> hinojosa: ...it's been a really hard, sometimes painful,
tric history behind that. because part of what gave birth to the fortune cookie was the fact that the japanese were being interned. >> right. so the idea... well, i kind of basically figured out... and this is something that i pieced together. we know it's japanese, and we know it's... you know, it's basically japanese before world war i, and by the end of world war ii they're, like, totally chinese. so how did that jump, you know, happen? and what i kind of pieced together was, you know, talking to these... you know, the families that still have these bakeries that are open, i was like, "oh," you know, "you've been open for three generations. that's, like, amazing." they're like, "yeah, you know, we've been open almost 100 years, except for that time when we were all locked up," right? and it's part of their... you know, so many of them... some of them were born there, some of them, you know, had family members that died in internment camps. and so it's sort of at this, you know, juncture that you see the chinese moving in. and they take the fortune cookie, and they popularize it, you know, because they can make it cheaper and faster and whatnot. and so as i like to say, the japanese invented the fortune cookie, the chinese popularized it.
but they ultimately are consumed by americans. and so, you know, because you locked up all the japanese, swept in that we those who made fortune cookies. >> hinojosa: so you... one of the things that you do in your reporting, you did a lot of this when you were a reporter for the new york times, and you do it so beautifully in your book, is that you take the invisible masses of workers, food workers, so many of them chinese, the men who are delivering the chinese food, the men and women who are cooking, who are taking the orders, and you basically give them life. >> right. >> hinojosa: why was it portant for you to take that delivery man, to take that cook at the takeout in, you know, wherever, alabama, and do a story? why is that important for you? >> you know, one of the reasons i became a journalist way back when-- you know, i had this epiphany between high school and college-- was listening to someone tell me his story about having... he was 16, he had
tried to kill himself twice, because he was black and gay, and that combination was sort of very, you know, hard on him. and i had this moment where i'm like, "i want to do this for the rest of my life. i want to give voi to e voiceless." and i think a lot of that comes from, you know, an immigrant background, that, you know, growing up you might not have seen these kinds of stories in the media. and what's kind of been great is, you know, the children of these immigrants, who themselves can be, like, a bridge between, you know, their parents' kind of generation, and then also the mainstream society, we can act as that translator in sort of giving context to stories in a way that's not so, like, you know colonial, or sort of, you know, very much kind of, like, you know, arm's length. you can write to a perspective that you can have, because you have cultural context. so one of my favorite examples with this chinese immigrant
family that i cover is that if you talk to, you know, all these fujianese, who are basically the backbone of the chinese restaurant system here, a lot of them come through new york city. and so new york city is their reference to the world, right? so they have new york city, and then they have everywhere else. and they call... >> hinojosa: but what's interesting is that when they leave china, where they're leavinis actually a very beautiful place, there's a lot of green, there's a lot of lakes, there's a lot of nature. and then they come into new york city. >> which is not, like, green and lakes and nature, basically. except for maybe a small piece of central park. >> hinojosa: and it's a.. and for some... >> it's very tragic. >> hinojosa: and it's a tremendously long journey. you cover the story of one man from the golden venture. >> yes. >> hinojosa: and his journey was... >> 120 days, i think, yeah. >> hinojosa: 120 days. >> or his journey might actually have been longer, but the boat itself was about 120 days, right. and so it is... you know, it's this immense exodus, right? so that part of china, which is the northern fujian province, around the capitol city of
fuzhou, is the number one chinese restaurant exporting region in the world. and... >> hinojosa: in china, do they kind of own that? are they like, "we're from this area, we're the fujianese, and we export chinese food workers around the world"? >> they... i don't they're proud of it. they are proud, maybe, of the fact that they go to america, right, and that they... because they can save money, they can build these mansions. they send, you know, hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars back to these little towns, and then there are these mansions that are weird because they're empty, right? because everyone's left. so there's a ghost town called houyu, which means "monkey island," which is weird, because there are no monkeys and it's not really an island. and they are 80% missing. i mean, you just go in there and there are no men of working age. there are women, there are children, and there are old people. because, you know, they're in america cooking and taking the order and delivering your chicken. >> hinojosa: are they going to stay here? i mean, is this... because again, with your book, you're
basicay saying ty arpart of who we are. >> right. >> hinojosa: when you report on these immigrants, is your sense, jennifer, that they are here, that they are... "okay, we are american, we will end up staying here"? >> i think... so it's interesting. i don't know that they identify necessarily as, "we are american," but they definitely want american citizenship, and they want a better child... a better life for their children. >> hinojosa: but some of their children are being sent back, even though they're born here. >> that's one fascinating thing. >> hinojosa: this was heartbreaking. so these fujianese families who come, some of them will... and who are working seven days a week in the chinese restaurants that we're all eating from. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: they will have babies born here. >> so they're american citizens. >> hinojosa: they're american citizens. but then they'll send them back to be... >> because they're too busy, yeah. they're too busy to raise their own children. so you have these kids who are sent back to be raised by grandpa and grandma. and then they get kind of shipped back to america when they're, like, ready for school. but they don't know their parents, right? their parents are almost virtual strangers.
and in many cases, there's a lot of heartache and a lot of sort of family issues. and so social workers sort of in and around, like, chinatown have been dealing with this issue over time. you know, in part... >> hinojosa: over decades. >> over decades, yeah. >> hinojosa: but how come... >> they call them satellite children sometimes. >> hinojosa: how come we don't know about these stories? how come these stories, which... again, chinese immigration to this country is not new. >> no. >> hinojosa: it's not new. so... yet so many of these stories are not part of our mainstream understanding. >> yeah, i would say that every so once in a while you'll get, like, the front page perky interesting story about the babies being shipped back, and then you have a story that kind of comes this way with the kids, you know, having trouble in school. but it's not part of... i would say those stories are sort of luxuries to do, in part because you have to know the community really well, you have to spend time to tell that story in a way that leaders... >> hinojosa: do you believe that the mainstream media... i mean, you worked for the new york times. >> i would say the new york
times actually did a pretty good job on the issue of the children in chinatown through a series of immigration reporters that i actually, you know... i don't think i worked on any of those stories directly. >> hinojosa: but is it still seen kind of in the media that this is... that e chese, the asian population, is, like, this foreign population, and therefore not american, and therefore... >> i think part of... i will say that chinatown as chinatown gets a surprising amount of coverage, not just in, you know, new york city, but in cities all over the united states, in part because of this exotic factor, for better or for worse. so if there's a crime or there is some kind of movement or there is some kind of building or there's a conflict, in certain kind of things they'll cover pretty well, compared to other immigrant groups, like, let's say, koreans or... korean americans or certain kinds of... like, maybe even south asian americans, i think partially because almost every major city has a chinatown or something thereof, right?
and so in sort of the intellectual mind share of any given city, there's always a fascination with chinatown and chinese immigrants. >> hinojosa: you said that part of why you wanted to write this book was because you wanted to understand your own americanness, and you wanted americans, all of us, to understand who we are. >> right. >> hinojosa: so what don't we understand, and what did you come away understanding better about who you are as an american? and you have this beautiful line in the book that says, "if you look at me, you see foreign, but if you hear me..." >> yeah, you hear someone who's american. and it's... and it's funny, right? because you'll get this question... maybe you get it too. often from cab drivers. it's like, "so where are you from?" and i'm like... and, you know, it's new york. and i'm like, "well, i'm from here." they're like, "no, where are you really from? >> and often-- it's interesting-- from immigrant people themselves, right? and i'm like, "i'm really from here. i was born and raised in new york city, and i live here now." i could not be more from anywhere on this planet. and i know they want to say...
they really want to know, "what's your genetic background?" i wish there was... i just wish there was a socially acceptable way to say i'm genetically chinese. but the idea is that you can look at me, and if you're... and they think you're foreign, which can be useful, you know, if you don't want to speak with them. because you can be like, "oh, no speak english," right? but... >> hinojosa: you actually do that? >> i mean, like, i've done, "oh, no speak english." but in reality, you know, if you're... if you were to listen to this whole, you know, tape with your eyes closed, you would hear someone who's totally american. and that was so stunning to me, not from the context of being in the united states, but from me traveling around the world. and i would meet, like, latino chinese, and french chinese, and mauritian chinese, and indian chinese. indian chinese, totally weird, right? they look like me, but they speak hindi, and they wear, you know... or multiple dialects, because we're in india. and they have gold chains, and they sort of move like, you know, in, like... you know, south asians. and you'll go to peru, where
they've had, you kno a 150-year history of chinese immigration there. >> hinojosa: and great chinese food. >> and great chinese food. >> hinojosa: the best. >> and they have chinese men who can dance, like, salsa, merengue. and i was like, "wow, i've never seen such elastic hips on, like, an asian guy before," right? it's so fascinating. >> hinojosa: so what do you want... what do you want us to take away from this, jennifer? >> i think that first of all, this idea of authenticity, of being, like, true, is sort of an artifact. like, what does it mean to be authentically chinese, right? because i, in a certain way, am authentically chinese american in a way that general gau's chicken, you know, is not authentically chinese, but it's authentic to its time and place. and to recognize that a lot of these things that... being basically american doesn't mean having a eurocentric view of the world, right? now... i mean, and it's sort of so invisible to us, because society just sort of changes and changes, like, and changes.
so, like, you can go to starbuck's and get soy milk, which is not originally something, you know, in america. and, you know, we go to a gym in harlem. and some of the people who are best at yoga-- and it's definitely sort of an americanized yoga-- are these, like, big, black, buff guys, right? you've seen them, right? they're, like amazing on their... it's not... you know, they probably know more yoga than, like the girl... you know, the south asian girls that i went to school with, who don't, you know? and so... you know, and things like, you know, burritos, and the fact that, you know, we celebrate things like cinco de mayo sort of, just in the air. like, "oh, time..." you know, "we're going to have a happy hour." like, these kinds of things have become a big melting pot of what it means to be american. and historically what's going to happen, i think, is that, you know, that perspective is going to become more expansive. and i would hope that over time that our understanding of, you know, americanness becomes broader. and i think all the more powerful now, given who's in the whithouse, right? you know, the face that we are presenting to the world is not
necessarily sort of, you know, a white, very anglo kind of face. >> hinojosa: very hopeful stuff, jennifer. thank you so much, and thank you for all of your work and for being such a great writer and a great journalist. >> thank you so much for having me. continue the conversation at wgbh.org/oneonone.