Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Down and Dirty Days in Beijing (a Post-Script to Jean B.)

"I'll give you television; I'll give you eyes of blue. I'll give you men [a man] who want[s] to rule the world." — David Bowie, "China Girl" from Let's Dance, 1983 (see also: Iggy Pop)

P.F. Chang's China Bistro boasts a current restaurant count of over 200 in at least five countries altogether, is owned and operated by Arizonians Paul Fleming and Philip Chiang, and has its own "authentic" frozen Chinese food product line under license to multinational corporation powerhouse Unilever (see also: Dove, Lipton, Axe body spray). Their market share in imitation Chinese culture/East Asian lookalike/exotic "vibe" dining establishments is upwards of 52%, a majority stranglehold eclipsing those of Panda Express, Magic Chopstick, and unaffiliated yet similarly-named restaurants all called Hunan Buffet (source needed). Last year, their gross income and net profit overshadowed the posted profits of Wal-Mart, McDonald's, conglomerates such as NewsCorp and Viacom, and the GDP of several small European nations (source not found). P.F. Chang's China Bistro is at the forefront of major business ventures in the agriculture, food production, and service industries—a Zenith of Restaurateurs.

But P.F. Chang's isn't actually Chinese food, Chinese culture, or Chinese people. You'd be hard-pressed to find an authentic Chinese dish in any of the 200 P.F. Chang's found worldwide, yet it's perceived as a Chinese restaurant, in the same way Taco Bell is a Mexican restaurant, or Sbarro is an Italian restaurant, or McDonald's is an American restaurant (though, to be fair, a McDonald's-as-American-emissary argument can certainly be made). The ethnic food restaurants peppered across the US are simulacra of actual ethnic food, which is sometimes itself just a facsimile of an older style of preparing food or an "original recipe." One representative, prototypical ethnic food doesn't really jump out at the gourmand or eater in reality—there are simply too many variations. If you want to eat jiaozi or gongbao jiding in China, for instance, you'll find such variety in the dishes served to you that (while some seem indistinguishable from others) they may seem to be different foods altogether. The same could be said of any foodstuff that isn't mass produced, I'm certain (by that I mean a hot pocket is a hot pocket is a hot pocket).

We probably don't think too much about the simulations-of-reality that are these ethnic food chains, assuming that some inkling of the original culture is represented within, until we come across something that is a simulacrum of our own culture—and we taste that old medicine.

Yesterday I went to a small eatery called Helen's Cafe in the Wudaokou neighborhood in Beijing. The facade was log-cabin-esque, Abe Lincoln-style, with an at-home porch and shrubbery clinging to the steps. Inside, the walls were marked with the slang of various countries, mostly in English, but covering the bases from America to Ireland to England to Australia to gibberish and nonce words. "Chillax" was definitely featured on the front page of the menu. Something about Shrek was written above the doorway nearest our table. They served hamburgers and beer and pasta and all that jazz, and the nightly specials were all about free beer, free cigarettes, or cheap food—not too un-American at all. They also served breakfast for most of the day—a staple of American cafés, no doubt—so I ordered an "American breakfast" (eggs, toast, bacon, hashbrowns) with a gin and tonic (why not), and ended up ordering a vegetarian omelette on top of that after finishing the first plate (my appetite seems to be growing here).

The simulation wasn't perfect, though. We were still speaking Chinese with the waitress, and we still had to pay in RMB, but the American-ness—the Americana?—certainly filled the place, whether perfectly (yards of beer) or otherwise (Top of the Morning to Ya). The whole thing—the idea of a faked other culture— is pretty pomo, as someone'd probably say it. I don't know what it means to find a simulation of my own culture in what is probably best termed a foreign city; I don't know if it is especially meaningful in any way whatsoever, but I do understand that culture is something able to be simulated, that it can be faked in part, and that those little things that separate us don't really make us that fucking different from one another, even if we think they do. P.F. Chang's China Bistro is a simulacrum, and Helen's Cafe, too. But what isn't, these days?

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