Is Asian Salad a Microaggression?

Asian Crunch Salad, Facebook / Applebee's Grill & Bar (Westminster, MD)
April 28, 2017

To be fair, Bonnie Tsui is not outraged. But she’s annoyed. It bothers her when she sees Oriental Chicken Salad on the Applebee’s menu. Or Chicken Asian Chop Chop at Houlihan’s. As a Filipino-American, I was stunned. Houlihan’s is still around?

In any event, Tsui, the author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods, took to the pages of the New York Times in an op-ed titled "Why is Asian Salad Still on the Menu?" She writes, "The persistence of these names—let’s at least call them ‘questionable’—on the American restaurant menu underscores how non-Asian-Americans have been making up their own version of Asianness for a long time now."

In many ways, the broad, generic terminology used to refer to an entire continent is the heart of it. Applebee’s menu features an "Oriental chicken salad" with the following description: "fresh Asian greens tossed in a tasty Oriental vinaigrette." The "Asian greens" and "Oriental vinaigrette" are so laughably vague as to have no meaning at all. When I asked Applebee’s for more specifics on what made its Asian greens Asian and its Oriental vinaigrette Oriental, a spokesman told me the company was unable to "provide a thorough response." No kidding.

Am I taking this too seriously? The casual racism of the Asian salad stems from the idea of the exotic — who is and isn’t American is caught up wholesale in its creation. This use of "Oriental" and "Asian" is rooted in the wide-ranging, "all look same" stereotypes of Asian culture that most people don’t really perceive as being racist. It creates a kind of blind spot.

The casual racism of the Asian salad… Needless to say, there have been some strong reactions to the column—on the Times’s own comments section, no less:

"I'm just going to go out on a limb here and credit the ‘white audience’ with the smarts to know that the Asian salad isn't any more Asian than the Ortega tacos are Mexican or the SpaghettiOs are Italian," writes Randall from Boulder, Colo. "I'm pretty liberal and Asian, but this is the kind of crying wolf—whining wolf actually—that makes people tune out when we complain about actual racism. Gimme a break."

"I'm Swiss-American and find the notion that all Swiss cheese has holes in it to be such a personal insult to my ethnic identity that I'm considering a class-action lawsuit against the FDA," jokes a reader named Expatico, who adds, "Racist salad! This is why Trump won."

"I am Asian," says another reader named Tony, "but honestly I find it hard to muster much anger about an Asian salad or anything similar. There is so many more instances of racism, or at least ignorance, that are more demeaning and cutting to my existence that something like this just doesn't register…."

"When I see an Oriental Chop Chop or a Secret Asian Man, I feel … weary," says Tsui. "Because the language of the Asian salad is revealing of the dangers of bland, disembodied generalization: When you fail to see countries and cultures as discrete entities, what kind of consideration could you be expected to give to individual people?"

In case you’re wondering, "Secret Asian Man" is the name of a salad from the Café Yumm! chain. (Secret Asian Man is also a cartoon strip created by Sam Takahashi.) Personally, I think Secret Asian Man is fine—who doesn’t want a little exotic mystery in their life? And frankly, I’m more offended by Creepy Asian Businessman, the stereotype of the older Asian tycoon in movies like Showgirls ("We have good time").

Tsui does provide an interesting history of Asian fusion, which essentially began with Wolfgang Puck. Chinese food has been in this country since the 19th century—there was even the Chop Suey Craze of 1896. During that year, as Paul Freedman notes in Ten Restaurants That Changed America, an article appeared in New York Journal with the title "Queer Dishes Served at the Waldorf by Li Hung's Chinese Cook."

If Tsui is offended, well, that’s her right I guess. I knew a woman from Rome who visited New York's Little Italy and was deeply insulted. "That is not Italy," she insisted. "Those are not Italians!" She also thought Sicilians were not Italians. But my Sicilian friends showed her—they took her out, gave her whiskey, and then they tried to … oh wait, I’m thinking of The Godfather.

As many Times readers have pointed out, there are worse things at which to take offense. Like the time I walked into a biergarten in Germany and a kid yells out, "Chino! Chino!" Yes, I have arrived! Or the time I was at a Chinese buffet in Jersey and an old white guy said to me, "They let you take a lunch break too? That’s great!"

Or the time I was walking down Kärntner Strasse in Vienna. I hear some guy yelling in my direction but I choose to ignore him. The yelling continues and gets louder as this person is now running after me. Finally, I turn around to confront him. He’s a Chinese waiter from a nearby restaurant. "Oh sorry!" he says, "I thought you were someone else!"

Seriously? I’m even getting it from the Chinese waiters?