We went last night to P.F. Chang’s, the Chinese-themed TGI Friday. It was a surprisingly cultural experience.
This was my very first time. Prior to the visit, most of my knowledge about this chain establishment had been from South Park depictions: (1) its food makes you super constipated, and (2) it’s run by an army of white people with a plot to take over America for China.
But that sort of “reputation” apparently did nothing to deter its business. In fact, this particular restaurant has always been one of the most popular in Central New Jersey. We waited in line for 45 minutes. By the time our beeper went off, I think they were handing out 2-hour wait notices. All this quality time spent there made us extra observant of the atmosphere:
One diner finished his business and exited the dim restaurant in a power suit, dark sunglasses, a pink tie, and a pink handkerchief. That was a bit overdressed for any meal… let alone at a Chinese TGI Friday’s on a Saturday night. Well, at least nobody would wear that kind of thing to a real Chinese restaurant.
More Indian people were waiting in line at the entrance to this PF Chang’s, than all the Indian people I had seen in any Chinese restaurant in the past 20 years, combined. I had wondered for the longest time why no Indian (including anyone who appears to be of West / South Asian descent) appreciated Chinese food… well, there they were.
When we finally got seated, we sat next to a Caucasian family who was sure having a good time. The six adults and three children had managed to drop under the table the following: five pairs of chopsticks, one “training wheel” chopstick, one fork, two spoons, three straws, one paper napkin, two clothe napkins, a bowl worth of rice and food, and various liquids.
2011 has been a year of Asian-American awareness. Having already caused controversies were Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother and Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers. Without getting into the details, both articles discussed ways and challenges for traditional Asian cultures to fit into the white male-dominant American society. One of them leans more toward tradition and the other leans more toward change, but both of them have been highly criticized.
Now, dining at PF Chang’s caused just as much complex as reading those articles. Many of us have the reflex to discredit “fake” Chinese food whenever we spot it. I’d go as far as not using chopsticks at a place that sells beef & broccoli, because it really is “American” food and a fork would be more appropriate. Do I want my culture associated with panda bears, terracotta warriors, and a plate of colorful sauces on the table? Not really. But on the other hand, what’s wrong with an evolving subculture that reaches out to accommodate people outside our community? Isn’t it better to invite them into our world with a highly modified version of kung pow chicken, than to shut the door and have a stinky tofu party among our own kind?
PF Chang’s is as Chinese as Taco Bell is Mexican. What’s harder to understand, for the more conservative of us, is that there’s nothing wrong about it. If we want to break through the barriers of tradition and move beyond the passive, obedient, piano-playing math nerds that we’re known for, perhaps we should embrace the same kind of evolution that PF Chang’s applied to its food.