As weird as it may sound to some, Chinatown is as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July, Rice Krispies, The New York Times, and iPhones. Fireworks come from gunpowder which comes from China. Rice Krispies are made from rice. On the West Coast, rice was introduced by Chinese immigrants who were working on the railroad. The New York Times is printed on paper (for now). Paper-making was invented in China. And your iPhone was made in China.
Professor Lok Sui from the University of California, Berkeley, had a lot to say about that. America loses so much of what defines it if you subtract the Chinese influence. I know this because I spent 12 years living in one of America's most popular tourist destinations: San Francisco. And it would not be one of America's top tourist destinations without Chinatown.
Unbeknownst to me until recently, San Francisco's Chinatown is not only America's most popular Chinatown, it is America's original Chinatown. It began as an ethnic neighborhood that the city tried to get rid of
after the 1906 earthquake. The Empress of Chinatown said, "Not on my watch!" And so not only did Chinatown get to stay where it was, but the people of this formally ethnic neighborhood began to make changes to it so it would be the tourist destination it remains until today. The word spread and other Chinese communities around the country replicated the San Francisco model all around America. What's more American than franchising!
And I'm not using that word loosely. When Chinatowns all over the country found an Americanized style of their traditional food that the non-Chinese people liked, those recipes made it to other Chinese restaurants around the country. That's why orange chicken tastes like orange chicken pretty much everywhere you go. Sweet, tangy, and delicious. I wish I could say the same for every hamburger I've ever had. The great thing about living in San Francisco is that you can get those ubiquitous Chinese takeout recipes. Or you can aim higher and go someplace like the legendary House of Nanking, where Chef Peter Fang and his daughter Chef Kathy Fang turn those dishes you know into edible art. Shrimp covered art. I'm so hungry.
The downside to defining everything Chinese as different than American is that all things Chinese then become exotic. Instead of someone just being "regular" attracted to a Chinese (or Asian) woman, they instead obsess over the woman's straight black hair, and her eye shape, and myths of subservience. Filmmaker Debbie Lum, who I talked to, investigates this thoroughly in her, at times, stomach-churning film "Seeking Asian Female." And on the other hand, it's not enough to just not be attracted to a Chinese (or Asian) man, the Chinese man must be flawed at a genetic level, according to former porn star (watch and see for yourself) Jeremy Long.
This two-ness that happens with Chinese Americans is all embodied in movie star, marital arts legend, and cultural icon, Bruce Lee. Lee was a Chinese hero, a Chinese-American hero, and an American hero. Wait that's not two-ness. That's a three-ness. This stuff is complicated. Or it's easy if you stop making what it is to be an American so narrow. Bruce Lee's parents were Chinese. But he was born in San Francisco while his parents were in town. (Slow down. He's not an "anchor baby". His dad was on the road in the Chinese opera.) He spent his life in both countries and became an icon of both countries. When I was kid, he was my hero. I never thought to wonder if he was American or not. I just knew he was awesome. I didn't spend time looking for his passport. I just assumed that since he was on my TV that he was my hero. But when I eventually met Chinese Americans who were themselves fans of Lee, I realized that as much as he was mine, he was way more theirs. Because as much as we are all Americans, the pride they felt in his groundbreaking and world-changing accomplishments is way deeper than my admiration of those same things.
I had the ultimate version of this experience in this Sunday's show when I sat down to talk with Lee's daughter, Shannon. (Fanboy alert: My enthusiasm when I sat down with her is palpably embarrassing.) But Shannon understands that even though Bruce is her dad that he was also a little, teeny bit mine. She accepts that her dad can be many things at once. And accepting that there can be many things happening at the same time co-existing and thriving is what truly makes America great.
For some people the definition of who is and who isn't an American defies logic, historical accuracy, common sense, decency, good manners, the milk of human kindness, enjoyment in the good things in life, and love of good food. And if there was anything I have learned from season two of "United Shades of America" it is that once you remove the burden of electoral politics and the team sport nonsense of our two party system most of us can agree on some of the basic tenets of what this country should be. If we go the direction that many of the leaders of this country want and close the borders and discourage new immigrants, then we are ruining the possibility of new ideas and new experiences. If that happens then we wouldn't have fortune cookies, lion dancing, and 6'4" Black comedians getting to sit down with the amazing daughter of an amazing legend. And who wouldn't want that? I WANT THAT!
See you in season three!