Chinese and Americans have spent the last 150 years or more trying to understand each other and have managed to achieve some success at it. This venture was not easy because the cultural gulf between traditional Chinese and Western cultures is so wide that the possibility of much understanding looked remote indeed. Each side tended to perceive the other as ignorant and barbaric animals not worth dealing with, but those misconceptions became the starting point for a complexity cycle that is still unfolding today.
In the nineteenth century, some Americans began to look at China more positively than did the European colonial powers. The early Chinese immigrant communities in places like San Francisco had ways of doing things that began to make sense once Americans took the time to notice what the Chinese were doing and understand why they were doing it. San Franciscans, in particular, soon developed a love affair with Chinese cooking.
The Chinese, being good businessmen, quickly saw this love affair as an opportunity. Soon many Chinese restaurants were in business to serve their customers’ newly acquired tastes. The new foods caught on so completely with many people that they could not wait to eat any and all new food that the city’s Chinese restaurants might offer.
According to legend, this desire for exotic new Chinese cuisine was satisfied by one restaurant owner in a clever and creative way. He announced to his customers that a ship had just arrived from China and was carrying a recipe for the newest and most exotic Chinese food of all, and he committed to preparing and serving this new delicacy starting on the following day.
The new food, which the restaurant owner named “chop suey,” was an instant success. Its name certainly sounded very Chinese, and the magic recipe for preparing it was quite simple. The restaurant owner simply took the previous day’s leftovers and served them attractively.
The only thing Chinese about chop suey was that a Chinese-American restaurant served it. No one questioned its Chinese origin, though, because the name sounded Chinese. People soon found out that chop suey was an American invention, but they did not mind being tricked. They regarded the restaurant owner as pretty creative and were able to chuckle over being tricked in such a harmless and creative way. Unlike those Westerners who looked down on everything Chinese, the patrons of these restaurants were gaining some understanding and respect for a people and a culture that most Westerners were dismissing.
The funniest thing of all is that chop suey is a common food in America to this day, and millions of Americans still believe that everybody in China eats chop suey. The enterprising restaurant owner would no doubt be very surprised by the widespread consequences of his little trick.
In a somewhat similar manner, an important Chinese food crop was unknown in America until it was brought to America from China. This crop, often with genetic modifications, now grows in America and is probably America’s most valuable single food crop. Few Americans connect this crop with China, but they are happy to believe that chop suey is a staple food in China.
Extensive fields of this Chinese crop now grow to a height of four feet (120 cm.) under good growing conditions, yet most Americans have no idea what this crop is, even when they see it. Here is a picture of the Chinese crop, growing in Ohio just before it ripened for harvest. Can you recognize and name this valuable food crop? Today, more of it is grown in the United States than in China!
About 140 years ago many people at the First Church in Oberlin, Ohio, had become aware of the extreme poverty in rural China and felt that Chinese peasants could benefit from gaining awareness of Western knowledge and religion. A more serious Chinese-American interaction came out of this awakening awareness. The birth of this interaction happened just one mile from the field now containing the pictured Chinese mystery crop.
A few of these concerned Ohioans and their families went to China’s Shanxi Province to set up a small church and school. The Clapp family, who were among those who had gone to Shanxi, returned to America on leave after spending several years in China. When the Clapps left for home, their students presented a scroll to them that thanked them for their work.
A year later the Clapps returned to Shanxi to continue their teaching. In 1900 everyone from Oberlin who was in Shanxi, including the Clapps, was killed in the Boxer Rebellion. Back in America the friends and families of those killed were determined to continue working to better the circumstances of Chinese peasants. They did not call for retribution against China.
In the years following the Boxer Rebellion a memorial to the missionary/teachers killed in the Rebellion was constructed in Oberlin, and an organization called the Shansi Association was formed to raise funds for sending teachers back to Shanxi. (In earlier times Shanxi was commonly spelled in English as Shansi.) In the first part of China’s Communist period the Shansi Association teachers were ordered out of China, which caused the organization to send its people to places like India and Japan instead. Today, Shansi teachers are once again in China at Beijing Normal University and Shanxi Agricultural University. The Shansi organization has remained involved in teaching in other Asian countries even though its people are again welcome in China.
The Shanxi scroll survived because the Clapps had left the scroll in America when they returned to China. More than 40 years later a member of the Clapp family found the scroll and recognized that it was important. It was presented to the First Church in Oberlin, where it remains on display today. An English translation of the scroll is on the First Church wall beside the scroll.
China today is a far different place from the China that gave birth to this scroll. Nevertheless, that earlier world is part of the continuity of Chinese history. It is noteworthy that this perhaps controversial piece of Chinese and American interaction survived Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution because it was on the opposite side of the world from China. Complexities sometimes play out in unexpected ways.
Now you can honestly say “Nobody told me.”
Copyright © 2016-2019 Charles E. Dial. All rights reserved.
Posted Sep 18, 2016 at 22:27. Revised Aug 14, 2019 at 08:17. –> Retrieved Oct 23, 2019 at 01:33.
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