In such a globalized world, unique cultures have spread far and wide across our planet. In particular, communities of Chinese immigrants have appeared in many non-Asian countries, most notably in the United States. Of course, when displaced from their homeland, immigrants are often left to search for tradition and identity, both in relation to their ancestry as well as their newfound location. Within the Chinese-American transnational community, Chinese restaurants have emerged as both a means of remaining connected to Chinese culture as well as assimilating into American society.
I have some bit of personal experience with this complicated issue. A close friend at home’s family runs the American operations of Din Tai Fung, a world-renowned dumpling house that began in East Asia. Though the first branch was in Taiwan, the restaurant is famous for its xiao long bao, a Chinese type of soup dumpling. While there are more than 30 branches across East Asia and the Pacific Rim, Din Tai Fung began in the U.S. as only one small restaurant in Arcadia, a suburb east of downtown Los Angeles. Aaron’s father went out on a limb to try to succeed in the U.S., while Aaron’s uncle continued to run the extremely profitable Asian branches. Din Tai Fung found success fairly quickly in Arcadia, but in an interesting fashion; for the first 15 years or so, Din Tai Fung essentially catered only to Asian immigrants. Arcadia and surrounding towns, located in the San Gabriel Valley, have a great number of Asian-American residents, and Din Tai Fung operated essentially as a fully Chinese restaurant that happened to be located in suburban LA. The menu was written in Chinese, chopsticks were the only utensils available, and the tables were all stocked with East Asian sauces and spices, which I would hazard to guess not many white Americans could identify. However, Din Tai Fung did not remain a small, immigrant secret for long. The New York Times highlighted the Asian branches in 1993 as some of the top restaurants in the world. Closer to LA, Jonathan Gold, a famous (white) restaurant critic, wrote a flowering review of the American branch of Din Tai Fung in the mid-2000s. The clientele began to be much more non-Asian, with weekend lunch crowds spilling out the door in search of this new, hyped-up xiao long bao that everyone was discussing. Soon, Aaron’s family opened a second location next door, taking over a Wells Fargo branch. The architecture of the new location is much more modern, lacking the dim lights and large, round, family-style tables of the first, traditional location. In fact, Din Tai Fung found such success that they opened a branch in Bellevue, Washington, an affluent (and traditionally white) suburb of Seattle. Aaron’s father has even delegated the managing operations role to a non-Chinese worker, and the Bellevue location has found great success. A famous architect has announced a new Din Tai Fung branch will be opening in his outdoor mall in Glendale, another LA suburb, next to a hip designer steakhouse. Overall, Din Tai Fung has made quite the evolution from the small, immigrant-friendly dumpling house into the culturally widespread restaurant chain it is today.
Din Tai Fung’s evolution also represents an intriguing arc in Aaron’s family’s immigrant story. Though both parents were born in Taiwan, Aaron is now a first-generation college student in Cornell’s esteemed hotel and restaurant management school, where his brother also attends. Aaron often discusses the future of Din Tai Fung, with possible new locations in Las Vegas and San Francisco. While Din Tai Fung began as a small, risky venture by a Taiwanese immigrant, it has now transcended the cultural borders it previously embraced and caters to all types of American citizens, not just those within the Chinese transnational community.
Of course, the question emerges: does the opening of restaurants by Chinese immigrants represent an assimilation attempt or some sort of a hybridity of cultures? American Chinese restaurants are often lambasted as “white washed” or “non traditional,” even to the point where a fully traditional Chinese restaurant is labeled as American-Chinese not because of its menu or practices but simply its location. In the case of Din Tai Fung, the first American branch certainly represented a true Chinese restaurant. Yet as word got out and the clientele expanded, the restaurant took on more of a Chinese-American persona. Dishes have evolved from strictly Chinese to more fried options, giving the menu a more American feel. The restaurant has moved from only serving tea and water to selling sodas, and has even considered a liquor license—something totally belying the emphasis on table turnover that Din Tai Fung grew out of—in order to appeal to more non-Asian Americans. One cannot deny the affect that the American location has had on Din Tai Fung.
Yet all of these facts do not distort the truth—Aaron’s father opened his first restaurant in the U.S. for more reasons than economic opportunity. Din Tai Fung brought together a disparate Chinese community in the Los Angeles suburbs, garnering so much attention that non-Asians began to frequent the restaurant as well. While it would be easy for simple-minded critics to label the current Din Tai Fung as “white-washed” and “Chinese-American,” its roots lie in its authenticity. Representative of both cultural hybridity and assimilation, Din Tai Fung is a perfect case study in transnational Chinese-American communities.