Learn how the “lo mein loophole” in racist immigration laws led to the creation of Chinese restaurants in the U.S.
After a publicized wave of anti-Asian attacks, a catchy phrase popped up on protest signs and social media accounts: “Love us like you love our food.” From anime to K-dramas and from sushi to sesame chicken, non-Asian Americans now love the culture from various East Asian countries – or what they imagine it to be, at least. Many of those who enjoy consuming East Asian food, music, and movies are nowhere to be found when Asian people’s lives are on the line. If you love a certain kind of food you should love the people who make it.
It’s hypocritical to consume Asian or Asian-American cultural products and then refuse to defend Asian communities in the U.S. – or worse, exhibit open hostility against them. At the same time, we shouldn’t predicate supporting immigrant communities on enjoying their food, especially since the reason why so many Asian immigrants work in restaurants is itself a product of American racism.
1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act banned almost all Chinese people from entering the United States; it was repealed only in 1943, when the U.S. began allowing a whopping 105 Chinese immigrants per year. The American Federation of Labor, today one half of the AFL-CIO union coalition, was headed in the 19th century by Samuel Gompers, a raging racist who once asked, “Can we hope to close the flood-gates of immigration from the hordes of Chinese and the semi-savage races?” (NPR). San Francisco forced Japanese students to use segregated schools. A Japanese and Korean Exclusion League had members nationwide (History) President Theodore Roosevelt used a State of the Union address to disparage “undesirable immigrants” from China. With Chinese immigrants already banned, the 1917 Immigration Act banned immigration from almost the entirety of the rest of Asia (Al Jazeera).
But from 1915, Chinese people were able to secure a visa to work as restaurant employees. Chinese people previously worked largely in laundries, since racist attitudes prevented their employment at white businesses. After this change to immigration law, the number of Chinese restaurants quadrupled. That’s not to say it became easy for Chinese restaurant workers to immigrate: they had to find a way to convince immigration authorities they were major investors in a “high grade” eatery. Upon arrival, Chinese restaurant workers were legally prohibited from residing in all-white neighborhoods (Menuism). Regardless, Chinese people pooled money and used family and community ties to acquire merchant visas and began forming the Chinatowns of today. Wealthy white people began taking “slumming tours” of growing Chinatowns to gawk at their “depravity” and eat Chinese food (NPR).
Today, restaurants are the most common immigrant-owned business in the U.S. (CNBC). Facing “discrimination in hiring because they often speak limited English or because of their immigration status” are factors that contribute to the fact that today, “immigrants are for more likely to start their own businesses than U.S.-born residents” (NJ, AP).
Many respond to anti-immigrant sentiment by listing all of the good things immigrants give to the United States: “railroads,” “beef,” “perspectives, ideas, and sweat” (Huff Post), or “ethnic” restaurants, food trucks, and buffets. This frames immigration as an instrumental good, valuable only insofar as it provides benefits to the American-born. In this narrative, American citizens are full-fledged human beings while immigrants are just a potential American asset, like highways natural gas, or fighter jets.
But you should be active in the movement against Asian people getting stabbed (ABC) and spit on (Yahoo) and killed (CBS) whether you like General Tso’s chicken or not. We don’t think Polish people should have civil rights because of the quality of pierogies or that the wellbeing of Swedish-Americans depends on our passion for the IKEA food court. Anglo-Americans don’t get safety in the United States because we all love their pot roasts. Anglo-Americans’ rights and liberties aren’t contingent on the rest of us being pot roast aficionados because the United States was created to secure the rights and liberties of English colonists. In a way, this is fortunate, because, in my opinion, pot roast just isn’t that good.
LeRon Barton wrote, “I have come to the unfortunate realization that Blacks aren’t meant to be people, just vessels of entertainment in our society. We are looked at as hollow and only possessing culture that is meant to be enjoyed, eventually poached, and finally discarded” (Good Men Project). Similarly, immigrant communities and communities of color in general have been forced into precarious or menial jobs by racist and xenophobic attitudes and practices. Many immigrants’ salaries depend on serving white Americans. Their wellbeing as people should not be based on their ability to serve the enjoyment of white America, as well.
Non-Asian people who consume Asian products should support Asian communities under attack in the U.S.
Non-Asian people who don’t use Asian products should also be in solidarity. Support for an immigrant community shouldn’t depend on them serving you things you enjoy.
Many immigrants work in the restaurant industry because of our racist history.