Sushi is Not Chinese Food: Of China Misunderstandings

Sushi is not Chinese food — and it’s not the only way Americans sometimes misunderstand China.

“These girls gave me panda earrings!” laughed this Chinese girl, who came over to my home for the holidays. “I mean, seriously, panda earrings? I can buy those in China anytime.” These girls were her American classmates. And even though pandas are pretty much the national symbol of China — and even one of the mascots for the Beijing Olympics — these Americans somehow thought this gift would truly be something special.

It was like how one of my relatives gave John — who comes from Hangzhou, the home of Dragonwell, one of the most famous and prized green teas in all of the world — a box of Celestial Seasonings green tea.

So it’s not surprising that, as I giggled at my friend’s tale of gifting gone wrong, I couldn’t help but think of many similar misunderstandings here in the US of A.

Like when people say this to John, after hearing he is from China: “Oh, I love sushi.” This culinary faux pas would usually make me cough uncomfortably. Sometimes, I would step in, reminding them politely, “Uh, you know, sushi is Japanese.

Then there are the so-called “Chinese” things that don’t even really exist in China. Like General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies. When my husband first heard about chop suey from my Grandpa, I had to explain to him, later on, that this was a dish created by Chinese immigrants to the US, as a way to make Chinese food into something a little more American.

As long as people continue to learn about countries from afar — through the media, movies, TV and reading — there will always be misunderstandings. Which is why I’m sure this won’t be the last time an American gives a Chinese girl panda earrings.

What China misunderstandings have you experienced?

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17 Replies to “Sushi is Not Chinese Food: Of China Misunderstandings”

  1. In Finland people also mix up with what is Japanese and what is Chinese. Usually they think kimono is a Chinese outfit, but that would be qipao. There must be many more things like this, but right now don’t remember. Actually I had never heard before that people would think sushi is Chinese food!

  2. I snigger to think the anti-Japanese thoughts going through John’s mind. Me, I hate it when I’m in the US and someone suggests some Chinese restaurant and they say how “good” it is, like yeah, right, the Chinese cooking here is supposed to be just as authentic as Chinese cooking in China…NOT. In fact I won’t even go to any Chinese restaurant in the US! Fortune cookies, they drive me crazy. I have to keep explaining fortune cookies aren’t Chinese at all.

  3. Actually, sushi may not be a Japanese invention. It was probably introduced into Japan from elsewhere in East Asia, most likely China.

    In any event, the various Japanese words for sushi are all in Kanji, which most certainly have their etymological origins in China.

    Like so many other things that are now considered traditionally Japanese, sushi could be just another Japanese knock-off of something originally Chinese.

    Memes spread in unpredictable ways across nations. And the misappropriation of culture happens all the time. Soon people forget where all the culture and civilization came from. Even if they do remember, it is often the intellectual thieves that claim the credit, get into the establishment and run the world.

  4. I had a restaurant job while I was studying Chinese in college (in the States), and my co-workers would always ask me, “hey, how’s the Japanese coming along?” and I’d say, “not very good, I guess, since I’m studying Chinese.” And also it was funny, any Asians that came into the restaurant, no matter where they were from, always ended up at my table because the hostesses or managers figured I’d be able to communicate with them better. Was kind of tricky when I got a table full of Japanese businessmen who didn’t speak hardly any English. With our simple English and Chinese characters (also used in Japanese writing) written on the paper table cloth, we managed to communicate 🙂

  5. Chinese Americans kept a low profile for generations and who can blame them? From The Chinese Exclusion Act forward, they have been almost invisible. The Japanese had been much more visible to Americans after the Korean War so despite the imbalance of numbers (there are many, many more Chinese than Japanese), Japanese rank higher in American awareness.
    Chinese everywhere adapt. They bring their cuisine to a foreign lands and change it based on availability of produce and local tastes. “General Tso” was Tso Jung Tang, a real historical figure. The original version of the chicken is probably not as sweet. Orange chicken might have been created by Panda restaurants (of Andrew and Peggy Cherng) from Pasadena California. Crab Rangoon was invented in Hawaii. In a different way, Koreans and Japanese adapted ancient Chinese costumes, writing and customs to their own liking into a different culture. Asian Americans have their own sub-culture where the nationalities (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.) are not as distinct.
    As China rises, more people will pay attention and misunderstandings should decrease for future generations. BTW, while I was in China and hear Germanic tones, I had a tough time figuring out if the westerner was German, as opposed to Dutch, Austrian, Dane or Scandinavian. So, I’m no better than anyone else.

  6. Like I said one time, I had a friend who in all seriousness asked if people in Japan could understand Chinese since they’re close to each other. A friend of mine had someone ask him “is the Great Wall of China in Japan?”

    The funniest thing was back in high school the non-Chinese students had to explain to the Chinese students what chop suey was. And I had never heard of General Tso’s Chicken until I went to college.

    @Li Lan: I think you should rethink that “I’ll never eat Chinese food in the US” thing. If you go to areas of the US where the population is heavily Chinese (ie. Flushing, NY or the San Gabriel Valley in California), you’ll find a lot of authentic Chinese food that’s equal to the Chinese food in China. The restaurants there are opened by Chinese immigrants and they cater to Chinese immigrants. Most places don’t speak a drop of English.

    Fortune cookies (and the lazy susan) were popularized by overseas Chinese people. And by now they’ve gone across the Pacific Ocean to China (the lazy susan has for sure), so would that make it Chinese? I guess that would be the same for all the other “Americanized” Chinese food. I like to think of it as a happy addition to the diverse Chinese food landscape.

  7. Sushi actually had its origins from China in the 7th century, but it was more of a fish fermentation using rice, which was thrown away after. By the 17th century, they began to use wine vinegar combined with rice to simulate the fermentation – but was eaten immediately. Of course modern day sushi is definately Japanese.

    Growing up in Canada I was raised during the wave of Hong Kong Chinese people. Think of all those restaurants that sell ginger beef, chicken fried rice, and chop suey. (I don’t even eat that stuff) It really wasn’t until I reached post secondary was there a sudden influx of Mainland Chinese students. Of course these people dominated math, statistics, chemistry, and physics – maybe the rare few in biology.

    Honestly now that I think about the gift giving, Asian guys are really hard to shop for! What makes it difficult is their lack of expression at times. You never really know if they will love it or not. The other difficulty is that their love for technology is so expensive! Come to think of it, any gift we get will result in roughly the same response anyways. Maybe just ask beforehand.

    I have to say my Canadian friends are decent when it comes to Asian ethnic backgrounds. They can distinguish: Filipinos, Vietnamese, Mainland Chinese, and on a good day Koreans. Too bad I’m Chinese (HK) so they always say Chinese first and guess my ethnic origin correctly. Actually they take a hard look at me, and after some hesitation, wager a guess for Chinese. Darn.

  8. Panda earrings!? That is so cheesy…and hilarious. Only thing funnier would be Peking duck earrings.

    My wife loves fortune cookies…now she misses them when she visits China. She doesn’t understand the fun of adding [in bed] to end of every fortune though.

  9. I have not heard that “Sushi is Chinese” here in Los Angeles at least. Sushi is very popular and Japanese cuisine is well known here. But I do always get the misconception that Americanize Chinese food is authentic Chinese food? Its very different to say the least and not in a positive way:)

  10. Most Brazilians get miffed when someone asks if we speak Spanish (it’s almost a running joke among us when we talk about ignorant foreigners). When I got to China and had Chinese people (other foreigners still ask Spanish) asking if our language was English, it really took it to a new level. Also, when I went to a “Brazilian” BBQ in Wuhan where they put lajiao on the chicken hearts, I was the one who almost had a heart attack. And what about people telling me that I wasn’t Brazilian because I’m white?

    Also, what I realised was my own ignorance about so many other countries, especially in Central Asia. This is why I firmly believe that acceptance is the only appropriate attitude here. I don’t mean tolerance, I mean acceptance. Ignorance about other countries is the rule. I’ve heard absurd things from Americans, Germans, Chinese and French.
    I mean, what right do we have to be upset about other people’s ignorance? We are certainly ignorant about something else. Adapted Chinese food? It’s adapted everywhere. And in China they created something called “Western Food” that I had never heard of.

    Granted, people who say “I love sushi” thinking it’s Chinese are probably

  11. While sushi is not a Chinese dish, it is of Chinese origin. In southern China, the villagers used to preserve fish in fermented rice. The rice was discarded and only the fish was consumed. When Japan adopted this practice, they ate the rice too. I believe it was the 19th century, when an enterprising Japanese man thought of mixing the rice with rice vinegar and sugar, thereby eradicating the need to ferment rice, which took a long time, and perhaps created one of the earliest fast-food… Sushi!

    I learnt this in a Japanese restaurant!

  12. When I brought my Chinese boyfriend to America to visit my family, my mom threw open her door and said with a big smile, “Aaaah…the communist has arrived!”

  13. Articles in English tend to be written in ways that lead to confusion about history facts.

    For example, I know that here is evidence raw fish was eaten in Southeast Asia and some part of China. Some articles may boldly claim “sushi came from Southeast Asia”. No, Sushi is uniquely a Japanese achievement; sushi is not Southeastern or Chinese at all. One thing is eating raw fish; a different thing is eating sushi.

    I bet there are a few traditional Chinese dishes that include tomato. While the origin of tomato is found in Chile and Peru it would be wrong to claim that the origin of a certain Chinese dish is Chilean or Peruvian for using tomato. See the problem?

    Even though there is no clear evidence of the origin of sushi it would be more accurate to mention that there is evidence of people eating raw fish in a certain place in the world and separately mention that sushi comes form Japan. I would love it if this type of confusing redaction and ambiguity so common in articles written in English would stop.

  14. From what I heard from my father who spent his youth in China, raw seafood is eaten there as a delicacy, and not called sushi because it was not something influenced by the Japanese. He ate raw live shrimp that is temporarily stunned (barbaric!!) by strong liquor, and raw fish slices and not rolled up in some rice-seaweed combo. But because the environment was never that clean in the Chinese ocean water he wound up paying a huge price for his raw seafood adventures. From the raw seafood he caught parasites which resided in his liver. He was informed by his doctor that the medication that will kill his “liver fluke” would also kill him. So he lived with the parasite all his remaining life and he ate a larger portion so that he can feed both himself as well as the parasites.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dan! You are right that raw seafood is a delicacy in certain parts of China — “drunken shrimp” for example is a famous dish in the Hangzhou region and it is just as you say, stunning the shrimp in high-proof alcohol to eat it. Wow, that is interesting how your father managed to live with the parasites in his system.

      All I have to say, though, is this talk of parasites and seafood kind of makes me glad I’m a vegan and don’t have to worry about these things. 🙂

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