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What’s on the menu?

An English professor serves up Chinese culture with a Canadian flavour.

BY MOIRA MACDONALD | JAN 12 2011

It’s fitting that Lily Cho found her calling in diaspora studies by leaving home in Edmonton in 1997 for the long drive to grad school for her master’s in Ontario.

“There were Chinese restaurants in every town we stopped in,” says Dr. Cho, an associate professor of English at the University of Western Ontario since 2004. “I sat with it for a while before I could articulate how strange it was that these restaurants were everywhere you go and sort of nowhere in the discussion of multiculturalism or Chinese diaspora.”

The paradox gets chewed over by Dr. Cho in Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada, a more edible version of her dissertation (Dr. Cho did her master’s degree at Queen’s University and her PhD at the University of Alberta). The book was published in November by University of Toronto Press.

Using menus as text, it looks at how Chinese-Canadian restaurants, historically among the first restaurants in small towns, have served up Chinese culture to non-Chinese customers – and have been interpreters of what “Canadian” means.  Ask Dr. Cho what her favourite Chinese restaurant meal is and she’ll tell you she’s “a huge fan of the hot beef sandwich.”

There’s a personal connection. Her family – her dad is from south China, her mom from Hong Kong – trekked to Whitehorse from Edmonton when Dr. Cho was four to open their own Chinese restaurant. It lasted two years, but its memory remains: a photo of the “Shangri-La” restaurant with her dad’s Chevy in front graces the book’s cover. Her father is so proud of the book he’s pestered his daughter for extra copies to send back to China.

On sabbatical this year from Western, Dr. Cho is the Canadian Studies Fellow at the University of Toronto. She is using the fellowship to research photographs used in Canada’s Chinese head tax certificates as archival documents of the intersection between citizenship and emotion.

“I’m always interested in how we think about culture and identity,” says Dr. Cho. She’s drawn to “points where we find these shifts, these quirky transformations that make us think twice about things we know about community or nationalist culture.” It is there that “something opens up [and] reveals something about cultural identity that is really powerful and interesting.”

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