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Blending and stirring

October 14, 2005

DESPITE ALL THE GRUMBLING to the contrary, the United States has not truly adopted multiculturalism -- the ideology that preaches that all cultures in America should remain separate but equal. Whether we realize it or not, U.S. laws and regulations implicitly impose all manner of culturally specific standards and behaviors on Americans who hail from every corner of the globe. Our proof? In L.A. County, home to one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia, it is unlawful to hang an uncooked duck to dry for longer than four hours. Some restaurateurs say that this is not enough time to make a proper Peking duck.

The Times reported last month that Chinese immigrant diners in the San Gabriel Valley often ignore the county health department's restaurant grading system. Last week, a consortium of Chinese American activists launched a campaign to try to change the way Chinese diners and restaurant owners view food-preparation standards.

On the surface, this story is about clean bean curd and proper refrigeration. But beneath it simmers an age-old story of assimilation, American-style.

Market researchers have discovered that the longer Chinese immigrants reside in the United States, the more likely they are to adopt American health and safety standards. Their American-born children, furthermore, tend to be a whole lot more squeamish about food in general. Plenty of second-generation Chinese American kids will tell you that their parents keep weird stuff in their refrigerators.

Drawing attention to the importance of health standards, particularly in the local Chinese-language media, can hasten the assimilation of Chinese immigrants. Yet like other newcomers, the Chinese will not simply adopt all American ways unquestioningly. The activists' group also hopes to determine whether some health regulations are too strict for some kinds of Chinese cuisine.

Last July, the Orange County Health Care Agency resolved a clash between inspectors and Vietnamese restaurant owners. After conducting additional tests, the agency determined that some food items can safely be stored at room temperature for longer periods than inspectors had allowed. The agency has since eased temperature restrictions on dishes such as spring rolls, rice cakes and pork-stuffed buns.

The L.A. County Health Services Department should try to hash out a similar compromise with local Chinese restaurant owners. Occasionally the melting pot needs to be stirred.

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