Michelle Liang ’23: “From MSG to COVID-19: The Politics of America’s Fear of Chinese Food”

Part of our “Art and Artists are Essential” collection and invitation.

“Everyone is in charge of their own story; of the ways they want to be seen by other people. For me, my narrative is one that centers heavily on food because that is how I connect with my culture. I believe that we are dependent on food as creative expressions of ourselves, as a deeply rooted cultural element people take pride in, and even just as simple gestures of gratitude for others.”
—Michelle Liang ’23

Liang was a student in Professor Kelly Alexander’s course “Our Culinary Cultures” this past semester. The class chronicled eating at home during the coronavirus crisis, and forged unexpected community through sharing their substitutions, cravings, and experiments.

In this essay for the course, Liang discusses how COVID-19 has increased xenophobia and racism against Chinese culture, tracing a line between MSG and the source of the coronavirus outbreak.

Deep-fried eggplant. All photos by Michelle Liang.

From MSG to COVID-19: The Politics of America’s Fear of Chinese Food

The global outbreak of COVID-19 has held the world’s attention and exposed an unprecedented array of public health concerns. Unfortunately, it has also raised xenophobic sentiments about Chinese people that are particularly tied to their eating practices and preferences. Preliminary reports from publications such as Business Insider and The New York Times linked the outbreak to Wuhan’s “wet markets,” (1,2) where produce and meat are “sold alongside livestock and more exotic wildlife like snakes” and bats. (3,4) Across the internet and through an array of social media platforms, people from policymakers to ordinary citizens are blaming the Chinese government for not regulating its citizens’ eating habits, and blaming the Chinese people for eating what westerners perceive as strange and unsavory foods. (5,6) For instance, on March 18, Senator John Cornyn drew backlash from Asian American advocates for claiming China was “to blame” for the spread of the coronavirus because of a “culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” (7)

These denouncing statements build on old racist tropes about Chinese food and fuel fears about the ways Chinese people eat; they promote an idea that Chinese people are “uncivilized, unclean, [and] filthy beyond all conception.” (8) Although they are particularly relevant in the era of COVID-19, these derogatory conceptions of Chinese eating practices are not new in American culture. Around fifty years ago, a fictitious idea of “Chinese restaurant syndrome”—the belief that eating Chinese food made people lethargic and ill—swept across the country as if an epidemic. Consequently, many people began not only to avoid eating Chinese food but also to specifically target the ingredient MSG as the culprit. However, even thirty years after the Chinese restaurant syndrome was debunked, stigmas about MSG persist.

These myths are about more than food. It is in times like these, when we, Chinese people, are faced with waves of skepticism and fear, that we ask:  Can we opt out of being Chinese?

Silken tofu in seaweed soup.

MSG was discovered in 1907 by Japanese chemist Kikune Ikeda. (9) While investigating foods such as asparagus, tomatoes, and soup broth made with seaweed, Ikeda discovered a fifth taste (in addition to sweet, sour, bitter, and salty) and called it “umami.” (10) He determined that glutamate, the ionic form of glutamic acid, was responsible for the new taste. Hoping to synthesize umami, he extracted glutamate from seaweed and mixed it with water and table salt. (11) The synthesized compound was monosodium glutamate—MSG. As soon as it was isolated, Ikeda began to market it as a table condiment called Ajinomoto, “essence of taste.” (12) Accessible to everyone, it became widely used as a flavor enhancer. When added to food, it boosts dishes’ overall flavor profiles. Specifically, it increases umami—the full-bodied taste that translates to “deliciousness” or “savory” in Japanese (13) and is found in a variety of foods, from parmesan cheese to Doritos to walnuts. (14)

Within a few years, by way of immigration patterns and a burgeoning restaurant industry, MSG had made its way across Asia and eventually to America. It was not until after World War II, though, that American soldiers brought MSG home with them and introduced it as an ingredient in this country. (15) Conveniently, MSG’s arrival came at a key moment during the period of mass production of food products. Since it was a cheap additive, it was extensively used in industrial processed foods, including its use to enhance frozen, chilled, and dehydrated meals in order to make them taste better. Later, as Americans became more health-conscious about their diets, MSG became a crucial additive in non-fat and low-fat foods because it could make up for the flavors lost due to the extraction of oils. (16) Eventually, though, MSG’s chemical nature turned against it. After federal bans on sweeteners, such as cyclamates, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed carcinogenic, consumers began to worry about chemical additives in their food—not only other sweeteners, but MSG, too. (17)

“Triggered by one letter, pre-existing anti-Chinese sentiments established ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome.’”

The most damning blow to MSG’s reputation, though, occurred in 1968, when the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter signed by Dr. Ho Man Kwok complaining about radiating pain in his arms, weakness, and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. (18,19,20) Triggered by one letter, pre-existing anti-Chinese sentiments established “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” defined in a now-outdated edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a group of symptoms that is held to affect susceptible persons eating food and especially Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate.” (21) The following year, Dr. John Olney, a medical doctor and a professor of psychiatry, pathology, and immunology at Washington University, claimed that the amount of MSG found in just one can of soup would cause brain lesions in a two-year-old child. However, his conclusion was based on an experiment that involved force-feeding newborn mice huge doses of up to four times their individual bodyweights in MSG. (22)

Although Kwok did not directly attribute MSG as the source of his symptoms, common perception held that the additive carried a myriad of ailments. Other subsequent research, however, could not substantiate this so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome. In fact, when the FDA tested the effects of MSG three times, in 1958, 1991 and 1998, data analysis confirmed that the chemical compound is safe to eat. (23) This authoritative data should have been enough to stand up to one anecdotal letter and one erroneous study, yet the negative ideas about MSG continued to circulate. Consumers sought out foods labeled “no MSG” and looked for restaurants that claimed not to serve it, although “many [could] not explain why ‘natural’ glutamate should be any less harmful” than its industrially manufactured counterpart. (24,25) The anti-additive movement has also admitted that “‘natural” and “industrially produced” glutamate are chemically identical and are processed in the human body in similar ways. (26)

Tofu pockets with assorted mushrooms and truffle.

During this period of widespread misconceptions about the Chinese culture, slanderous ideas about food made Chinese people seem impossibly alien and “unassimilable.” (27) Food historian Ian Mosby wrote that fear of MSG in Chinese food is part of the US’s long history of viewing the “exotic” cuisine of Asia as dangerous and dirty. (28) This dates back to America’s earliest relationships with its Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 19th century, when Chinese people were commonly regarded as “dirty, heathen rat-eaters.” (29) Anti-Chinese sentiments were widespread in those days, and Chinese immigrants were scapegoated by means of discrimination on the job market and decreased wages for the same jobs that white Americans held. Eventually, these anti-Chinese sentiments became law. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. This discriminatory act would not be repealed until over half a century later, in 1943, leaving a lasting impact on prejudices towards Chinese Americans. (30)

“Americanized Chinese food was born from desperation, which makes today’s discrimination against it particularly unjust.”

In those days, Chinese food was a focal point for much of the discrimination against Chinese immigrants. Westerners were quick to label Chinatown businesses as “nuisances,” largely because of the unpleasant “stench” of Chinese kitchens. (31) In spite of racist backlash, Chinese food and restaurants continued to thrive, mostly because they were affordable for working-class people. Yet the cuisine’s survival depended on adapting it for American palates: Traditional preparations were made sweeter, meats were served boneless, and many ingredients were deep-fried. Americanized Chinese food was born from desperation, (32) which makes today’s discrimination against it particularly unjust. In this country today, we are still not over Chinese restaurant syndrome. Amid the current trends of wellness and clean-eating, Chinese cuisine is perceived and characterized as “doused in processed oil, brown sauces which are full of sugar,” and… MSG. (33) Once again, MSG is portrayed as the source of a myriad of health concerns.

This time, though, the perception is not universal. There has been effort to push back the misconstrued perception of Chinese food and MSG among some media outlets. Activists have launched campaigns such as “RedefineCRS,” in which celebrated top chefs around the world, including London’s Heston Blumenthal and New York City’s David Chang, champion MSG. (34) Even prior to this movement, Anthony Bourdain had expressed his opinions on MSG in a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown. (35)

“I think MSG is good stuff… You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome? Racism.” — Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown

Steamed crystal dumplings with assorted vegetable filling.

How can one forget this painful history of discrimination in the current moment? The myths around MSG and Chinese food and culture are ingrained in America’s consciousness, and these experiences provide an important background to what it has meant for Chinese to live among non-Chinese. Now, anti-Chinese sentiments and actions are growing, and they have been extensively documented in the time of COVID-19. As reported by Jenny Zhang in Eater, “the outbreak has had a decidedly dehumanizing effect, reigniting old strains of racism and xenophobia that frame Chinese people as [those] who bring dangerous, contagious diseases.” (36) A quick search of “virus,” “China,” and “food” across social media platforms brings up an endless scroll of statements suggesting that Chinese people “deserve the karmic retribution in the form of diseases and illnesses” as one post stated. (37) Chinese citizen Wang Mengyun, for example, inadvertently became an internet celebrity when she was filmed eating bat soup. For a filming that happened four years ago, and outside of China, Wang continues to be slandered, receiving messages such as “You’re abnormal. You’re disgusting.” (38)

“If I am inescapably Chinese by descent, I am only sometimes Chinese by consent. When and how is a matter of politics.” — Ien Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese

These hateful sentiments toward Chinese people are found in numerous variations throughout America, articulating an incident in which Chinese Americans “[come] into awareness of [their] own, unchosen, minority status.” (39) As famously stated by Ien Ang in On Not Speaking Chinese, “if I am inescapably Chinese by descent, I am only sometimes Chinese by consent. When and how is a matter of politics.” (40) In the time of COVID-19, then, how can we, and should we, opt out of being Chinese, looking Chinese, and sounding Chinese? From the array of discriminatory comments against Chinese people, it is evident that China continues to be the absolute norm of “Chineseness” against which all other Chinese cultures are measured. As articulated by Gungwu Wang in his paper, “Among Non-Chinese,” “Chinese may be slower and less willing than others to reassess their original identity…but many now identify with the culture and not the Chinese regime.” (41) Yet in America, such denial to be identified with the Chinese state is useless.

People that are Chinese by appearance are victims of slanderous comments and jokes around the internet. To look differently, to speak differently, and to be regarded as Chinese by others inevitably lead to an awareness of what is and what is not Chinese. Foods that are doused in oil and brown sauces are Chinese; uncivilized and unclean eating practices are Chinese. When Chinese restaurants began to put up signs that say “no MSG” and when Chinese Americans feel apprehensive about going outside in masks, they are unknowingly showing signs of, and surrendering to, a condition of actual marginalization. Being Chinese becomes a signifier of the cultural and political dynamics in America. Being Chinese outside of China becomes an identity molded by its local circumstances and given meaning by a practice of discrimination.

“The COVID-19 story is a memoir for the Chinese restaurants that closed, for the Chinese Americans who lost a sense of self in a history of assimilation, and for those who are afraid to look Chinese.”

The desire to return to how things were before COVID-19 is a mere fantasy. It would be insensitive to do so when the past is filled with as much hatred towards Chinese people as it is now. One does not have to scratch hard at the surface of Western culture to find anti-Chinese sentiments. With a history that rests on cultural hegemony, the Western perception of Chinese eating practices continues to be loaded and often extremely negative. When those “foreign” eating practices are linked to health scares—as with the case of COVID-19—those beliefs become loud rationalizations for dehumanizing Chinese people. Just what does it take to be Chinese outside of China? The outbreak tells the story of our lifetime, of Chinese restaurants, of Chinese people. Although cases of xenophobia are being addressed, these narratives—ramped down to the particulars of a distressing history—are disturbing to their core. The COVID-19 story is a memoir for the Chinese restaurants that closed, for the Chinese Americans who lost a sense of self in a history of assimilation, and for those who are afraid to look Chinese. It will be a narrative about a society that allows rot to spread a little each day.

1.     Knvul Sheikh and Roni Caryn Rabin, “The Coronavirus: What Scientists Have Learned So Far,” The New York Times, January 21, 2020
2.     Aylin Woodward, “Both the New Coronavirus and SARS Outbreaks Likely Started in Chinese ‘Wet Markets’,” Business Insider, February 26, 2020
3.     Jenny Zhang, “Coronavirus Panic Buys Into Racist Ideas About How Chinese People Eat,” Eater, January 31, 2020
4.     Katherine Sullivan, “60 Members of Congress Agree With PETA: ‘Wet Markets’ Must Close,” PETA, April 10, 2020
5.     Zhang, “Coronavirus Panic Buys Into Racist Ideas”
6.     Jeff Yang, “A New Virus Stirs up Ancient Hatred,” CNN, January 30, 2020
7.     Julian Shen-Berro, “Sen. Cornyn: China to Blame for Coronavirus, Because ‘People Eat Bats’,” NBCNews, March 18, 2020
8.     Bettina Makalintal, “Coronavirus Fears Are Reviving Racist Ideas About Chinese Food,” Vice, January 29, 2020
9.     Alex Renton, “If MSG Is so Bad for You, Why Doesn’t Everyone in Asia Have a Headache?,” The Guardian, July 10, 2005
10.   Renton, “Why Doesn’t Everyone in Asia Have a Headache?”
11.   Anna Barry-Jester, “How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia,” FiveThirtyEight, January 8, 2016
12.   Barry-Jester, “How MSG Got a Bad Rap”
13.   Barry-Jester
14.   Renton
15.   Renton
16.   Renton
17.   Nadia Berenstein, “Clean Label’s Dirty Little Secret,” The Counter, January 22, 2020
18.   Barry-Jester
19.   Renton
20.   Caitlin Dewey, “Analysis | Why Americans Still Avoid MSG, Even Though Its ‘Health Effects’ Have Been Debunked,” The Washington Post, March 20, 2018
21.    “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” Merriam-Webster, accessed April 20, 2020
22.   Renton
23.   Renton
24.   Caitlin Dewey, “Why Americans Still Avoid MSG”
25.   Renton
26.   Renton
27.   Jeff Yang, “A New Virus Stirs up Ancient Hatred”
28.   Barry-Jester
29.   Steven Heller, “The Artistic History of American Anti-Asian Racism,” The Atlantic, February 20, 2014
30.   Emelyn Rude, “Chinese Food in America: A Very Brief History,” Time, February 8, 2016
31.   Rude, “Chinese Food in America”
32.   Yang
33.   MacKenzie Fegan, “We Don’t Need a White Wellness Savior to ‘Fix’ Chinese Food,” Vice, April 10, 2019
34.   Jessie Yeung, “MSG in Chinese Food Isn’t Unhealthy — You’re Just Racist, Activists Say,” CNN, January 19, 2020
35.   Yeung, “MSG in Chinese Food Isn’t Unhealthy”
36.   Zhang, “Coronavirus Panic Buys Into Racist Ideas”
37.   Zhang
38.   Makalintal, “Coronavirus Fears Are Reviving Racist Ideas About Chinese Food”
39.   Ang, Ien, On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West (London: Routledge, 2004), 37.
40.   Ang, 36.
41.   Gungwu Wang, “Among Non-Chinese,” in The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today, ed. Weiming Tu (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 154.