The Restaurant Rationale and the End of Immigration
Ethnic restaurants are the Holy Grail of justifications
for not reforming our immigration system. The most
powerful people in the country go out to lunch a lot
more than the average citizen. This influences their
views on immigration to an
intellectually embarrassing extent.
In fact, of course, mass immigration is not necessary
for outstanding ethnic restaurants. For decades, the
gold standard for cuisine was the French restaurant. Yet
few French ever immigrated.
When I was a kid, the typical Italian restaurant had a
name like "Luigi`s Spaghetti Shack" and a menu with a
heavy emphasis on garlic bread and meatballs. Today,
Italian restaurants have names like "Trattoria Firenze,"
and I can`t make head or tail of their menu items, such
as "Strawberries with Ricotta in Balsamic Reduction,"
but it`s exquisite. Yet this vast improvement took
place with minimal immigration.
How? First, a large percentage of those few who did come
here from Italy or France came specifically because they
had outstanding cooking skills. Second, the lack of mass
immigration from those countries provided room for
innovative American acolytes, such as the great Alice
Waters of Berkeley`s
Chez Panisse or Chicago`s brilliant
In contrast, much as I like Thai restaurants, I haven`t
seen much evidence that they`ve improved in the last two
decades. Thai restaurants in the U.S. are not
typically being opened by people who immigrated here to
spread the glories of Thai cuisine. The owner is usually
somebody`s brother-in-law who got into the U.S. on a
family unification visa. Lots of relatives and
friends here run Thai restaurants, so the new immigrant
got into the same
line of work. The abundance of immigrant-run
Thai restaurants does keep prices low. Unfortunately,
that precludes ambitious American chefs from getting
into the Thai restaurant business.
These thoughts are provoked by
The Asian American Century (Edwin O. Reischauer
Lectures, 2000), a short book by U. of Maryland
historian Warren I. Cohen on the interrelationships of
America and East Asia in the 20th Century.
Cohen argues bravely that "[M]ost people in East Asia
are far better off today than they would have been if
the Americans had stayed home." He notes that the
partial importation into Asia of the English-speaking
world`s political ethos, vastly superior to the East`s
endemic despotism. "In the realm of political
organization," Cohen writes, "Cultural transfer has been
one-way, from America to Asia."
Cohen ignores, however, one ancient Chinese innovation
that has had a fairly beneficial effect on America:
meritocratic testing. Impressed by China`s practice
of choosing applicants for government jobs by
examinations in Confucian scholarship, 16th Century
Jesuit missionaries brought the idea back to Europe.
America`s civil service exams, and the
SAT college admissions test, are distant offshoots.
Although Cohen doesn`t emphasize the point, it`s
fascinating to realize how much has been accomplished
with virtually zero permanent emigration from America to
East Asia. Lots of American soldiers, missionaries, and
businessmen have sojourned in the Orient. But hardly any
Conversely, Cohen also argues that "American culture has
been affected more profoundly than has Asian
culture," by recounting a laundry list of Asian
influences on American life:
Chinese restaurants; martial arts; Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon; mah-jongg; Mighty Morphin`
Power Rangers; acupuncture;
Richard Gere`s Buddhism; the large number of
immigrants from East Asia, and so forth. But he offers
no coherent framework for evaluating his claim. For
example, is the effect of Buddhists on America (2% of
the U.S. population) more profound than that of
Christians on Korea (25%)? Or, how do you compare the
martial arts here vs.
baseball there? I don`t know, and I don`t see much
evidence that Cohen knows either.
Perhaps the most valuable East Asian influence on the
U.S. in recent decades has been the adoption of many of
the inspired Japanese manufacturing techniques, such as
just-in-time delivery and the use of the American
W. Edwards Deming`s techniques. Yet, throughout this
period, mass immigration from Japan to the U.S. had
largely ceased. From 1980-1998, fewer than 5,000
Japanese per year immigrated to America, compared to,
say, almost 30,000 annual legal immigrants from the
Dominican Republic. We certainly benefited far more from
Japanese innovations over this period than from
Dominican cultural breakthroughs, such as … well, such
Sammy Sosa`s hand gestures.
Cohen seems to assume massive population transfers are
critical. But as we saw with American influence on the
Orient, that isn`t necessarily true.
"What the passage of time and the development of modern
industry and instant electronics communications have
done has been to make the transmission of knowledge,
skills, and technology less and less dependent on the
transmission of bodies, all the while making such
transportation so inexpensive as to permit larger
migrations, over greater distances, of immigrants who
may be less and less selective."
Immigration may be more possible. But it`s less
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and
April 17, 2002