I have long mulled over a theory that came to mind shortly after my relocation from Northern New Jersey to Northern Virginia. Moving to another place allows you to see many subtle differences in the local color, culture, and practice, but most glaring are the differences in stores, television channels and restaurants. Take the feeling you get when you watch the Weather Channel in a hotel room and see a different map on the local radar and multiply it by a thousand.
I moved 246 miles south from my childhood home in New Jersey to Fairfax, VA in the fall of 1995. The first differences are the most obvious: gone are Greek-family-run diners, Italian-family-run pizzerias and Jews; here are clean, well-lit, 24hour convenience stores, chain pizza mass-producers (who actually deliver), and Protestants. Roads are wide, malls are new, the guy behind the counter at the deli blinks a few too many times when you ask for a toasted poppy with butter. But one thing remains the same: Chinese food restaurants. Whether the high-end sit-down type or the carry-out genre, they’re pretty much the same wherever you go. The most striking similarity, however, is the names. This makes me believe that there is some sort of guild or union of Chinese Food Restaurant Owners that you must register with before opening your Chinese food place.
Upon being granted permission to open the restaurant, the CFR Commission hands you two pieces of paper, with an identical list of words on each. The restaurant owner is then instructed to choose a word from each page to name the restaurant. Garden, China, moon, wok, golden, panda, Hunan, duck, Peking, lion, palace and other such words appear on the list. These are the only options. They must be, or we’d be ordering from more places with names like “Sam’s Chinese Bonanza”. Look next time. Think about it.