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It is a frequent idiom for a group of characters to interact while eating Chinese food. Generally of the carry out variety, with chop sticks being plunged into the deep fold-up boxes. It seems to me that this is intended to bring a particular thematic element, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I see it way too often for it not to have a specific significance.

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You could say the same for just about any other type of food ... personally (and I'm not the expert), it's more about the act of eating to make the thematic element more so than what they are eating. I mean, how many times have we seen someone eating a burger or fries? Probably just as often as a Chinese with chopsticks. –  Paulster2 Mar 3 at 2:59
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I'd say this is just due to the fact that Chinese food is the stereotypical carry out food. Rather than having any kind of deeper symbolism to it (let alone the same in the majority of movies) it is most likely just a matter of commonness, I guess. –  Sonny Burnett Mar 3 at 3:01
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Whenever I saw it in movies/on tv, it seemed like a shorthand for being relaxed, casual (eg eating straight out of boxes), and having fun with a group of friends. It seems to be quite an American thing, at least from my Kiwi viewpoint. (I think only in the last 5-10 years I have seen Chinese food being sold in fold-up boxes, otherwise it comes in plastic trays, in my local area anyway.) It seems people have Chinese food delivered to eat at home, while burgers are eaten while sitting down in a shop. Hot dogs = community occasions, kebabs = only while drunk. –  NiceOrc Mar 3 at 3:39

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I do think you have something in thinking that Chinese food has a particular significance as take-out. There's an aura of a comfortable, but pressured, environment, where people are banding together to get stuff done. But, enough of my personal opinion and on to some quotes and particular examples. Much of this is cribbed from TV Tropes.

  • Jewish people and Chinese food: Starting with the trope of Jewish people going out for Chinese on Christmas (Peking Duck Christmas), there is a broader association in all cases. For example, in My Favorite Year, the more urbane of two put-upon assistants bonds with the romantic interest by ordering Chinese food when they have to work through the night, saying "Catherine, Jews know two things: suffering, and where to find great Chinese food."
  • Chinese food and long hours/stuff to do: This is particularly associated with The West Wing where the characters order Chinese food when they're facing a long creative challenge, like writing jokes for the Correspondent's Dinner
  • Chinese food and comfort: Orange is the New Black uses the theme this way by centering the main character's romantic choices around a quote about Chinese food. After having a wild and tempestuous relationship with Alex, a drug smuggler, the main character Piper is told by her more settled best friend that eventually, she's going to want "someone who knows when to order Chinese food".

In summary, Chinese food is associated with familiar but stressed situations, particularly among more intellectual and/or Jewish characters; and can imply both "something needs to be done" and "something needs to get fixed emotionally".

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Postscript: To be clear, all three of the examples feature educated or worldly East Coast Jewish people prominently. The strength of the trope connection bothered me while I was researching it. –  vastra360 Mar 4 at 3:08
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While you provide some reasonable insights, I'm not sure this only applies to Jewish or East Coast people. Rather than just famous among Jews or DC/New Yorkers, Chinese food is famous among people as a stereotypical Asian take-out food (they could as well eat Thai or Korean). But your points about take-out food being employed in stressed but familiar situations make good sense. –  Sonny Burnett Mar 4 at 16:37
    
The general prevalence of Chinese food doesn't matter as much as the fact that there is a common joke/trope associating particularly Jewish people with particularly Chinese food. Obviously, this trope isn't employed every time Chinese food is on screen, but it's one of the associations drawn, particularly in media from 1940-1970s when international food wasn't as common. –  vastra360 Mar 5 at 20:07
    
You make an excellent point. I think the scene in Lost Boys where Michael is eating Chinese takeout with the vampires would be a good example (proof) of "familiar, but stressed situation." –  druciferre Jun 13 at 3:00

I think sometimes people look for symbolism a little too much in cinema. In this case, I contend that there is no symbolism in Chinese food. It just happens to be an easily recognizable take-out food that can be recognized without branding. Also, hamburgers or pizza have been used but there are a lot of challenges with that. You have to control the environment, and when someone takes a bite you can't just replace it. But if you throw some rice or noodles in a box and someone takes a bite, you can refill it.

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Fair enough. Although while keep-it-simple might account for CF becoming a cliche, I still think there is something fundamental and unique in there. –  Chris Noe Mar 4 at 23:37

I don't think Chinese food, in particular, is being used as a theme. I think it's delivery food in general. It evokes the sense that these people don't have time to go anywhere or do anything other than work on the project they're currently working on.

In America, there are really only two universal foods that are delivered: pizza and Chinese. That is changing, and it varies by region, but those are the two standards.

So, the question then would be, "Why choose Chinese over pizza?"

  1. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes it's pizza.
  2. Some people might considered Chinese a "higher class" of food than a greasy pizza.
  3. (My personal opinion) When the characters have that A-HA! moment, it's much more effective visually to point a pair of chopsticks while saying, "Yes! That's exactly it!" than it is to point a floppy piece of pizza.
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However, in a world full of Viagra and Cialis, perhaps more people can relate to a floppy piece of pizza? –  Johnny Bones Mar 5 at 18:45

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